Ride & Guide - which bits work best and what to use when
By Annie Lambert
It is a daily challenge for horsemen to put together bit and equipment combinations that draw out the maximum prowess of their trainees.
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 programme. A lot of that reasoning is chalked up to trial and error experiences.
Some bits are legal for training and racing while others are not allowed in the afternoons. The most recognisable 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.”
ABOVE: One of the most used snaffles is the D bit, while the Houghton (R) is reserved for horses difficult to keep straight
“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.”
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.
British born Neil Drysdale, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, 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 accuse 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.”