It is hard to fault the scientific credentials of the team behind the study that has caused so much controversy. It was conducted by the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science and senior author Professor Paul McGreevy is a veterinarian, author and past winner of the Eureka Prize. A quick look at McGreevy's list of publications shows that he is passionate about welfare issues and unafraid of shining the light of scientific objectivity on a practice that is older than the wheel. In this study, twelve horses unaccustomed to wearing a double bridle and a noseband showed easily identified stress markers (which included an increase in eye temperature and heart rate) when that noseband was tightened to the point that a finger would not fit between the noseband and the horse's nose. The horses in the study also showed a marked decrease in the number of oral behaviours that they performed (such as licking, chewing and swallowing) while wearing the noseband.
Everyone who, for whatever reason, ever rides a horse for sport, for recreation or for the creation of their income should prioritise the welfare of the horse. We must never let our own emotional comfort compromise an unstinting quest to improve the lives of our sport's most vulnerable participants. The worst excuse is to say that this is the way it is done because this is the way it has always been done. This kind of complacency has no place in a 21st century debate on welfare. When governing bodies or people in positions of influence dismiss the findings of preliminary studies such as this one with defensive statements, they seem at best disingenuous and and worst complicit in possible violations of the horse's welfare. Stating that overly tight nosebands will impede the horse's ability to perform and that such a reduction will be evident in the scores or that nosebands are only detrimental when fitted illegally (when there the two finger rule was removed from the FEI rulebook) show a distinct inclination to sweep an important and sensitive issue under a carpet already at risk of being muddied by misguided nepotism.
If we are to steer equestrian sports safely through the minefield of twenty first century public perception it is vital that we not only do everything within our capability to ensure the welfare of the horse but that we do it publically and transparently. It is hard not to draw loose comparisons between this issue and the Tennessee Walking Horse disaster. The once popular Big Lick event has been shunned by a well informed public who are unable to reconcile their love for the horse with the blatant disregard shown by those involved for outside concerns. At the heart of this issue is the failure of this governing body to welcome rigorous and transparent welfare checks. This failure led to the development of a certain culture within the sport which led to the normalization of practices (such as soring) that are unbelievably cruel. And while there is no suggestion that equestrian sports such as dressage will ever develop in such ways the moral here is clear – the practices within our sport must evolve in such a way that makes it clear we are doing everything within our power to ensure the horses we love are safe.
Part of this process is to remain educated and informed by developments that could impact upon our own understanding and knowledge. The media is under increasing pressure to wrestle electronic space and time away from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and generating mild hysteria is a great way to do just that. This means that it is more important than ever to look at the original source material before formulating opinions. There will be many threats to our sport in the future but it is not helpful if we all join in a misinformed circling of the wagons. They say that if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. McGreevy's study identified a possible problem. The rest is up to us.