I thought it would be a good idea to try to explain to people in layman’s terms the gear changes that you see in the Form Guide each day for a particular meeting across all 3 codes.  It’s great for a horse to have a “tail chain on” or a set of “heart bar shoes” but what in reality does that mean?

GEAR CHANGES are one of the most important parts of a Form Guide.  A set of blinkers put on a horse for the first time may make a horse a) switch on – and bolt in or b) fire it up so it pulls so badly it’s bowser is flashing long before the finish line is reached.   If a trainer or owner have been setting a horse for a plonk – it may have no form – the only saving grace to them possibly “getting time” from the stewards is saying it’s form reversal is due to the blinkers going back on or whatever.  The stewards can’t debate the point because they must authorise EVERY gear change.   A trainer can’t just turn up to race his horse, pacer or greyhound and decide he or she will shove a set of blinkers on it.   The Stewards will either authorise or disallow a gear change – up to and including acceptance time only.  They have the power to scratch a horse who is presented incorrectly ie. if a horse turns up to the races with “work shoes” on and he has not been “plated” with “race plates” and there is not time to plate it – it may be scratched.   A horse may “throw a plate” on the way to the barrier.  They may not have time to have the horse re-plated and the stewards may instruct the farrier at the barrier to remove all plates and for the horse to run with no plates or just front plates on or whatever. 

The stewards may allow a race day change of gear ie. “blinkers on first time” if they have stuffed up in their internal system.   For instance, a trainer may have steward’s approval to race a horse in blinkers for the first time but the stewards have failed to advise the various racing media outlets.  The stewards will go to great lengths to try to ensure that all interested parties – commentators, bookmakers, punters etc. all have plenty of time to acquire that information.  

DIFFERENT TYPES OF BITS

Lugging Bit – for horses that “hang” or “lug”.  Horses may “lug” or “hang” either inwards or outwards.   The normal ring bit (one ring – “O” shaped – each side of the mouth to which the bridle is attached to form the steering mechanism) is replaced by any number of  possible other bits (the most common being a butterfly bit or a bit which has a fixed metal “D” shape that fits under the jaw).  A butterfly bit is a bit in the shape of a butterfly which sits (on either side) outside the mouth to allow the rider to exert more pressure on one side of the mouth or the other to keep the horse travelling more tractably.  

Norton Bit – for horses that pull hard - to help overcome that problem.  The Norton bit has the normal 2 rings (one on each side of the mouth) with 2 mouthpieces (bits) and a nosestrap.   The reins pull on the bits causing a double scissor action within the mouth which pulls on the top of the mouth.   A horse can still get it’s tongue over this bit although it is certainly harder for that to happen than with a normal bit.  A tongue tie is often used in conjunction with a Norton bit to make sure a tongue problem is out of the equation. 

Snake Bit – a piece of rope or cord off the 2 rings (one each side of the mouth) that is placed around the bottom jaw and over the tongue.  This bit is not allowed by racing authorities in some states.   It is more commonly used in pacers.  

Snaffle Bit – a normal type of broken mouth bit having two metallic pieces joining at the centre.  The most common type of bit used across all disciplines within the equine world.

Pacifiers – a mesh invention put over a horse’s eyes used to try to help excitable horses relax or “pacify” them.  The closely knit mesh ensures the horse has to concentrate just to be able to see.  The stewards may direct them to be removed if muddy conditions apply to negate the possibility of restricted vision.  

Crossover Nose Band – a device for horses that open their mouth in races and “pull”.  A crossover nose band has 2 straps that cross over the front of the nose to from an X.  The bottom strap does up under the chin – the other one is half way down the nasal bone.  The crossover nose band stops the horse from opening its mouth. 

Glue on Shoes  - for horses with very bad feet from a multiplicity of problems.  Some horses have very thin walled hoofs (ie. there is no room left to put a nail in the thin wall to fit a plate) so a glue on shoe which is an aluminium plate covered in plastic has about 10 tabs on it – you put glue on the tabs and it sticks to the horse’s foot.   (I guarantee punters should NEVER back a horse racing with glue on shoes – they win very rarely.  One well known farrier told me they will “take four lengths off a horse”). 

