Ride & Guide - our guide to what horses can run in

 It is a daily challenge for horsemen to put together bit and equipment combinations that draw out the maximum prowess of their trainees.     Article by Annie Lambert     Bits and related training accessories are not all they depend on, however. The talented exercise riders they hire represent the hands using those bits, an important factor in the process.  Whatever bits and riggings a trainer prefers, they have a logical reason as to why their choices work within their program. A lot of that reasoning is chalked up to trial and error experiences.      Bit Bias   Some bits are legal for training and racing while others are not allowed in the afternoons. The most recognizable of the morning-only headgear would be the hackamore. Using a hackamore requires approval from officials.  California trainer Danny Hendricks’ father and uncle, Lee and Byron Hendricks respectfully, toured the rodeo circuit with specialty acts, trick riding and Roman jumping over automobiles. They were superior horsemen that began retraining incorrigible racehorses. The brothers introduced many bits that race trackers had not yet explored. Danny was too young to remember those bits, but did inherit the Hendricks’ talent.  “I had a filly for Dick [Richard Mandella] way back that wouldn’t take a bit, she’d just over flex,” he explained. “If you just touched her she’d put her nose to her chest and go straight back. I put a halter on her with a chifney, so it just hung there, put reins on the halter and started galloping her. It took months before she’d finally take that bit.”  The majority of trainers shrug off which bits are not allowed in the afternoons as they are not devices they’d think of using anyway. In fact, most trainers never ponder “illegal” bits.  Based in Southern California, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella personally feels it’s easy to make too much out of bits. He prefers to keep it simple where possible and to change bits occasionally, “so you put pressure on a different part of the mouth.”  “I don’t want to hear a horse has to have a D bit every day or a ring bit every day,” Mandella offered. Adding with a chuckle, “It’s good to change what you’re doing to their mouth, which usually isn’t good with race horses.”  Mandella learned a lot from a Vaquero horseman, Jimmy Flores, a successful stock horse trainer. His father was shoeing horses for Flores, who encouraged Mandella, then eight or nine years old, to hack his show horses around.  “Jimmy would put a hackamore on them, to get the bit out of their mouth,” Mandella recalled. “He said to me once, ‘You don’t keep your foot on the brake of your car, you’ll wear the brakes out.’ He was a great horseman.”  Trainer Michael Stidham introduced Mandella to the Houghton bit, which originally came from the harness horse industry.  “The Houghton has little extensions on the sides and it is like power steering,” Mandella said. “As severe as it looks, it’s not hard to ride. We’ve had a lot of luck with horses getting in or out, it corrects them.”  David Hofmans, a multiple graded stakes winning trainer, did not come from a horse background. He fell in love with the business when introduced to the backside by Gary Jones and went to work for Jones’ father, Farrell, shortly after.  “We’re always trying something different if there is a problem,” Hofmans said of his tack options. “I use the same variety of ring bits and D bits with most of our horses. We use a martingale, noseband and sometimes a shadow roll. If you have a problem you try something different, but if everything is okay, you stick with what works.”  Michael McCarthy spent many years working for Todd Pletcher before moving his base to California. When it comes to bits, he hasn’t varied much from his former boss. McCarthy reminded, “When the horses are comfortable, the riders are more relaxed and everybody gets along better.”  “Most horses here just wear a plain old, thick D bit,” he said from his barn at California’s Del Mar meet. “Some of the horses get a little bit more aggressive in the morning, so they wear a rubber ring bit. In the afternoons, if we have one that has a tendency to pull, we may put a ring bit with no prongs.”  McCarthy discovered the Houghton bit in Pletcher’s where they used it on Cowboy Cal, winner of the 2009 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. He uses the Houghton sparingly to help horses steer proficiently.  Louisiana horseman Eric Guillot said from his Saratoga office that he uses whatever bit a horse needs – a lot of different equipment combinations.  “I use a D bit with a figure 8 and, when I need to steer them, a ring bit with figure 8 or sometimes I use a ring bit with no noseband at all,” he offered. “Sometimes I use a cage bit and I might use a brush [bit burr] when a horse gets in and out. Really, every situation requires a different kind of bit.”      Control Central   An early background riding hunters and jumpers has influenced the racehorse tack choices of Carla Gaines.  “I like a snaffle, like an egg butt or D bit, or something that would be comfortable in their mouths,” she offered. “I use a rubber snaffle if the horse has a sensitive mouth. I don’t like the ring bit because it is extra [bulk] in their mouth.  “A lot of the jockeys like them because they think they have more control over them. I know from galloping that it doesn’t make them any easier, it probably makes them tougher.”  The beloved gelding John Henry will forever be linked with his Hall of Fame trainer, Ron McAnally. The octogenarian has stabled horses at the Del Mar meeting since 1948. From his perch on the balcony of Barn one he surveyed the track and pointed out changes he has seen made over his 70-year tenure there. During those years there have been fewer changes in the equipment he uses than those stable area enhancements.  “Basically a lot of the bits are still the same; they’ve been that way for I don’t know how many years,” he recalled. “Occasionally you’ll find a horse that tries to run out or lugs in and they’ll put in a different kind of bit.”  According to McAnally’s long-time assistant trainer, Danny Landers, things stay uncomplicated at the barn.  John Sadler’s training habits have also been influenced by his days showing hunters and jumpers. Although he uses the standard bits, decisions are often made by the way horses are framed and balanced.  “I want to see horses carry themselves correctly,” he said. “I’ve always had really good riders since I’ve been training. That is very important to me.”  Sadler likes one of the more recent bits, the Australian ring snaffle, which helps with steering. The bit has larger cheek rings, which helps prevent pinching. He also employs a sliding leather prong.  Neil Drysdale, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, is from England, but has been in the states his entire training career. His tack room is one of those treasure troves of equipment, much of which he has only used a time or two. He keeps choices simple and prefers to match each horse to the best bit for the individual.  “I’m not actually keen on the D bit,” he acknowledged. “I think it is quite strong. Every now and again you have to use something stronger and we’ll use a ring bit or an Australian ring bit, which is quite different and I think it works very well. We have a Houghton which I use rarely; you hope you don’t get those problems and need it.”  No one will ever accused Louisiana-bred trainer Keith Desormeaux of being anything less than frank when asked his opinion.  “I’m not a big believer in bits,” he said. “Being a former exercise rider, I have my own, strong opinions about bits. My strong opinion is that they are useless. My personal preference is a ring bit, because they play with it, not because of its severity. People use it to help with control; you pull on the bit and the ring pushes on the palate.  “When horses play with the ring bit it diverts their attention from all that’s going on around the track. I don’t take a good hold, it just diverts them from distractions going on around them.”  Desormeaux’s horses go out with just a bridle – no rings, no noseband, nothing. “It is not about the equipment,” he said, “it’s about the rider’s hands.”      European Semblance   According to trainers who began careers in Europe before relocating to the United States, the biggest difference is not in the bits they use here, but the bits you need for the much different training style on this side of the pond. Sharp turns in America sometimes require cautionary bits, while European horses train and often run on wide, straightaway gallops and courses.     Graham Motion keeps his bitting options uncomplicated. Horses train in a snaffle with a noseband or figure 8 and those hard to steer or that pull are fitted with the ring bit and figure 8.  “We tend to use more equipment [in the US] as the turns are sharper. We also use tongue ties a lot more,” he confirmed. “If you look at pictures of European horses going into the first turn in the Breeder’s Cup, they often have their mouths wide open and are struggling to make the turn.”  Leonard Powell heralds from a bloodstock family in Normandy, France. He rode flat and jump races in France before moving to the states to work for Richard Mandella. Powell starts with an egg butt or D bit snaffle and moves horses into a ring bit if they are tougher. Most horses run in a ring bit, not necessarily because they are tough, but because it gives the jockeys more control.  “Every horse has its own bridle,” Powell pointed out. “That way there is less chance of skin disease spreading from the reins, less chance of getting the wrong bit on them and the grooms don’t have to mess with the bridle adjustments. That makes it easier on everybody.”  Powell opined that the Europeans use equipment much the same as the United States, lots of snaffles and ring bits.  “They don’t use any of the bits for horses that lug in very bad, like the leather prong,” he pointed out. “They do use what they call the Australian noseband, the WinALot, that rubber thing. I love the idea of it, but every time I’ve used it I’m like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t make any difference.’”  Changing up bits for every horse as an individual is high on Simon Callaghan’s list. The British-born horseman trained his first two years in the UK before moving to the states roughly nine years ago.  “I think here and in Europe it’s the same, they use the same basic bits,” he said. “Sometimes we use different equipment like draw reins and figure 8s here. The D and ring bits fit most individuals.  “You don’t see horses getting in or getting out in Europe; the gallops are generally all straight and a lot of the racing is on straightaways as well.”  Callaghan looks for a physical reason a horse may be getting tougher to work – dental or soundness issues - before exploring more severe bit options.  “I think horses are telling you that something is bugging them,” he said.  Jonathan Sheppard’s reputation in steeplechase and flat racing is impeccable. The English born, 78-year-old conditioner went into the Hall of Fame in 1990.  A little fatter jointed snaffle, something softer on a horse’s mouth, is Sheppard’s first choice in bits, usually a D bit. When a horse needs something different the trainer is more apt to add a noseband prior to moving into a stronger type bit.  “We do use ring bits when a horse is a little bit heavy-headed or a bit tough to steer or handle,” he said. “Not so much for the jumpers, I wouldn’t think, more with the colts on the flat.  “We’ve actually, recently been using a Houghton bit for some. I think it is very nice, soft on a horse’s mouth and gives you more control for steering.”  Sheppard uses a Myler bit that he called “a nice forgiving type.” The mouthpiece is similar to that of a Dr Bristol, which has a double joint instead of the single-jointed snaffle, that performs like “a nutcracker on a horse’s jaw.”  “The Kineton noseband is very good on a horse that pulls,” he added. “It takes the pressure off the mouth and applies it to the nose.”  Americans are into a bit more of the bizarre type of equipment than the Europeans, according to Sheppard. When he trained overseas everything was run in a big ring snaffle and not much else. He figures Europe has become more like North America recently.      Cool Hands   All trainers agree that a rider with good hands outweighs the importance of all the bits in their arsenal. As Hendricks put it, “A lot of times people are using horse bits to correct something that isn’t the bit’s problem at all.”  It has always amazed Mandella how some exercise riders can get along with tough, pulling horses and make it look effortless. He cited David Nuesch with helping Beholder in her early years.  “David had a style, a way of sitting and getting a horse not to pull,” Mandella explained. Louis Cenicola was a perfect example of that on John Henry. He had a way of just sitting up there and somehow talking him out of pulling. It is an art; riders either have it or they don’t.”  As an excellent show horse rider John Sadler has made sure his exercise riders are also special on a horse. Matching his horses with riders that fit their style has lessened the need for exotic bits and equipment.  “We have really great riders with great hands,” Sadler confirmed. “We don’t use a lot of different bits and extra tack because I have such good riders that they can ride the horses with anything. I give them a wide swath with their equipment because they are so good. A lot of these guys have been with me 20 years.”  Sheppard likes a German martingale because it is similar to straight draw reins, but give the horse “more freedom rather than cranking his head down between his knees.”  “Sometimes you need to have a rider that knows what he’s doing to use draw reins,” Sheppard cited with a chuckle. “A friend of mine once came up with a pretty good expression. He said, ‘Putting draw reins in the hands of the average exercise boy is like putting a chainsaw in the hands of a monkey.’”  “I don’t think the bits are as important as the riders handling them, that’s the bottom line,” Mandella concluded. A really good rider can ride them with anything. They do it with finesse and tact rather than muscle.”       Side Bar 1 of 2   Tongued Tied  Caption: #8418 & #8425> Tongue ties get mixed reviews from trainers, but veterinary research has shown they may help more than previously thought.     The tongue tie has been used by horsemen for many decades. The practice retains popularity by helping to keep a horse’s tongue from getting over the bit, causing control issues, as well as preventing the tongue from obstructing the upper airway.  Skeptics who feel tying the tongue does not do much for a horse’s breathing issues, may want to make a fresh assessment. Horses with intermittent dorsal displacement of the soft palate (iDDSP) can benefit from a tongue tie according to the research.  The tongue is tied near its base with a strip of material that is doubled around the muscular organ and secured by tying under the jaw. By pulling the tongue forward, the upper respiratory structures’ positions are more compatible with upper airway stability. The changes in structural positions allow the horse to breathe more proficiently.  Dr Michael Manno is an equine practitioner and surgeon at Southern California racetracks. He explained how the tongue tie works “in theory” and described a newer surgery that attempts to reduce (iDDSP) in much the same way.  “If you fix the tongue in a forward position, to where it can’t move back as far, then the larynx should also stay in a more forward position and theoretically make it a little more difficult for the soft palate to displace over the top [of the epiglottis],” Dr Manno opined. “Are we certain that horses with tongue ties don’t displace? No, we know they do. It helps some; it doesn’t help them all.  “I think that is also the theory behind this newer surgical technique called a ‘tie forward.’ A surgery that tries to do the same thing by actually moving the larynx a bit more forward in its position so that it would cause the same effect, where you have a little bit more difficulty of the soft palate flipping up over the top.”  Trainers have varying opinions on the use of tongue ties. As with most things equine, it depends on the individual animals.  From his Ashwell Stables in West Grove, Pennsylvania, Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard acknowledged that he did not use tongue ties when he first started training. He later began using them occasionally on horses that he felt really need the accessory.  “Then I went thru a stage of saying, ‘Well, I don’t see how it could hurt them and it might help,’” he recalled. “You never quite know what a horse’s breathing apparatus is doing when they get to the eighth pole in a long race and they are getting tired.”  Sheppard has since returned to his previous practice, using the tongue tie less often, but always on horses he predicts could be helped.  “It kind of tends to make horses fuss a little bit,” he said of tying the tongue. “Sometimes the grooms put them on a little bit too tight and you see the tongue turn purple before you even put the rider up in the paddock. They are helpful, certainly, with horses that displace and whatnot. The tongue tie and a figure 8 is the remedy we use for horses that are displacing.”

