One of the most confusing things within horse racing for those not well versed in the sport is the use of headgear.
It isn’t compulsory for horses to wear blinkers or any other type of headgear, in fact the practice of using it in racing is much more popular in the States than it is in Britain or Ireland.
Essentially, the jockey’s job first and foremost is to steer the horse. This is not as simple as it sounds, which is why there is a stark difference between what the lowest-paid jockeys and the globetrotting Group 1 types get paid.
Jockeys are also tasked with getting the bets possible placing out of their mount in a given race, but occasionally their horse may be a little quirky and unwilling to help out too much during the race.
With that in mind, trainers don’t rely solely on the jockey to get the most out of their runner. Sometimes, headgear is declared on a horse in order for them to improve performance.
Different headgear is used for different reasons and in recent times trainers have even been allowed to apply hoods to their horses only in the preliminaries. We have a full list of headgear in horse racing and why it’s used.
Blinkers are one of the most popular types of racing headgear and certainly the most recognisable. In America for example, if you asked someone to describe a racehorse there is little doubt that blinkers would form part of that description.
Blinkers, occasionally known by some as ‘blinds’, are used to help horses that are perceived to have some sort of concentration issue.
Some runners are very young and naïve, still learning their trade as it were, while some are downright quirky. In other cases, even relatively experienced colts may catch site of some fillies as they race and that may take their attention away from racing very quickly!
Another problem in terms of site is that some thoroughbreds simply don’t like the look of other horses being so close around them, even when sound isn’t a problem, or they may dislike the site of a large crowd in the stands.
When horses have been known to turn their heads during a race, the blinkers are then put in place in order to restrict their view and keep them looking forwards.
It is thought among many punters that the application of first-time blinkers has the biggest effect, but there are no good stats to back this up. They may improve markedly for wearing the blinkers first time, but that doesn’t mean they will regress once they get used to them.
Cheekpieces are used to aid concentration in a similar way to blinkers.
In this case however, they are much easier and quicker to apply for trainers and stable staff and they restrict view and comfort much less than blinkers do.
Although less effective than blinkers, the cheekpieces still restrict view to a degree and are placed on horses that have been struggling to run in a straight line.
Once again, many punters look out for first-time cheekpieces but we’d advise caution against believing this will automatically improve performance. It may be that there is a different, more physical reason for a horse wandering around the track and so the cheekpieces may not always have the desired effect.
The visor is trialled on many runners ‘at home’ in training and is often favoured by top-class trainers.
This is because, while visors are similar in look and purpose to blinkers, there is a subtle difference in them that makes them just a little more deliberate.
While blinkers completely restrict vision from the side, visors have a small slit in them which means when other horses are upside the wearer will know they are there.
If a horse doesn’t mind, or in fact prefers company, the slit in the visor allows them to see their pals and not panic during the race while still being more focused on what is ahead of them. Thoroughbreds are still basically herd animals after all.
While blinkers and similar implements are used to restrict vision, the hood is more about noise.
One of the main reasons for horses sweating up and losing valuable energy before a race, other than warm weather of course, is excess noise as this may make them nervous.
At major meetings such as Royal Ascot or the Cheltenham Festival, 70,000 people are drinking, betting and shouting from the stands while the horses’ hooves and jockey’s shouts are also very audible during a race.
The hood covers the horse’s ears and their heads, but still allows them to see properly via the eye holes. The hood is padded around the ears, restricting the excess noise, usually calming the wearer down significantly.
The Red Hood
In recent times the addition of the ‘red hood’ has been a great help for horses, trainers and jockeys.
Now, a red hood can be added only for use in the parade ring and for getting to the start, blocking out the crowd noise. These hoods can then be removed by the jockey before the race so that the horse may race without any headgear at all.
The colour is important. The fact that it is specifically the red hood tells the crowd and other horsemen that it will be removed before the race starts.
Nosebands, often referred to as ‘sheepskin nosebands’, are a simple piece of gear used to help a horse’s head carriage.
Some runners are known for throwing their heads around a little when racing, something that not only may affect their chances but can also cause problems up top for the jockey.
The noseband therefore is wrapped around the horse’s nose, is very comfortable to wear, and only affects vision when they move their heads unnecessarily meaning they are more inclined to keep their head down and maintain focus until they are unsaddled after the race.
When horses move their heads around a lot, it means they tug on the bridle too much which can rub their skin and cause irritation. The noseband protects against this and makes the horse more comfortable.
Headgear on the Racecard
There is precious little room on a racecard and so most thing associated with form, runners, trainers and jockeys are abbreviated or shortened.
Firstly, it’s important to note that a noseband does not need to be noted on a racecard.
For other headgear, look out for these symbols:
(B) – blinkers
(H) – hood
(P) – cheekpieces
(V) – visor
When a horse is wearing any of these for the first time, you’ll see a small ‘1’ next to the appropriate symbol, much like the image on the right.
In this case, the runner Ribtide is wearing a first-time hood.
Any runner wearing allowed headgear must have it declared by the trainer at the entry stage and it will always show up on the racecard.