Horse Racing Headgear: What Are Blinkers, Cheek Pieces & Tongue Straps?

Horse Race Head GearUpon viewing a horse race, it soon becomes apparent that, whilst of course similar, the various runners on show do display a number of differences in terms of their appearance. From the greys to the chestnuts, the tall and lythe to the more muscular; horses come in a variety of sizes and shades. And then of course we have the diverse range of jockey’s silks, so essential in enabling punters and racecourse commentators to distinguish between contenders.

Even to the novice racegoer the different sizes and colours of the equine athletes is easily explained as the natural way of things, with the distinctive silks sported by the riders clearly being necessary in order to follow the action. What does take a little more explaining though is the answer to the question “Why does that horse have something on its head, and that one doesn’t?”.

We are of course not speaking of the likes of the top hat, flat cap and Panama so beloved of racing fans, but likely of limited use to the horses themselves. What we are referring to here is a category of racing aids known as horse racing headgear – an array of equipment applied in and around the area of a horse’s head, with the aim of improving the racecourse performance of the beast in question.

But what exactly are these devices? And how can they be of benefit? Let us take a look at each of the various types in turn, looking at what they consist of, what effect they have, and how they appear on a race card.

Blinkers – Noted On Race Cards As (b)

Horse Race BlinkersBlinkers consist of a garment made from a synthetic material which is placed over a horse’s head. Containing holes for both the ears and eyes, the key feature of blinkers are the eye-cups, or cowls, which are fitted to the outside of each eye-hole. Usually made from either leather or plastic, these semi-circular cups act to prevent/restrict rear and peripheral vision, directing the attention of the horse to that which is in front of them. Cups can either be “full-cup” allowing full forward vision but no rear or peripheral vision, or “half-cup” – which again permit no vision to the rear, but allow some degree of peripheral vision.

So that’s what they are, but why use them? Blinkers fall into the “concentration aid” category of racing headgear, and have the express purpose of better enabling the horse to focus upon the task at hand. The fact that a horse’s eyes sit on the sides of their head grants an incredibly wide field of vision – certainly in comparison with a human – enabling our four-legged friends to see not only what is in front of them, but also to the sides and behind. And of course, the more you can see, the more potential there is to become distracted.

For many horses this almost panoramic view isn’t an issue, and they are able to perform to their best without displaying too much concern as to what is going on around them. For others however, all the movement during the hustle and bustle of race-day can prove to be a problem, particularly so for more nervous or excitable individuals.

Signs that blinkers may be of benefit to a runner include a horse regularly turning their head during a race, or perhaps veering off a true line as they move either away from, or towards, movement in their peripheral vision. Such action means potentially wasting energy and causing issues, especially in events featuring obstacles. The theory goes that by applying the blinkers, we effectively remove these distractions, and the concentration and performance of the horse may well improve.

This is not always the case but in some instances blinkers can lead to a marked improvement. As such, a previously distracted horse wearing them for the first time could be worth considering in the betting. Called blinders in the US, the concept of wearing blinkers, having blinkers on or having blinkered vision, is one of the many horse racing terms that has entered everyday use, meaning someone is narrow-minded, or unable to see other possibilities.

Visor – Noted On Race Cards As (v)

Horse with VisorAlmost identical to blinkers, both in terms of their appearance and the materials from which they are made, the visor also falls into the concentration aid category.

The one difference with the visor is that the eye cups feature a slight slit or hole, enabling the horse some degree of peripheral and rear vision. The main purpose of this slit is to provide a sighting of the other runners, as some horses may panic when hearing the sound of hooves without being able to see where the noise is coming from. Such horses may well struggle in full blinkers but could benefit from a visor.

Another type of runner for whom a visor may be a better option than blinkers are those horses who are keen to get to the front, but do very little once they get there. In blinkers such an animal would be unable to see a rival coming up to challenge and may react too late, whereas in a visor they would be aware of their presence earlier.

Cheekpieces – Noted On Race Cards As (p)

Horse Cheek PiecesAlso falling into the concentration bracket are the less restrictive cheekpieces. Occasionally referred to as “French Blinkers”, this aid consists of two strips of soft material (usually sheepskin) which are attached to the bridle and run down either side of the horse’s head from the ear to the mouth, partially blocking both rear and peripheral vision.

Cheekpieces come in various degrees of thickness depending upon the level of restriction required.

Easier to put on and take off than either blinkers or a visor, cheekpieces are a good choice for more nervous horses who may become agitated by more severe options.

Soft and comfortable to wear, they are known to keep runners calm and have proven particularly effective in helping those who struggle to maintain a straight line during a race.

Hood – Noted On Race Card As (h)

Horse Race Hood
From Tree House Online

Similar in appearance to both blinkers and a visor, the hood also consists of a synthetic garment which fits over the horse’s head. However, unlike the blinkers and visor, the hood contains padded sections which covers both ears, whilst featuring no eye cups or vision restricting elements of any kind. As you may have guessed from this description, the aim of the hood is to restrict, not vision, but hearing.

The hood tends to be reached for in order to calm nervous or highly strung animals, who may otherwise become disturbed or upset by the race-day noise. Often used on younger and less experienced runners, a hood may be worn only in the parade ring and on the way down to the start, or also during the race. Hoods worn only on the way down to the start e.g. the red devil-style garment which seems to be increasing in popularity, need to be declared to the racing authorities, but will not be noted on a race card. An (h) by the horse’s name on the race card therefore signifies the use of a hood which will be worn during the race itself.

Eye Shield – Noted On Race Card As (e/s)

Horse with Eye ShieldMoving on to the lesser used of the head-cover style garments, we come to the eye-shield.