Shockshod Shoes – for horses that have soft soles or soles that bruise from jarring.  The shockshod shoes are cased in rubber and have a polyurethane cover which sits against the hoof to help absorb the “shock” of impact.  

Tail Chain – applies to male horses only to eliminate a gelding or stallion from drawing in air through their anal cavity whilst racing which will lead to the possibility of stomach pain and sub-standard race track performance.  To eliminate this a leather strap is placed around the butt of the tail and a chain (3 to 4 inches or 7.62 to 10.16 centimetres) hangs off over where the tail joins the anus and the fact that it is rubbing that area means the anus remains closed firmly and thus no air will be entering to the stomach.   (Fillies and mares have their vagina partially sewn up in a caslick operation to eliminate them drawing in air through their vagina.)

Nose Roll – a sheepskin product placed downwards from the eyes toward the mouth to make the horse hold the carriage of its head on a better angle to the rest of its body.  

Blinkers – can be either a one eyed blinker (for either of the near or the off side) or a complete set of blinkers covering both eyes.   The idea of a set of blinkers is as the name implies to focus the horses’ attention on what is happening directly in front of it and ignore what is happening behind it.  A horse has a much greater range or sphere of vision than a human.  From a punting perspective “blinkers on” for the first time can sometimes “switch a horse on” to perform to their maximum ability.  On the other side of the equation, an extra leg and a heart and lung transplant wouldn’t improve some horses!   Greyhounds may race in a full set of blinkers or just a near or off side blinker.  Although it is not overly popular (in greyhound racing) blinkers are there to help them chase and concentrate on the “bunny”.   Blinkers are also put on some greyhounds to stop them fighting in a race.  

Winkers – a sheepskin device which attaches to the cheek straps of the bridle once again to help the horse focus it’s vision to the front, but winkers allows more side vision than a blinker.  

Tongue Tie – as the name implies a few different products are approved to allow a horse’s tongue to be tied to eliminate the possibility of a horse swallowing it’s tongue and choking down, or playing with their tongue in the run which can take their concentration away from racing.   A tongue tie may be made from women’s stocking, a leather strap or an elastic tape which have certain width and thickness guidelines established by racing authorities.  

Tongue Control – a leather device which is an extension of a nose band which goes into the horses mouth and restrains the tongue to prevent the horse from swallowing, choking down or playing with their tongue.  

Tongue Control Bit – (“W Bit”) is a separate bit made of thick wire shaped in a “W” shape which sits underneath the bit.  The raised section is in the middle of the mouth to prevent the tongue being put over the bit. 

Heart Bar Shoes/Plates and Egg Bar Shoes/Plates – are technically for the same purpose of helping horses that have internal hoof problems (like bad heels), navicular disease (which is a degenerative bone disease within the foot) etc.  Their purpose is to support the hoof by taking pressure off the heels and evenly distribute that pressure around the rest of the hoof.

Set of work shoes versus a set of racing plates – in a barrier trial you may sometimes see or read where a horse won a trial “with shoes not plates”.  It is a well known way of slowing a good horse down.  On raceday the stewards check every horse to make sure it is plated correctly.   On barrier trial days professional punters will often stand at the gate where the horses walk onto the track and mark down the horses names who are trialling in shoes (not plates).  It is regarded in the industry that the following rule of old time trainers has stood the test of time.  The rule says that 1 ounce (28 grams) in a horses foot (with a heavier shoe) is equivalent to 1 pound (1/2 a kilo) on it’s back, so it is regarded that a set of shoes on a horse as opposed to a set of plates will slow a horse down over 1000 metres by 6 lengths (because a set of shoes weigh so much more than a set of aluminium plates).  

Barrier Blanket – a recent addition in Australian racing to help load bad or troublesome horses into the barrier.  The barrier blanket weighs about 40 kilograms and is placed over the horse as it if were being rugged and stabled for the night.  Many horses respond positively to it and are much calmer – which benefits everyone (barrier attendants, starter, other jockeys and other runners).   The barrier blanket remains on the horse until he/she jumps from the barrier stalls.  The barrier blanket gets tied to the back of the stalls when the horse is loaded and remains in the barrier as the horse jumps.   This wonderful invention is attributed to “The Horse Whisperer” – Monty Roberts.

