Bitting The Ex-Racehorse

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Rebreaking horses off the track can be tougher than breaking a young horse. Ex-racehorses rarely know standard cues and often have no mouth. They tend to have a wide repertoire for avoiding the bit and can set their neck and jaw in a position where pressure to stop is ineffective. Developing a soft mouth and correct profile can take many months of work.

Aggression is both bred and trained into a racehorse. Some racetrack rejects lack the necessary aggression and are relatively easy to reschool. Choose a comfortable, mild snaffle that fits well in the horse’s mouth. If the horse tries to evade the bit by opening his mouth or slipping his tongue over the bit (common racehorse evasions), you may want to consider adding a flash attachment to your caveson.

We would add a standing martingale, attached to the regular caveson, if the horse attempts a straight-up-head-and-neck response, which is common in ex-racehorses. This helps convince the horse the bit can’t be avoided, while the comfortable snaffle reassures him. Once he stops avoiding the bit, the horse can be weaned from the martingale and flash.

Horses where the racetrack mentality is strong are another story. Turning the horse out so he can “unwind” will probably backfire. He’s more likely to return to work feeling more ready for action than ever. It’s better to keep him right in work, provided he has no physical problems.

Safety and control are primary with these horses (if you don’t know to use a pulley rein, learn how). Remember the harder you pull on the reins in the normal fashion to stop, the faster the racehorse may go as racehorses learn to run toward the bit. And, if you’re working with an ex-racehorse, you should also already know how to use your body weight to help control the horse.

For these more naturally aggressive ex-racehorses, we want a bit that gives us a combination of weight and leverage that will direct the horse’s nose down where it belongs, relaxing the lower jaw. A well-fitted pelham is a great place to start, giving the rider many options for letting up on the pressure as the horse becomes more cooperative. A pelham with a port may be advisable for some horses. You want the horse’s tongue to lie comfortably under the bit.

We’d use double reins rather than an adapter on the pelham, as this allows the rider to gradually refocus the horse’s attention to the corners of the mouth by lessening curb-rein use. Once he is going quietly with little-to-no curb rein, you can work back to a snaffle.

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