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Racehorse bridles and bits

The bridle

Most racehorses wear a simple snaffle bridle. The bridle is used to guide, control and restrain the horse. It includes the headpiece (made of leather or a synthetic material), the metal bit which goes in the mouth, and the reins. A separate noseband, encircling the nose and jaw, is usually, though not always, used with the bridle.

The headpiece has four parts: a headband, which goes over the horse’s head behind the ears; cheek straps, which attach to either side of the headband, run down the side of the horse’s face along the cheekbone and attach to the bit rings; a throatlash, which joins each side of the headpiece below the ears and passes under the horse’s jaw (to stop the bridle coming off over the horse’s head); and the browband, which runs from just under one ear, across the forehead, to just under the other ear.

The bit

The bit is a metal bar that is attached to rings on either side of a horse’s mouth. It is positioned over the tongue, in the gap between the incisors and premolars, termed the bars of the mouth. The reins are also attached to the bit rings. The snaffle bits used by racehorse trainers are relatively mild compared with other types of bit. The mouthpiece of a snaffle bit is usually jointed in the middle, which exerts pressure on the tongue, bars of the mouth and lips. For horses with particularly sensitive mouths, the mouthpiece may be rubber-covered. The word snaffle is thought to come from a Dutch word meaning ‘muzzle’.

Types of snaffle bit seen on the racecourse

Cavesson noseband and full cheek snaffle bit.

Loose Ring: the rings of the bit are not fixed, but can slide through the mouthpiece. This helps the horse to relax his jaw. The rings vary in size; the larger ones help to stop the bit being pulled through the horse’s mouth when rein pressure is applied on one side. They also help with steering by applying pressure on one side of the face.

Full Cheek: the rings are in the shape of a ‘D’, with the straight side of the ‘D’ extended to form arms above and below the mouthpiece on either side of the horse’s lips. These straight pieces help with steering, and so are good for horses that tend to hang into tight turns. They also prevent the bit from being pulled through the horse’s mouth.

Dexter Ring Bit: this has a regular jointed snaffle mouthpiece, together with a large metal ring which passes through the horse’s mouth and encircles the lower jaw. This bit can be used on horses that hang off a straight line, as the ring exerts pressure against the jaw and cheek. It’s also useful for horses that take a strong hold, as it is said to give the jockey added stopping power.

The noseband

In racing, the function of the noseband is to prevent the horse from evading pressure from the bit by opening its mouth too far, or by getting its tongue over the bit. It can also be used to stop a horse from pulling.

Types of noseband seen on the racecourse

Flash noseband, loose ring snaffle bit and Australian cheeker

Cavesson noseband: the most common type, and the basic noseband for most disciplines, including racing. It encircles the nose about 1-2 inches below the cheekbone, and gives some support to the lower jaw by allowing the horses to relax the masseter muscle against the downward pressure exerted by the bit.

Flash noseband: similar to the cavesson, but with a second strap (the ‘flash’) which runs through a loop at the front of the cavesson and fastens under the lower jaw, in front of the bit. This noseband holds the bit up and steady in the horse’s mouth, provides support to the lower jaw, and prevents a horse from opening its mouth to avoid contact.

Cross noseband: also known as a figure of eight or ‘Grakle’, after the 1931 Grand National winner, a hard puller for whom the noseband was designed. The cross noseband has straps which pass under the horse’s upper jaw, cross over the nose and under the lower jaw in front of the bit. When the horse tries to open its mouth, the noseband tightens around the upper and lower jaws, and across the bridge of the nose.

Australian Cheeker: made of rubber and buckled to the headband of the bridle, the Australian cheeker runs down the middle of the face, and then divides to be attached to the bit, just inside the bit rings. Designed to be used with a snaffle bit, the cheeker helps to keep the bit higher in the horse’s mouth so that it can’t get its tongue over the bit.

Sheepskin noseband: the cavesson noseband can be fitted with a sheepskin cover. It is thought that a sheepskin noseband helps a horse to concentrate. It may also encourage a horse to keep its head down, as the noseband will restrict its vision unless it maintains a low head carriage. Some trainers may use the sheepskin noseband simply because it makes the horse easier to pick out from the stands in a big field of runners.

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