If you are a horseman, chances are you are extremely conservative. I do not mean this in the political sense of liberal and conservative, but in the literal sense that you are disposed to preserve existing conditions. You have very good reasons for this conservatism when it comes to the welfare of your horse. The penalties for change without contemplation can be severe, and your horse pays the penalty with his health and soundness if you are wrong. If wisdom is the anticipation of consequence, then we all labor to be wise when it comes to our horses, because they trust us so completely with their well-being.
Looking back over my career, I find I have always been resistant to fads and changes in the horse world. Some fads, especially when it comes to apparel, do little harm to our horses, although bling says something about the rider’s need for attention rather than the attention she should pay to her horse. Other fads are more abusive (rollkur comes to mind) and some, like the now outmoded use of a true interval system of conditioning (short bursts of maximum exertion), injure horses with sickening regularity. Unlike humans, horses do not self-monitor their own soundness. If you ask a good horse to gallop until he is exhausted, he will cheerfully injure himself for you. Modern eventers may speak of using an interval system to condition their horses, but what they really mean is they use an intermittent system of exercise and conditioning.
Although conservatism has its benefits, we must always be open to improvement in the care and training of our horses, especially when that change is supported by scientific research. I am speaking of two topics I have discussed previously: the use and abuse of tight nosebands in dressage and the unsafe and unsteady galloping position that has crept into our teaching.
One Noseband for All?
Nosebands are one of my many irritants when coaching. For example, flash nosebands are ubiquitous in the eventing world. Almost every horse I see is wearing one. Flash nosebands are inherently ill fitting—a flash is basically an inefficient figure-eight noseband—so they are invariably overtightened, causing a pronounced indentation in the flesh of the nasal bone and, occasionally, small sores on the lips. In addition, these nosebands can interfere with the horse’s normal swallowing mechanism, producing the very resistance they are intended to cure.
I can’t decide which irritates me more: overtightened nosebands or the mindless application of equipment, regardless of whether it is suitable for this horse at this stage of training. Not every horse in the eventing world needs or goes well in a flash noseband. Yet when I ask riders whether they have tried other nosebands, or even no noseband, they look at me as if I had just stepped down the ramp of the mother ship. Obviously, it has never occurred to them to try something else. After all, everybody tacks up their horses this way, so it must be correct. Sigh.
In the past, I have spoken out against the use of overly tight nosebands on pragmatic rather than scientific grounds. My reasoning was that both the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and U.S. Equestrian Federation rules consider it a good sign when a horse softly chews the bit, and judges reward this behavior during the dressage test with favorable marks. A good working definition of classical training is that we do not ask the horse to do anything he does not do in nature. Clearly, strapping a horse’s mouth shut is unnatural and will not produce classical results in terms of acceptance of the bit, softness of contact or self-carriage. Naturally, we want the best possible score for our horses, but by cranking the noseband as tight as possible, we actually prevent them from accepting the bit correctly.
Given all this, you can understand that a recent series of articles at www.eurodressage.com got my attention and led me to scientific studies regarding the effect of tight nosebands on equines. The researchers’ findings—that tight nosebands are abusive to horses—are not surprising. However, new scientific knowledge means that we now can prove something that was merely alleged in the past.
If our current practices are proven to be abusive, even unintentionally, then we must immediately adopt new practices based on the latest findings. What surprises me is that this is not happening: Riders and trainers are not changing their practices in response to new information. We do things a certain way because we have always done them this way and it is too much trouble to learn new techniques. This attitude is prevalent in the horse world and is a huge barrier to improving the health and training of our horses.