Are horses silently suffering in Olympic Dressage?



This year’s Rio Olympics has been brilliant to watch, us equestrian lot cosied up on the sofa with a cup of tea, delighting in our Great British Olympians riding to success in Dressage, Show jumping and Cross-country events. However, there has been negative whispers about the Dressage in particular, and the ‘unnecessary’ use of double bridles and the ‘distressing’ application of certain nose-bands which apparently cause our horses pain. No, perhaps the over-arched necks and foamy mouths of the competing horses are not signals of contentment, but are we being cruel or is this another over-inflated rant from misguided animal welfare activists?

Recently, researchers at the University of Sydney have claimed that certain equipment most commonly used in Dressage; double bridles and crank nose-bands especially, actually prevent horses from conveying signals of stress, removing the horse’s rights to perform natural behaviours, such as yawning, licking, chewing and potentially swallowing. In Dressage, the competitor is marked down if the horse opens its mouth, which essentially displays discomfort and a lack of sympathy and skill on the rider’s part. Through the use of the restrictive crank nose-band, the horse’s mouth is practically bound shut, and so the rider seems more skilled than they actually are… This can’t be right… can it?

Paul McGreevy, professor of animal behaviour and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney along with a team of researchers conducted a study to ascertain whether or not the use of restrictive and commonplace riding equipment was harming our horses. Even with the 2 finger gap between the crank nose-band and the nose, the horses in the study showed signs of stress; and this is WITHOUT rein tension. They measured stress levels using eye temperature and heart rate, and in all cases as the tightness of the nosebands increased, so did the heart rates and temperatures, which are recognised signals of pain and stress. In high level training and competition like the Olympics, the use of the crank nose-band is commonplace and is often tightened beyond the advised 2 finger gap. The tighter the nose-band, the tighter the connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth, giving the rider more effective control. The evident discomfort through the use of the crank nose-band is intensified with the addition of the double bridle, which serves as a further mechanism for heightened tension and control.

The severe physical reaction proven in Paul McGreevy’s study, creates a bleak picture of horses’ silently suffering in the name of sport and the desired aesthetic. However, on the other side of the coin, McGreevy’s study only focused on horses that were unconditioned to wearing such high-brow equipment, so their stress levels would of course be higher because they aren’t used to wearing such restrictive nose-bands. Competition horses are conditioned and trained to accept the use of double bridles and crank nose-bands, as they are mandatory in Dressage at Olympic level. The FEI, the international governing body of all equestrian sports demands that the welfare of our horses should be paramount at all times, specifically saying that ‘tack must be designed and fitted to avoid risk of pain or injury’. This new research however has put the FEI code of conduct into question, suggesting that the welfare of the animal is foregone to increase competitive performance. However, there is actually no hard evidence to suggest that crank nose-bands induce real injury, or long term damage, yes it seems they are far more uncomfortable than any of us perhaps realised, a bit like wearing really tight new shoes without socks, and you’re forced to walk despite your growing blisters, plastering a smile on your face so as to not show your discomfort. But let’s face it, will anything REALLY change here?

I’d love to know how you guys feel about this topic, have you used a crank nose-band or seen negative effects of this practice yourself? Perhaps you don’t think it’s all that bad, and people are making mountains out of molehills?