By Annie Lambert

Bits and related training accessories are not all they depend on, however. The talented exercise riders they hire represent the hands using those bits, an important factor in the process.

Whatever bits and riggings a trainer prefers, they have a logical reason as to why their choices work within their program. A lot of that reasoning is chalked up to trial and error experiences.

Bit Bias

Some bits are legal for training and racing while others are not allowed in the afternoons. The most recognizable of the morning-only headgear would be the hackamore. Using a hackamore requires approval from officials.

California trainer Danny Hendricks’ father and uncle, Lee and Byron Hendricks respectfully, toured the rodeo circuit with specialty acts, trick riding and Roman jumping over automobiles. They were superior horsemen that began retraining incorrigible racehorses. The brothers introduced many bits that race trackers had not yet explored. Danny was too young to remember those bits, but did inherit the Hendricks’ talent.

“I had a filly for Dick [Richard Mandella] way back that wouldn’t take a bit, she’d just over flex,” he explained. “If you just touched her she’d put her nose to her chest and go straight back. I put a halter on her with a chifney, so it just hung there, put reins on the halter and started galloping her. It took months before she’d finally take that bit.”

The fat, egg butt snaffle is popular with many trainers as is the standard ring bit

The majority of trainers shrug off which bits are not allowed in the afternoons as they are not devices they’d think of using anyway. In fact, most trainers never ponder “illegal” bits.

Based in Southern California, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella personally feels it’s easy to make too much out of bits. He prefers to keep it simple where possible and to change bits occasionally, “so you put pressure on a different part of the mouth.”

“I don’t want to hear a horse has to have a D bit every day or a ring bit every day,” Mandella offered. Adding with a chuckle, “It’s good to change what you’re doing to their mouth, which usually isn’t good with race horses.”

Mandella learned a lot from a Vaquero horseman, Jimmy Flores, a successful stock horse trainer. His father was shoeing horses for Flores, who encouraged Mandella, then eight or nine years old, to hack his show horses around.

“Jimmy would put a hackamore on them, to get the bit out of their mouth,” Mandella recalled. “He said to me once, ‘You don’t keep your foot on the brake of your car, you’ll wear the brakes out.’ He was a great horseman.”

Trainer Michael Stidham introduced Mandella to the Houghton bit, which originally came from the harness horse industry.

“The Houghton has little extensions on the sides and it is like power steering,” Mandella said. “As severe as it looks, it’s not hard to ride. We’ve had a lot of luck with horses getting in or out, it corrects them.”

David Hofmans, a multiple graded stakes winning trainer, did not come from a horse background. He fell in love with the business when introduced to the backside by Gary Jones and went to work for Jones’ father, Farrell, shortly after.

One of many well-used tack combinations is a figure 8 over the rubber-mouthed ring bit

“We’re always trying something different if there is a problem,” Hofmans said of his tack options. “I use the same variety of ring bits and D bits with most of our horses. We use a martingale, noseband and sometimes a shadow roll. If you have a problem you try something different, but if everything is okay, you stick with what works.”

Michael McCarthy spent many years working for Todd Pletcher before moving his base to California. When it comes to bits, he hasn’t varied much from his former boss. McCarthy reminded, “When the horses are comfortable, the riders are more relaxed and everybody gets along better.”

“Most horses here just wear a plain old, thick D bit,” he said from his barn at California’s Del Mar meet. “Some of the horses get a little bit more aggressive in the morning, so they wear a rubber ring bit. In the afternoons, if we have one that has a tendency to pull, we may put a ring bit with no prongs.”

McCarthy discovered the Houghton bit in Pletcher’s where they used it on Cowboy Cal, winner of the 2009 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. He uses the Houghton sparingly to help horses steer proficiently.

Louisiana horseman Eric Guillot said from his Saratoga office that he uses whatever bit a horse needs – a lot of different equipment combinations.

“I use a D bit with a figure 8 and, when I need to steer them, a ring bit with figure 8 or sometimes I use a ring bit with no noseband at all,” he offered. “Sometimes I use a cage bit and I might use a brush [bit burr] when a horse gets in and out. Really, every situation requires a different kind of bit.”

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