Dropped Nosebands

by Dani Gehmacher and Nancy Schmaltz

Reprinted from The Icelandic Horse Quarterly: Issue Four 2002.
The Icelandic Horse Quarterly is the official publication of the US Icelandic Horse Congress. The magazine is printed four times annually and mailed to the membership. Back issues may be purchased for a small fee and may be read online at www.icelandics.org/quarterly.

How do you fit a noseband? The common rule - three fingers above the nostril and loose enough to slip two fingers between the noseband and the bridge - might not work for you. Not everyone's fingers are the same size.

Dani Gehmacher says: Dropped nose bands are very traditional tack for Icelandic horses, and most people use them without any awareness of their purpose. Some people have a partial understanding of their purpose (i.e., they keep the horse's mouth closed; they protect the horse's mouth from the rider's hands) without an understanding of why one would want a horse's mouth closed or what harm the rider's hands might cause.

The bit obviously acts on the tongue and gums of the horse and should sit comfortably on the bars of the horse's mouth. A well-schooled horse ridden by a good rider with steady hands is the ideal. Less well-schooled horses, however, particularly young horses, can get too high in head carriage, particularly in tölt. If this occurs, and the horse opens its mouth, the bit can easily come back against the back teeth, which is uncomfortable for the horse. The horse may react by opening its mouth still further, or lifting its head still higher, escalating the discomfort and possibly extending it to the cheeks. A rider holding too long, a horse going a little crooked in the mouth, can produce an even greater pain.

The effect of the dropped noseband is to stabilize the bit in the mouth of the horse, even if it raises its head, and prevent or minimize the jamming of the bit against the teeth, even if the rider is inexperienced. In addition, it keeps the bit from moving side-to-side too much if the rider's hands are unequal or the horse is crooked in head carriage. In various ways it insulates the mouth of the horse from the hands of the rider.

Of course, the dropped noseband, like all tack, may be used incorrectly. If it is too low, the horse's breathing is restricted. How do you know if it's too low? Try this: stand in front of the horse. Place your two index fingers in the two rings of the noseband. Place your thumbs on the straight part of the head above the nostrils. Lift the noseband with your index fingers: you want the nose band to rise a half inch above the nose of the horse.

Nancy Schmaltz says: A properly placed dropped noseband should be three fingers above the soft nostril flesh and two fingers loose. To work correctly, the top nose strap (dropped) must be attached at a 90-degree angle, with the short leather angle pieces supporting the nose strap exactly. A cheap or incorrectly made dropped noseband might have the short leather angle braces either too long, too short, or attached in the wrong places on the upper nose piece and/or the headstall straps.

The strap over the top of the nose should lie absolutely flat on the surface of the skin over the nose bone, and not be pushing its top or bottom edge, like a wedge, against the tender skin of the nose. This, like a stone in your shoe, can cause a memorable sore spot and truly a negative experience for the horse. Nosebands are better able to avoid causing sore noses if the leather pieces are connected with freely rotating rings (which allow some self-adjustment) rather than angle metal connectors which have little slots in them.

The bit rings and the nose band rings should not interfere with each other. If they are jerking and skidding around one on top of the other, they could cause little jabs of pain to the horse, which he could not anticipate nor avoid.

Nosebands should be unbuckled when taking a rest break, so that the horse can chew. This opening and stretching of his jaw helps him to relieve stress in his whole body.

How does the dropped noseband work? When the rider gives and takes on the reins, the horse--who should be "on the bit" without his jaw clamped shut -- gives and takes by slightly opening his jaw. The jaw will push, in the same rhythm as the hands tug, against the bottom of the noseband under his chin. The bottom of the jaw will in turn cause the top of the nose band to tighten down on his nose. I think the feeling of moving inside of a chunk of butter is how the horse's mouth should feel to your hands; this, too, is also how your hands should feel to a horse: really soft. Then the horse can be soft to your hands and use his bit, noseband, jaw, neck, and finally all his body muscles in a relaxed non-fearful, non-painful, way.

If the noseband is not snug enough, the top of the noseband will not be tugged down onto the top surface of the nose and will not be able to share in the work. Its job of helping to equalize the pressures of the aids will not be shared simultaneously, and the bit will bite harder than the noseband. Imagine an ice skater's boots being too loose. The skater would not be able to control the blades connected to her boots as well, and the ankles would get overstressed trying to accomplish the work without the help of the "harness."

Additionally, what is humane about the properly fitting noseband and bit combination, is that the horse himself has a certain amount of control to even out the pressures. He chooses how much to open his jaw and control the nose and jaw pressures, thereby adjusting for comfort in the different stressed areas of nose, mouth, chin, and finally jaw.

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