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Why Do Race Horses Wear Masks and Other Gear?

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Women dress up and wear fancy hats to the race tracks to be different and feel good, especially for the Kentucky Derby. But have you wondered why some racehorses wear a mask? I have, so I decided to research why horses wear masks and other gear during a race.

Racehorses wear masks called “Blinkers” or “Blinders” to help a horse maintain its focus during a race. The basic equipment worn by all horses on race day is a saddle, bridle, bit, and shoes; however, horses may require more equipment such as leg wraps, bell boots, and shadow rolls.

Racehorses wear some very unusual items, and some even make the horse look menacing, but each piece has a purpose, to help him run faster. Let’s look at some of this equipment in greater detail and learn about its functions.

Picture of a horse wearing a mask with blinkers.

What Do Horses Wear on Their Head During a Race?

The first noticeable item a racehorse may be wearing is a colorful mask. The mask may display the horse owner’s colors and help identify the horse when he is turning for the home stretch in a race, but it also has a practical purpose. The mask has built-in blinders or blinkers.

Horse racing masks, blinders, and blinkers?

The masks racehorses wear on their heads are actually housing to hold the blinders in place. Blinders and blinkers are interchangeable words used to describe the device worn on a horse’s head to help keep his mind on the race.

If a horse has a habit of looking around while running, he loses speed. They can be distracted by other horses, people, and even birds. Blinkers will help him stop looking around and remain focused on his race.

Blinkers are made of nylon and fit over a horse’s head with plastic eyecups attached. They come in various shapes and sizes and are often customized by the trainer. Some of the common styles are:

  • Standard Blinders are a 2/3 cup with a hole. This blinder restricts vision but still allows the horse to see approaching horses closing in on him during the race through the hole in the side. It is the most commonly used style of the blinder.
  • Full Cup Blinder– This is the most restricted blinder. It is common to have the full blinker on one side of the mask. Placing a full cup on a horse occurs is necessary for horses with a tendency to veer to the outside of a track when racing. To prevent the drift outside, a full cup blinder is worn on the outside eye of the mask.
  • French Cup is not really a cup because the blinder extends straight out from the mask. The French cup will block the view of the horse from seeing what the jockey is doing. A lot of the time horses that need a French cup will anticipate the jockey’s whip and lose focus during a race.
  • Mask with no blinders can be used to help calm a horse or to help dampen noise. Some people refer to a mask with no blinkers as a batman mask.
  • Every horse is different and may need a variation of a style of the blinders listed above. If this is the case trainer will often customize a set of blinkers for specific nuance a horse is displaying. Since the cups are made of plastic, the trainer will trim the cup with a knife or pair of scissors. (Click this link to check prices on Blinker Hoods, at Amazon.

Racehorses wear shadow rolls.

Along with blinkers, a horse may wear a shadow roll. Shadow rolls are commonly worn by horses that tend to run with their heads held high. A shadow roll is usually made of sheepskin and attaches to the noseband.

It has multiple purposes, it assists in keeping the horse focused on the race and not seeing shadows on the ground, and it also helps him keep his head low to see over the roll.

Keeping his head low, in turn, leads to a horse lengthening his neck and extending his head further forward, and running faster.

Bits used in horse racing

Bits are metal bars placed in the mouth of a horse. The bits are used for controlling a horse by a jockey through the use of reins. The reins are long straps attached to the bits. The reins connect to the bit on the outside of the horse’s mouth.

There are many different styles of bits used in horseracing. To determine which bit to use on a particular horse is by trial and error during its training exercise. Trainers use a severe bit if a horse is hard to control.

The common problem a horse has is drifting out on the track. The harshness of the bit allows the jockey to keep the horse in the correct path during the race.

Note that a rider weighs less than 120 lbs, and he must steer a horse weighing over 1000 lbs. If the jockey can’t control his horse, not only will he likely lose the race, he could create a dangerous situation on the track for other horses and their jockeys.

The most common types of bits used in horse racing are a D-bit and a ring bit. Both bits are snaffles, meaning the mouthpiece comprises two segments of metal joined in the center.

The D-bit is most comfortable 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. The egg bit is the next most common racing bit. Click for prices from Amazon on Dee Double Jointed Bit )

Picture of a race horse wearing a mask with blinkers

Other Necessary Horse Racing Equipment;

Bridles

Bridles are the headgear of the horse used for direction. It includes the headstall reins and bits. The headstall is attached to the bit, which fits into a horse’s mouth. The reins attach to the bit and are used to steer a horse.

