Control the horse's head and the rest of its body will follow. This simple principle applies not only to steering and stopping but to the horse's mental state. A horse with a comfortable mouth is less distracted from its work.
The two most common bits worn by racehorses are a D-bit and a ring bit. Both bits are snaffles, meaning the mouthpiece is made up of two jointed segments of metal. The D-bit is easiest on a horse's mouth and the simplest. Its name describes the D-shaped rings that attach the ends of the bit to the bridle.
“A D-bit is easy,” said trainer and former jockey Art Sherman, 81, whose most notable charge was dual Horse of the Year California Chrome. “You usually use a D-bit on fillies that don't like to have a harsh bit in their mouth, a little tender mouth. It's very gentle on the horse's mouth.”
A ring bit features a ring that encircles the horse's lower jaw. The ring gives the jockey greater steering for horses that tend to lug in or bear out, and it gives greater control of a horse that tends to run off or resist the rider's hands.
“Usually a horse that is a little tougher, you'd use a ring bit,” Sherman said. “I like tying their tongue down so they can't get their tongue over the ring, because then they get to where you can't manage them. If you tie their tongue and use the ring bit, you can gallop a pretty tough horse that takes hold of the bit.”
Sherman recalled Lykatill Hill, whom he regards as the toughest horse in his 40-year training career. The 1994 Del Mar Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap winner was Sherman's second-best horse, surpassed only by California Chrome on the Equibase list of the trainer's top horses.
“He was one of my first graded stakes winners, and he was an awful tough horse,” Sherman said. “I remember Eddie D. [Delahoussaye] won a big race for me at Del Mar, a grade-2, and he said when he came back, 'This horse scared me so bad, you have no idea.'
“When he took off,” Sherman continued, “he was one of those horses you couldn't stop. He'd just go, and you had to give him a place to go or he'd run over somebody. That's a little scary for the jock.”
After trying different bits on the gelding, Sherman decided on a ring bit with an overcheck, a leather headstall that enables the rider to get a better hold of the horse's head. After Lykatill Hill realized he could be controlled, he became more tractable.
“He was always tough, but you could ride him and put him behind horses without having him stampeding into the rest of the field, because he came from off the pace, and once you got him rolling, you had to give him a place to go,” Sherman said. “He was not one of those horses you could guide between horses. You had to kind of let him go to the outside to give him plenty of room to adjust. He was probably one of my all-time favorite horses, other than Chrome, because he was tough.”
D-bits and ring bits are available with a rubber coating on the mouthpiece. The rubber coating is easier on a horse with a sensitive mouth, and it gives a nervous horse something to chew on when it gets anxious. Rubber-coated snaffles commonly are used when introducing a young horse to the bridle.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide raced in a variation of the ring bit called a Haughton bit, designed by Harness Hall of Fame trainer Billy Haughton. Instead of a ring encircling the whole lower jaw, the Houghton bit has a three-sided bar welded to the ends of the mouthpiece, forming a square around the horse's lower jaw.
Trainer Barclay Tagg said Funny Cide was tough to rate both while breezing and racing. The gelding had a small, sensitive mouth, so finding a bit that was comfortable for the horse yet effective was a challenge.
“He used to bear out a bit and things like that,” Tagg said. “A Haughton bit, some people think it's a severe bit, but it's not severe at all. It just kind of keeps everything in place without any real hard pressure. It just worked on him [Funny Cide]. It didn't slide all around in his mouth or anything like that. It fit well. He respected it, and it had no way of hurting him.”
A regulator bit is used on horses that tend to lug in or bear out. Sherman was quick to point out that before a trainer decides to use a bit on a horse with these tendencies, he or she should examine the horse for a physical problem.
“Usually a horse that lugs in, it usually has to do with something bothering them,” he said. “When they change leads, they go right in. You can see that on the videos [of the horse's races]. Usually they're getting tired or have a little issue somewhere.”
Curlin wore a regulator bit, but he didn't seem to have any issues. The dual Horse of the Year and Racing Hall of Fame member earned $10,501,800, ranking him sixth on the list of all-time money earners.
In 1999, Dr. Robert Cook, professor emeritus of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, developed a bitless bridle that he claims will stop exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding) by eliminating neurological disease of the voice box. He hasn't produced independent study results to confirm his theory. Cook has campaigned unsuccessfully to have racing adopt his bitless bridle, which is prohibited by the rules of racing in Kentucky. Other jurisdictions, such as California, have no rules on their books banning bitless bridles, but leave the decision up to the safety stewards, who have so far not permitted it.
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