Reducing the pressure and force exerted on horses’ heads by bridles can lead to improved gait, including increased limb flexion and movement, a study has found.
Rachel Murray of Rossdales presented the research, published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, at the World Horse Welfare conference on 13 November.
She told guests while saddles are usually “carefully fitted and measured”, the bridle is “often forgotten”, despite the presence of important structures in the head.
“Lots of concerns have been raised on social media and other places, in relation to parts of the bridle, in particular nosebands and bits,” she said.“Some of this research is well supported; other parts, or things used or put across on social media, there’s less evidence for.”Dr Murray said there has been little discussion on bridles.The researchers used pressure mats to compare the maximum forces exerted on horses, under their normal, well-fitting bridles and under another modified for comfort. They also assessed the horses’ movement in both bridles.
They found pressure under the headpiece, browband and noseband, but it was intermittent, according to the point of the horse’s stride. As a horse cleared a jump, for example, there was no pressure under the headpiece.
Dr Murray said buckles on headpieces, noseband straps under headpieces and rolled bridles or rope cause pressure points.
The location of pressure on the noseband is affected by where the horse’s head is, so dressage horses with their heads further down than showjumpers will feel pressure in different places.
She added the pressure under the noseband of a bitless bridle can be “significantly greater” than under a normal noseband.
“There are lots of challenges and things we can do to optimise what’s happening,” she said, adding that a noseband pushed against the facial crest will mean increased pressure — and so decreased hindlimb movement.
A cavesson is more likely to have pressure points as it does not bend enough, and buckles create pressure points, while a crank noseband is likely to be “easier for the horse”, partly thanks to its rings and separate parts.
Flash nosebands are also likely to cause pressure, while grackles and drops are associated with reduced force.
In a bridle padded at key points, and with shaped parts, it was found the pressure was “significantly less” under the headpiece and noseband.
“We can affect the comfort of the horse,” Dr Murray said. “If we decrease the pressure under the bridle, we improve forelimb protraction, and it bends its knees and hocks more.
“We think this is because we’re freeing up areas in the muscles of the head, allowing the horse to move and swallow better, and move the tongue and muscles to the front legs; so it is able to move in better quality movement.
“When we fit a bridle, we need to make sure we assess the anatomy of the individual horse to make sure we’re optimising our bridle fit for each horse.
“When we think about bridles, we need to remember that routine, tailored dental care is essential. We need to realise noseband tightness and bit type are only a small part of the jigsaw and fitting the entire bridle is vital for the welfare of our horses.”
Dr Murray is working with World Horse Welfare on guidelines for bridle fit.
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