Martingales in horseracing

A martingale is a strap that runs from the bridle to the girth, which attaches the saddle to the horse. It is used to keep a horse’s head from rising too high and striking the rider. There are many varieties of martingales.

Racehorse tongue ties

A tongue-tie is a strap holding the tongue down to the lower mouth of the horse. Tying a horse’s tongue is used to prevent the tongue from getting in the way of the bit and prevent airway obstruction while running. The tongue is not tied tight and can still be moved. It does not cause any distress.

Ear Muffs

Horses, like dogs, have a greater range of hearing than humans. Because of this, they can become nervous with all the sounds they are exposed to at a race track.

To help calm the horse, earmuffs or plugs are used. Some people will use ordinary cotton balls or foam inserted in their horses’ ears to help decrease noise exposure.

What do Racehorses Wear on their Legs During a Race?

Racehorses are known for their speed, grace, and power. But what many people don’t realize is that these animals are also very vulnerable to injury. That’s why racehorse owners take special care to protect their horses’ legs during a race.

The most common type of legwear for racehorses is a set of protective wraps, in addition, many racehorses wear special shoes that are designed to grip the track and provide extra traction.

By taking these precautions, racehorse owners can help ensure that their horses have a safe and successful race.

STORMER Amazon's Choice Horse Polo Leg Wraps Soft Fleece Leg Bandage Set of 4( Red)

Racehorses may wear leg wraps during a race.

Most racehorses wear nothing at all on their legs during a race. However, if you see the legs of a racehorse wrapped as they head to the gates, it is either for support or protection. (Horse Leg Wraps on Amazon leg wraps)

Picture of a race horse with rear leg wraps.

The wraps used on racehorse legs usually are three to six inches wide and made of elastic. A horse’s legs will always be wrapped in pairs, either the front legs, hind legs, or all legs. When the horse’s legs are covered for select races, care must be taken.

The legs must be clean and dry, and the wraps applied so the pressure from the wrap is disbursed evenly. Infection can result from a failure to properly clean and dry the legs before applying the cover on the horse’s legs.

Wraps misapplied can also create a dangerous condition for the horses and riders in the race. If wraps unravel in a race, it could cause another one of the runners in the race to trip. Proper care when applying the wraps is paramount.

The most common leg wrap is called “Rundown bandages” they are used to protect the lower hind legs from developing abrasions when racing on a deep surface.

The horses are running extremely fast, and their fetlock is sinking and rising at high speeds in the dirt, causing friction, which leads to abrasions of the lower back limbs.

This type of abrasion is called a rundown. If the racing surface is deep, every horse in the race may be wearing rundown bandages. Rundown bandages involve placing a pad under the fetlock joint and wrapping the leg and pad with Vet Wrap, a stretchy, self-adherent bandage.

If the rundown bandage is applied correctly, it will prevent rundown abrasions. Hind leg bandages are not uncommon on some tracks. However, it is unusual to see a racehorse running in front wraps.

It is much more likely for a horse to sustain a rundown injury to his hind legs than his front legs. So it raises a question when a racehorse has wraps on his forelimbs.

It could be the trainer is wrapping the front legs to give additional support to the tendons. Either because the horse is coming off an injury or has a slight injury, and he hopes the wrap will prevent further damage.

However, it is almost universally accepted that wrapping a horse’s legs will not prevent a bow if it already has a partial tear. Wraps should not be used if the horse has an injury, has medication on his legs, or the wraps don’t fit properly.

Front rundown bandages could be used in cases where the horse has a skin sensitivity, minor lesion, or another issue that dictates the trainer’s decision to use wraps of the front.

However, front leg wraps have traditionally been avoided because of the belief that they slow a horse by restricting its flexion of the front fetlock joints, which in turn impedes speed.

This has been debunked. If the front leg wraps are correctly applied, and advanced wrapping materials are used, then flexion nor a horse’s speed should be affected.

As stated earlier, it is rare to see a healthy horse racing in front leg wraps. There is only one reason I can think of when front leg wraps can be helpful to a healthy horse during a race.

That would be if you want to run your horse in a claiming race and you are trying to prevent him from being claimed. Possible suitors would be wary of claiming any horse with front leg wraps. (See my article on claiming races here)

Picture of a race horse with saddle and number

What Does a Racehorse Wear on His Back During a Race?