Again, resembling blinkers – in consisting of a synthetic material with holes for the eyes and ears – rather than vision-restricting cups, the eye-shield features a translucent mesh over each eye.

As the name would suggest the eye-shield acts to protect the eye.

Most commonly used in all-weather racing, due to the high-levels of kickback created by the sand-like surface, the eye-shield has also been known to help some runners in terms of maintaining concentration and remaining calm.

Eye Covers – Noted On Race Card As (e/c)

And finally, in the over the head category, we come to the lesser spotted, eye-cover. Rather than cups or translucent mesh, this aid features a non-transparent eye cover over just one of the eyes. This is almost always only used in the instance where a horse either has a damaged eye which needs to be protected, or is blind in one eye – in which case it is used mainly for aesthetic reasons.

Tongue Strap – Noted On Race Card As (t)

Horse Tongue StrapAlso known as a tongue-tie, this aid consists of a strip of material which attaches to the bridle and sits in the horse’s mouth keeping the tongue in place.

Used as a breathing aid, the tongue strap is beneficial for those runners who are either prone to getting their tongue over the bit, or running with their tongue hanging out of their mouth.

By holding the tongue in a fixed position, the tongue strap enables a horse to consistently take in the maximum amount of air, thus improving oxygen intake and benefitting overall performance.

In addition to these breathing benefits, a tongue strap can also help with steering, as runners who race with their tongue over the bit can become very difficult to control.

Earplugs – Not Noted On Race Cards

Similar to the hood, ear plugs are employed to keep out any noises which may otherwise upset or unsettle a nervous horse. A relaxation aid, the ear plugs are made from memory foam and are kept in place with a cord attached to the bridle. Unlike all of the aforementioned headgear, the wearing of earplugs is not noted alongside the horses’ name on a race card.

Noseband – Not Noted On Race Cards

Horse with Nose BandAnother item which is not required to be noted on a race-card is one of the most widely used headgear options in the sport – the humble sheepskin noseband. Also known as a shadow roll, this aid is simply a strip of soft sheepskin which attaches to the noseband of the bridle and sits across the bridge of a horse’s nose.

A noseband can be useful for runners who tend to throw their head around or attempt to look up during a race. By attracting the horse’s attention down and towards the nose, this aid helps the horse to both focus on what is ahead of them and keep their head down. In addition to these head carriage benefits, a sheepskin noseband also partially cuts off the field of vision below eye-level, helping to block out distractions such as shadows which have been known to spook some horses. The gentle fabric of the noseband meanwhile can protect hard-pulling individuals from the rub of the bridle.

Does Headgear Work?

Yes and No Thumbs Up and Down

For some horses the application of headgear certainly does do the trick, seeming to trigger a marked improvement in form. For others however it makes no real difference, whilst certain animals may even react negatively and perform worse than they had done before. As with many things in racing, there is no hard and fast rule here, with results varying on a case-by-case basis.

If there is to be an improvement triggered by headgear of any kind, it will most often come the very first time it is used. Following runners in “first-time” headgear has become a popular angle amongst a section of punters, with such runners being identifiable by a 1 next to the headgear notation. The use of first-time blinkers for example would appear as b1 beside a horse’s name on a race-card.

Another popular theory is that certain types of headgear – notably blinkers or a visor – become less effective the more they are used. This is a phenomenon which leads some trainers to alternate between running a horse with and without the headgear. And this can occasionally prove to be a hint worth taking. For example, if blinkers have been absent from a runner for a number of runs, only to be suddenly reapplied ahead of a major race, it may be a sign that a big run is in the offing.

Anything to Declare?

Horse Race Officials Starting Gate

All headgear which is intended to be worn during a race must be declared at the final declaration stage i.e., 10am two days before the race takes place in most instances. For the purpose of this ruling headgear is taken to include blinkers, cheek pieces, eye covers, eye shields, hoods, visors and tongue ties, but not nosebands or ear plugs.

All declared headgear must then be worn both on the way to the start and during the race itself. If for whatever reason there is a problem with the declared headgear, and the horse is no longer able to wear it, said horse must be withdrawn from the race. Similarly, any horse arriving at the start in undeclared headgear will not be permitted to run.

As is often the case with rules however, there are a couple of exceptions to the above:

  • A trainer may add or remove headgear after they have made the declaration to run IF they make the request to do so within two hours of the declarations closing AND pay a fee associated with making such a request.
  • A trainer may substitute one type of headgear for another IF the request is made prior to the runners weighing out for the race AND they pay a fee associated with making such a change.
  • If a horse declared to run with a tongue-tie arrives at the start without it, the horse will still be permitted to run, but the trainer will be subject to a financial penalty.
  • If a horse declared to run in a tongue tie is unable to do so due to the tongue-tie becoming loose, the horse will be permitted to run. However, if the decision is taken to withdraw the horse, the usual financial non-runner penalty will not apply.
  • A horse arriving at the start in an undeclared tongue-tie will have the tongue-tie removed and be allowed to run.

If some of the above seems a little on the strict side, it is designed to be so in order to protect the integrity of racing. And specifically in relation to the betting element of the sport. For example, many punters factor headgear into their betting decisions, with information concerning whether a horse will or won’t be wearing blinkers, for example, often proving critical.

If a punter places a bet on a horse under the assumption that they will be wearing blinkers/visor/tongue tie and so on, they should be confident that, should the horse take part in the race, they will indeed be sporting the declared item.

Whilst the above rules and exceptions aren’t 100% bulletproof in this regard, they do in the main either entirely prohibit horses from running in the incorrect headgear, or greatly discourage connections from allowing their horses to do so, via a system of fees and penalties. And on the whole the system proves effective, as in the overwhelming majority of instances runners do line up wearing the declared aids.