Part 1: Blinkers, Visors, and Cheekpieces
It’s not easy training racehorses. Like human beings, every animal has its own personality and individual quirks. Some are fairly straight-forward and easy to deal with, others less so. And as they get older horses, like humans, often tend to find ways to avoid over-exerting themselves and getting away with doing as little work as possible!
We will discuss the equipment along with notations to help you recognize equipment status and changes on the race cards.
To try and cope with a huge range of idiosyncrasies trainers can turn to a range of different equipment to help get the best out of their horses, most of which is declared to the general public on the daily list of runners to keep us informed of what options are being used and help us coming to a decision about the right horse on which to bet.
Among the wide range of primarily headgear that are used to help encourage horses to put their best feet forward are blinkers, visors, cheekpieces, a tongue strap, hood, and eyeshields, any of which can produce a positive response from the horse in question – although not always.
BLINKERS (b) are the most commonly used form of equipment and are indicated next to the name of the horse with the letter ‘b’ on a standard list of runners. Blinkers are placed over the horses head and have cups around the eye of the horse allowing it to see straight ahead but not to see anything on either side. These are used for horses who tend not to concentrate on the job in hand and have shown a tendency to look around during their races and consequently fail to give their best performance.
As horses grow more experienced they can also become a touch lazy. It can often prove to be the case that when blinkers are applied for the first time – indicated by the number ‘1’ next to the letter ‘b’ on the racecard – the effect is to surprise the horse into running rather better than might previously have been the case, resulting in an improved performance. The same tactic continues to work time after time with some horses, while others soon get wise to the trick and other tactics need to be used.
For a horse who is not quite so easily distracted but still doesn’t fully apply himself to the job in hand, trainers often choose to race him in a VISOR (v), indicated on the standard racecard by the letter ‘v’ next to the name of the horse – which looks very much like blinkers but has only half-cups around the eyes, allowing the horse to not only see straight ahead, but also to the sides.
This can allow a horse to see another horse challenging and hopefully respond by running a little faster. Again, when a horse wears this new equipment for the first time the number ‘1’ is indicated next to the letter ‘v’.
Cheek Pieces (p)
For many decades a lot of trainers have chosen to run their horses in a sheepskin noseband, a strip of fluffy sheepskin that goes across the nose of the horse and basically helps him to look straight ahead.
Nosebands are not indicated on a standard racecard. In recent times, trainers who are not keen to run their horses in blinkers – possibly feeling it might have an adverse effect and make the horse run too fast, too soon – have used CHEEKPIECES (p), also made from sheepskin, placed on the side of the horse’s face. This equipment was first used in French horse racing but is now popular around the world.
There is no doubt that this piece of equipment can often produce an improved performance from a horse and it is indicated on the racecard by the letter ‘p’, a ‘1’ added to show when the horse is wearing the cheekpieces for the very first time in its career.
Equipment are an important aspect of horse race handicapping, but the horse, jockey and trainer form and stats come into play as well.
Part 2: Tongue Strap, Hood, Eyeshields
In ‘Part 1’ we looked at the effect that blinkers, visors, and cheekpieces have on a horse’s performance, and now we look at other pieces of equipment that trainers can turn to and try and produce an improved effort from their horse.
Tongue Strap (t)
The use of a TONGUE STRAP (t) on a racehorse is indicated by the letter ‘t’ next to the horse’s name and, as with other pieces of additional equipment, it’s use on a horse for the first time is indicated by the addition of the number ‘1’ next to the letter ‘t’.
The tongue strap is exactly as it sounds. It may seems a shade unpleasant, but it isn’t, the tongue strap is very important for some horses who have a tendency to ‘swallow their tongue’. Essentially, like most horses, the thoroughbred racehorse has a long tongue and while galloping some can lose control of their tongue and it slips back down their throat, blocking the airways and causing them to quickly struggle to breathe. Some horses are far more prone to this than others, and for such horses a tongue strap, (which is usually just a piece of soft cloth that ties the horse’s tongue in place onto its lower jaw), removes the possibility of the horse choking on its tongue and allows it to perform to the best of its ability.
The HOOD (h) has become increasingly popular with British and Irish racehorse trainers in recent years but has long been used in continental racing and in North America. Many horses find the atmosphere of a busy racecourse and the noise of the crowd very distracting and sometimes frightening. Horses have sensitive hearing and some find the noise very difficult to cope with causing them to get agitated and sweat up, burning essential energy in the preliminaries before the race only to come up short once the action begins.
The hood basically goes over the horse’s ears and forehead, deadening the sound from the racecourse and allowing the horse to relax. Over the last few years an increasing number of horses have been worn a hood and it has been noticeable that a significant number appear to have shown improved form and are far more relaxed as a result of it being fitted.
EYESHIELDS (e/s) are almost exclusively used on horses competing in all-weather races in Britain and Ireland on both the Polytrack and Fibresand surfaces. As these races are run on a sand-based surface there is a degree of kickback, especially at Southwell where the Fibresand is particularly deep.
For those horses who tend to race close to the lead the kickback is less of a problem, but for those in behind they can find themselves facing a veritable sandstorm from the kickback which can seriously jeopardise their chances. The eyeshields are essentially a set of blinkers with a Perspex or mesh covering over the eye; they look like an equine version of swimming goggles. They stop the horse getting sand kicked back into its eyes and have proven a worthwhile addition for ‘hold-up’ horses – those whose preferred style of running is to take it steady towards the rear of the runners for much of the race before coming with a late sprint near the finish.
Trainers are allowed to use all manner of combinations of headgear and equipment to aid their horse’s performance, so also look out for symbols such as ‘bt1’, which would indicate the horse will wear blinkers and has a tongue-tie for the first time, or ‘p1t’, that reports the horse wearing cheekpieces with the addition of a first-time tongue tie. Paying close attention to additional equipment can very often help pinpoint winners that might otherwise be overlooked.
You can find more about equipment, including rules from the British Horseracing Authority .
Where to Find Equipment Changes
As any punter who takes anything more than a passing interest in the sport knows very well a change of headgear or equipment for a horse can sometimes make a significant difference to its performance and often result in notable improvement.
It’s important then to know where you can find these changes and how to identify them as easily as possible. Most betting sites don’t carry such information, or if they do it is not easy to locate, so, in the case of British and Irish racing, your main resource is very much the punters’ ‘bible’, the Racing Post .
The addition of blinkers, a visor, a hood, cheek-pieces, eye-shield, and even a tongue-tie are indicated next to the horse’s name.
For example, if a horse has blinkers on for the first it will be indicated by the displaying ‘b1′ – ‘b’ indicating that the horse wears blinkers, and the small ‘1’ showing that it wears this particular equipment addition for the first time.
 britishhorseracing.com, The Rules of Racing, 2015
 racingpost.com, The Racing Post, 2015