Of course, we all know a racehorse has a saddle, but what makes a racing saddle unique? Did you know jockeys provide their own saddles? They do, and many jockeys have multiple saddles for the different weights they can ride. These saddles weigh from 2 lbs. to 10 lbs.

The jockeys that weigh less will have a larger saddle, while jockeys that weigh more will have a lighter saddle. These jockeys may use different saddles throughout the races, depending on their allowed weight.

If a jockey and the equipment don’t reach the required weight, weighted saddle pads will be added. The saddles will also have stirrups made of various materials; some are aluminum, others may be carbon fiber, and others titanium.

The stirrup leathers are also shorter than those on a regular saddle, making the jockey more compact during the race and easier for the horse to run. But before the saddle goes on the horse, we have a couple of things to do.

The saddle cloth is the first thing placed on a horse’s back when he is being tacked up for a race. It is a cotton cloth, and it will normally have the horse’s program number and corresponding colors. This allows easier tracking of the horses during the race, both for the announcer and the fans.

The cloth serves other purposes besides identification, and it helps absorb sweat, holds the saddle pad in place, and provides a sanitary layer between the horse’s back and the saddle blanket.

The saddle pad is usually made of felt, sheepskin, or foam rubber, and it is used as a base for the saddle. It will provide another layer of protection between the horse’s back and the saddle.

Now the horse is ready for the saddle. The jockeys’ valet will bring the saddle to the paddock and assist the trainer in securing it to the horse. A horse racing saddle is tiny, weighing less than two pounds.

They are not very strong and do not provide good protection for the horses’ backs. They are used for racing exclusively. Too much time riding a horse with a racing saddle could result in tissue damage to his spine.

Also, racing saddles provide very little security for the rider. The jockey has to maintain his weight with the stirrups, which are hiked up. If the stirrups fail during a race, it would be catastrophic for him. The saddle doesn’t provide a safe place for him to maintain his position on the back of the horse.

Once the saddle has been placed on the horse, it will need to be secured with the girth strap. The girth strap is usually made of leather that attaches to both sides of a saddle.

It runs from one side of the horse under his barrel to the opposite side. But before the girth strap is secured to the saddle, it is placed through the martingale strap and then secured with a buckle.

Picture of a dapple gray horse

Do Racehorses Wear Shoes in a Race?

Yes, virtually every racehorse wears shoes during their race. Horse racing shoes are called plates in racehorse vernacular. Most are made of aluminum and must meet the track regulations for approval.

Different surfaces will allow for different shoes. The type of horseshoe and the proper fit of the shoe can make or lose a race. Farriers are an integral part of the racehorse team.

  • Front Regular Toe Aluminum Racing Plates. This is the most popular racing shoe and is good on different types of surfaces.
  • Front Low Toe Aluminum Racing Plates. This shoe is designed for use on hard tracks. It provides traction without putting too much strain on the tendons and ligaments. 
  • Level Grip or Outer Rim Aluminum Racing Plates. This shoe is used for both turf and dirt tracks and can be used for both front and hind feet. Gives an excellent grip and balance.
  • Front Inner Rim Aluminum Racing Plates. This shoe is used on a sandy track, the inside rim provides good traction and stability.
  • Wedge Aluminum Racing Plates. This shoe allows the hoof to roll over faster and reduces tendon and muscle strain. It is used on horses that have a problem with their heel. (Click here to read an article with more details about horseshoes)

Equipment decisions must be cleared with the Paddock Judge before the race. If you intend to run your horse with Blinkers, you have to notify the track steward before issuing the overnights.

FAQS

Why do racehorses have such weird names?

Racehorses often end up with weird names because of the stringent naming rules set by the Jockey Club. They also limit using other horse names and the names of individuals.
Because of these rules, owners have to get creative when choosing a name for their horse. You can learn more about racehorse names in this article: Why are Racehorse Names so Weird? 15 Funny Examples!

Why is extra weight added to some racehorses?

For each race, the horses are assigned a minimum amount of weight they have to carry. If the jockey and his tacks’ combined weight is less than the assigned weight then extra weight is added to the horse.
You can read more about how the amount of weight is determined, added, and other tidbits here: Some Horses Carry Extra Weights in a Race. Do You Know Why?