Near Side/Off Side   All riders only mount a horse from one side - the “near side”.  If you stand behind a horse and look towards it’s head the left hand side is the “near” side and the right hand side is the “off” side.  

Bandages On/Off – straight forward as the name implies - a horse with bandages - but some top horses race every start in bandages so you really have to know what the trainer is putting them on for and that doesn’t appear in the gear changes – merely the fact that “bandages” are “on” or “off”.   

Cheekers – made of rubber and go from the top of the bridle to either side of the nose onto the bit to keep the bit up in the roof of the mouth. 

SPECIFIC HARNESS RACING GEAR CHANGES

Whilst many types of “bits”, “blinkers” and “tongue ties” are common for both thoroughbred and harness racing use, there are some commonly used harness racing gear changes that bear special explanation.  These appear at the end of the undermentioned list.  

The harness racing authorities across Australia have a specific “gear change” form which the trainer must forward to them at least 48 hours prior to the nomination of any horse – for a race or trial.   The form contains 100 possibilities to be ticked ie. 95 specific gear changes and 5 generalised ones.  

In number order of the harness racing authorities check list they read:-

1)                  Open Bridle

2)                  Bit – Headcheck

3)                  Bit – Snaffle

4)                  Bit – Straight

5)                  Bit – Rubber

6)                  Bit – Pulling

7)                  Bit – Lugging

8)                  Bit – Extension

9)                  Bit – Slipmouth

10)              Bit – Lip – Cord/Strap

11)              Bit – Other

12)              Tongue tie

13)              Tongue tie – W Bit

14)              Blinkers – Dolly Varden

15)              Blinkers – Block (eye)

16)              Blinkers – European

17)              Blinkers – Telescopic

18)              Blinkers – Hood

19)              Blinkers – Pelling Pacifiers

20)              Blinkers – Mesh goggles

21)              Blinkers – Murphy Blind (Near Side)

22)              Blinkers – Murphy Blind (Off Side)

23)              Blinkers – Spring Loaded

24)              Shadow Roll

25)              Headcheck – None

26)              Headcheck – Fixed

27)              Headcheck – Running

28)              Headcheck – Release Pin

29)              Undercheck

30)              Chin Rest

31)              Nose Band – Conventional

32)              Nose Band – Drop

33)              Nose Band – Figure 8

34)              Nose Veil

35)              Lugging Pole – Near Side

36)              Lugging Pole – Off Side

37)              Neck Strap

38)              Burr Pole – Near Side

39)              Burr Pole – Off Side

40)              Burr Bit – Near Side

41)              Burr Bit – Off Side

42)              Burr Neckstrap – Near Side

43)              Burr Neckstrap – Off Side

44)              Burr Rein – Near Side

45)              Burr Rein – Off Side

46)              Cheekers – Brush

47)              Cheekers – Other

48)              Reins – Pulling

49)              Reins – Rings

50)              Reins – Bar

51)              Deafeners – Fixed

52)              Deafeners – Hood

53)              Deafeners – Removable

54)              Deafeners – Plugs

55)              Boots – Bell

56)              Boots – Knee

57)              Boots – Shin/Tendon

58)              Boots – Scalping

59)              Boots – Bumper

60)              Boots – Pastern

61)              Boots – Wrap Around

62)              Bandages

63)              Hopples – Round

64)              Hopples – Flat

65)              Hopples – Half

66)              Bloomers – Leather

67)              Bloomers – Sheepskin

68)              Hopples – Length

69)              Hopple Shorteners – Elastic

70)              Hopple Shorteners Cord – Pin

71)              Spreaders – Conventional

72)              Spreaders – Elastic

73)              Spreaders – Menzel

74)              Spreaders – Guiders

75)              Spreaders – Go Straights

76)              Shoes – None

77)              Shoes – Front

78)              Shoes – Hind

79)              Shoes – Pads

80)              Shoes – Special

81)              Toe Weights

82)              Shaft Extension

83)              Shaft Spreaders

84)              False Shaft – Near Side

85)              False Shaft – Off Side

86)              Gaiting Strap – Near Side

87)              Gaiting Strap – Off Side

88)              Bucking Strap

89)              Kicking Strap

90)              Tail Tie

91)              Muzzle

92)              Stallion Support

93)              Anti Choking Device

94)              Wind Sucking Device

95)              Other – Please Specify

The other 5 generalised form enquiries relate to the trainer being required to advise the Authority if:-

