Most dressage riders don't devote a lot of thought these days to the most basic communication interfaces we have with our horses-our tack. But when one begins to explore the existing classical schools, one of the first things one notices is that the tack they use is not the same as the tack seen in the competitive dressage arena. Given that this difference is not casual, it might be productive to examine that tack, and perhaps gain some insight as to why the classical schools use certain time tested equipment. What, and why?
It wasn't all that long ago that every good horseman knew that a "French" or plain noseband was most humane, allowing the horse to softly mouth, or chew, the bit. The "Two Finger Rule"was accepted knowledge: adjust the noseband two fingers below the point of the horse's cheek bones, and allow two fingers to slip easily between it and the jaw. But this was before the invention of the Crank noseband, and it's adjunct, the Flash, which is designed to be literally "cranked" shut around the horse's lower face, allowing absolutely NO movement of the lower jaw and tongue, all under the guise of stabilizing the bit in the horse's mouth and preventing the horse from sticking his tongue out. (Why woud a horse who has been trained to "give"to the bit and who is ridden by a rider with a soft independent hand stick his toungue out?) Never mind that the Crank is padded-if you can't get two fingers under it, it is abusive.
The horse's lower face is full of proprioceptive nerves, meaning that when these nerves are painfully compressed, the horse loses depth perception, and becomes uncertain of exactly where his feet are while he is in motion. In other words, it unbalances the horse and makes him dependent on the human to guide him, since he cannot reliably feel his way. And never mind the horse's tongue, painfully compressed and forced to stay under a pinching snaffle, without hope of relief. Use of a tight crank noseband and flash can make a sensitive horse nearly crazy with anxiety and claustrophobia, leading to rearing over backwards, running backwards, refusing to go forward, or flipping the head up and down, before finally giving in and submitting to the human. In psychology, this technique is called "Learned Helplessness."and is emotionally and physically devastating to the recipient. It effectively kills all initiative and teaches passive acceptance, even when what is being demanded is painful or frightening.
When did we become so insensitized to what anyone with an observant mind can plainly see is abusive training?
When the rejected horses from the German warmblood breeding establishment were sold to unsuspecting Americans who admired the warmblood movement, (horses whose temperament was not submissive enough to make the grade in Germany) the (women) riders who bought them found themselves too physically weak to control the massive, energetic, and disobedient animals they had imported. They quickly found that they had no idea how to manage their horses, and hired German trainers, who knew how to subdue them. The Crank and the Flash were indisensible tools to that end, and the trainers always wanted the noseband tighter. Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to buy a snaffle bridle without a crank and flash, and few trainers remember the real reason we use a noseband at all.
The REAL reason for a noseband is to support the horse's TMJ joint, so that it doesn't become inflamed and fatigued when maintaining a soft and elastic contact with the rider's hand. It helps and actually allows the horse to relax his jaw and therefore also his poll, when giving to the bit.
Try this simple experiment, which is admittedly limited, since you only act on your teeth and not your tongue here:
Place your index finger sideways in your mouth and then pull down on your lower jaw to imitate the action of a bit. Do this several times, and see if your jaw doesn't begin to ache. Notice that you might be tempted to clench your jaw against the fatigue, and that if your jaw is clenched, your neck muscles also become tense and rigid. Then, place your other index finger under your lower jaw and support it against the downward pressure. Voila! No more stress on the TMJ. You do not need to clench your jaw to support your TMJ. The function of the (properly adjusted) noseband is to support the horse's TMJ so that it doesn't fatigue, and, provided that the horse has been trained to mouth the bit, it allows the horse to move its jaw softly in response to the gentle flexing of the rider's fingers while in contact with the hand. The sensitive tongue can move the bit, and the movement of the tongue frees the muscles which go from the hyoid bone to the sternum, which in turn allows the horse to relax and lift its forehand. This is the classical use of the noseband and the proper understanding of the biomechanical forces at work in achieving contact with the bit.
Next time, we'll examine the use of the cavesson for lungeing and riding.