In the 1970s, cavessons created for the purpose of closing a horse’s mouth (flash, figure 8, crank, etc) became popular, and since they seemed effective, I, like most, followed without question. But a few years later, a well-respected equine dentist, Ron Ross, visited my barn in Connecticut, and changed the way I thought. Ron was always willing to help educate his clients on the finer points of the equine mouth. He explained that in order for the lower salivary glands to operate effectively, a horse must “work” his lower jaw. The bit alone makes it difficult for the mouth to do this properly, and strappings on the cavesson only amplify the restriction.
Cavessons can have other negative effects too: if the noseband straps are adjusted a bit low and snug (as many are), the nostrils are no longer free to expand, and natural breathing is restricted. A low noseband might also apply constant pressure to the bridge of the nose.
Even though the damage they cause is well understood, these cavessons are so pervasive that many people use them simply because everyone else is. Many people don’t even realize their purpose. They might just like the look of a flash noseband, or they didn’t give much thought to the type of cavesson when bridle shopping (it can be hard to find a plain noseband these days!). Others think they need it to solve a problem.
Understanding the goal
Even for someone who aspires to “natural horsemanship,” most of what we do while riding or training horses cannot be considered “natural.” Putting saddles, bridles, bits, and other tack on a horse is undeniably “human.” But we can begin to bridge the gap between the horse’s nature and our own unnatural interventions by studying equine behavior, instincts, and habits.
We know that horses naturally need and want a leader, and our goal in training should be to become the kind of leader the horse needs. In training horses, we should aspire to a quiet, steady contact with the bit. Forcing a mouth shut through the use of flash, crank, or figure 8 cavessons is no substitute for correct training.
Finding the real problem
Instead of jumping to a new piece of equipment to correct a problem, it’s important to understand why horses chomp or gape their mouths. In the case of a young horse just being started, it will take time to accept cold, cumbersome metal in his mouth. Or a horse may need dental work. The bit may be the wrong size, diameter, or type to fit a particular mouth conformation. Some breeds, for example, tend to have lower pallets than others. The ever-popular loose ring snaffle can easily pinch tender lips if not properly fitted. Riders’ hands are another possible culprit: unsteady or aggressive hands can easily cause a horse to avoid contact through gaping. A less obvious cause could be an ill-fitting saddle, back soreness, feet or leg discomfort – all of which can also show up in busy mouths. Understanding that gaping is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself, is critical. One can only begin to fix a problem after you know what’s causing it.
Pressure and release: the keys to horse behavior
Horses demonstrate their intentions through body language. They have an entire language derived from the application of pressure. The important factor in herd communication is that pressure begins mildly, and is only accelerated to accomplish the point if the milder pressure has failed. Once the point is made, pressure is released. Horses understand instinctively to move away from pressure; what they do not understand is constant pressure without relief. If the pressure is there whether they respond or not, there is no reprieve. A horse can learn to accept constant pressure (such as from a cavesson designed to clamp their mouth shut) if they have no other choice, but it damages or destroys the harmony between the horse and rider.
If you can make your horse more comfortable and therefore more content by not using devices that cause unnecessary pain or pressure, I can’t help but think we will all win! Your horse’s care and well-being are ultimately your responsibility. We tend to follow our mentors without question, yet questioning is a positive approach which enables us to make the correct choices for our horses. When in doubt, listen to your horse. He’s always the best teacher.
For an excellent explanation of how different types of cavessons work and the effect they have on the horse’s mouth, see sustainabledressage.net.