(a)   the horse has been gelded and the date of the operation

(b)   if the horse has died and the date of same

(c)   if the horse has had it’s gait converted from a trotter to a pacer or vice versa

(d)   if a previously hoppled horse is to race unhoppled and

(e)   the advising of any other specific medical or surgical procedure

MORE DETAILED EXPLANATION OF COMMON HARNESS RACING GEAR CHANGES

Hopples – can be any of a) round b) flat or c) half.  Round and flat hopples are self explanatory – the leather is either round or flat.  Some pacers race much better in say a flat hopple as opposed to a round hopple or vice versa.  The half hopple is used on trotters only (not pacers) and on their front legs only and are attached to a strap running straight back to the sulky.   As an educated estimate 20% to 30% of trotters that race across Australia would wear half hopples.

Spreaders – are a round rubber elastic device which go underneath the shoulder to spread the horses front legs to stop the horse from hitting its knees.

Boots – all the different types of boots ie. pastern, shin/tendon, knee etc. all are fitted to those specific parts of the leg so as to give protection to those areas.

Lugging Pole – a round pole - the outer section is a hollow piece of fibreglass which contains an inner solid round piece of fibreglass (that slides in and out) and hooks onto the saddle at one end and onto the side of the head on the headcollar at the other end.  It may go on either the near side or the off side depending which side the horse lugs.

Blinkers – blockeye blinkers only allow a horse to see forward (no side or back vision) whereas Dolly Varden blinkers allow a horse to see forward and out to the side – but not backwards.

Murphy Blind – is a device which looks like a home venetian blind and covers about 95% of the horse’s eye vision on the side to which it is attached (near or off).  It is used to restrict vision further than the approximately 75% that a “blockeye blinker” will cover.

Deafeners – can be made of many things but are generally best described as a device to fit in both ears made of foam inside a furry material which helps keep the audible volume of various sounds around the race track down to a minimum so as to keep the horse more settled.   The defeaners are hooked by a cord to where the driver can lean forward and pull the cord (thus releasing the deafeners) at any point in the race the driver wishes to.  Normally the driver will release them in the last lap at say the 400 metre mark or wherever the driver wants the horse to sprint from.

Hopple shorteners – are controlled by the driver and he/she may shorten the early length of stride the horse may take in the first strides from a standing start or mobile start to help eliminate the possibility of the horse going into a full stretch gallop and losing all chance.  When the driver is content that their horse is balanced in it’s gait he/she releases the “hopple shorteners” and the horse can take it’s registered length of stride for the remainder of the race.

Hopple Length – each pacer who races in hopples (they may race unhopppled) has a registered hopple length.  A horse must race in that exact length hopple every start.  A trainer may apply to the stewards to either increase or decrease the hopple length.  Many trainers experiment with hopple length as if they can let the hopples out say 3 inches (7.62 centimetres) obviously the horse can take a bigger stride to help it cover a given distance quicker.   There are some great harness racing stories about hopple length and horses.   I wrote a story recently of how Queensland champion pacer Lucky Creed raced in the wrong hopple size one day at the Queensland non TAB Rocklea track and got beaten before winning something like his next 22 starts in a row.  Subsequently, Ipswich pacing legend Jack Haggarty (well known as the starter for decades at tracks like Tweed Heads) has told the story of how he went to a Sydney auction and bought a tried pacer called Special Times.  The following lot Jack Haggarty described as a mare who was “beautiful but no one put a bid on her”.  The bloke who owned her gave her to Haggarty for no money on the basis that if she was any good Haggarty “was to send him one hundred pounds”.  Jack bought her back to Queensland and she “performed poorly”.  One day he put a different set of hopples on her and changed their length and she won by 17 lengths.  Racing as Fairy Armagh she ended up winning 85 races and set 12 records around Queensland and ran 2 records in Sydney including running a mile rate of 1.57.5 in 1963 – Jack Haggarty told the Queensland Times newspaper (who did a feature story on him recently due to his ill health).  He also told the journalist that he “sent the bloke the hundred quid”.

Maybe Jack’s story best typifies why a simple “gear change” can turn an ordinary racetrack performer into an elite athlete.