competition horse welfare

Most equestrians would be horrified to know they’re hurting their horses during competition. But with the equipment we use—from spurs to nosebands—we might be unintentionally causing them harm.

To determine whip, spur, and noseband lesion prevalence, Hilary Clayton BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, of Sport Horse Science in the United States, and Mette Uldahl, DVM, Cert. Equine Diseases, of Vejle Hestepraksis in Denmark, Fédération Equestre Internationale National Head Veterinarian for Denmark, veterinary consultant for the Danish Equestrian Federation, and president of Federation of European Equine Veterinary Associations, conducted a study looking at this equipment’s effect on horses competing in dressage, show jumping, eventing, or endurance in Denmark.

A group of Danish national technical delegates were specially trained and licensed to gather data from horse/rider combinations in Danish Equestrian Federation competitions, including:

  • Presence/type of spurs, bits, nosebands, and whips;
  • Noseband tightness;
  • Hair or blood on spurs;
  • Hair loss, lesions, or blood behind the girth;
  • Abrasions or blood at the corners of the lips;
  • Swelling, lesions, or blood on the fore- or hindquarters.

“This study is important because it looked at a large number of horses (more than 3,000) during competition and without giving the competitors prior notice of the examinations, so they did not have an opportunity to change their tack,” Clayton said.

The inspectors used a tool designed for the study to measure spur length and noseband tightness, but competition regulations limited the extent of oral examinations, she said. “Our evaluation of lesions was limited to externally visible lesions,” she said. “It was not possible to do a full intra-oral examination to determine the presence of lesions on the bars of the mouth, the tongue, and inside the cheeks.”

The researchers then analyzed the data from 3,314 horses and riders to determine relationships between:

  • Discipline;
  • Competition level;
  • Equipment type and tightness; and
  • Injury incidence.

Bits and Nosebands

Clayton said 9% of all horses had lesions or blood at the corners of the lips, and lip lesions were more prevalent at higher levels of competition. The prevalence of lesions differed between sports:

  • Horses: dressage 10%, show jumping 8%, eventing 7%, and endurance 5%
  • Ponies: dressage 16%, show jumping 5%, eventing 3%, and endurance 12%

Surprisingly, Clayton said, the researchers found no difference in oral lesion incidence between bitted and bitless bridles; therefore, using a bitless bridle did not protect against the development of oral lesions, she said. She also noted that bit type did not affect lip lesion prevalence.

With nosebands, “tightness of the upper (cavesson) noseband strap was more important than tightness of the lower noseband strap (drop, flash, lower strap of a figure-eight, or Micklem),” Clayton said. “Tight upper nosebands were associated with more lesions at the corners of the lips than looser nosebands. The results support the likely detrimental effects of tight cavesson nosebands and suggest that noseband tightness is related to the presence of lesions and blood at the corners of the lips.”

Clayton advised riders to bear this in mind when adjusting tack: “The upper noseband strap should allow a little laxity so that it acts by negative reinforcement. This means that if the horse opens his mouth, the noseband applies pressure to the face. When the horse closes his mouth, the pressure is immediately relieved. When the noseband is overtightened, it applies pressure continuously. Tight nosebands are more likely to be associated with lesions and/or blood at the corners of the lips and so are more likely to result in elimination under the blood rule.”

As with bitless bridles, forgoing nosebands also had unexpected results, she said. “Horses that did not wear a noseband had significantly more lesions at the corners of the lips than horses that wore a loosely adjusted noseband,” Clayton said. “Therefore, removing the noseband completely did not protect horses against developing lesions at the corners of the lips. There is sometimes a tendency to think that less is more. This study did not support the idea that riding bitless or without a noseband was better or kinder to the horse in terms of reducing the prevalence of lesions/blood at the corners of the lips.”

Whip and Spur Use

Regarding deleterious effects, the researchers found that:

  • Overall, 77% of riders used spurs, 3% of horses had worn hair on the ribcage, and <1% had blood on the ribcage;
  • There was no difference in lesion prevalence between clipped and unclipped horses;
  • There was no difference between sports when it came to the presence of worn hair or blood associated with spur use;
  • Roller-ball wheel and hammer-style knob spurs were significantly more likely to be associated with hair on the spur;
  • Spur length and competition level were associated with the likelihood of finding hair loss or blood associated with spur use. A 1-centimeter prolongation of the spur length doubled the likelihood of finding worn hair on the horse’s ribcage. Additionally, when the competition level increased by one level, the likelihood of finding hair on the spurs decreased by 20%; and
  • Seven horses (two show jumpers and five dressage horses) had skin lesions apparently related to whip use.

“Based on the findings of the study, I would recommend that spurs should only be used by experienced riders who have good control of their leg position and use of the leg aids,” Clayton said. “Spurs should be only as long as necessary, and excessively long spurs should be avoided because they are associated with more lesions and are more likely to lead to bleeding.”

Final Remarks

“This is the first large-scale study documenting equipment use in competition and showing associations between the type of equipment and the way it’s adjusted with the presence of visible lesions that are likely related to using the equipment,” said Clayton. “It gives some guidance regarding types of equipment that are more likely to be detrimental to the health and comfort of the horse and offers guidance as to adjustments that may be beneficial or detrimental to the horse.

However, the fact that the study was performed during competition limited the scope of the examination. Different methodologies will be needed to explore further the direct associations between equipment and lesions.”

This study, “Lesions associated with the use of bits, nosebands, spurs and whips in Danish competition horses,” was published in Equine Veterinary Journal.