Why is the height of horses measured in hands?

The hand is an ancient, nay archaic, unit of length, which can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. As far as Britain is concerned, the hand was standardised to four inches – that is, the approximately breadth of a man’s hand, including the thumb – by King Henry VIII in 1514.

Nowadays, most European countries measure the height of horses in metres and centimetres but, curiously, Britain and Ireland still do so in hands, despite the hand being obsolete for any other purpose. The height of a horse from the ground to the tallest point on the body, a section of the spinal column above and just behind the shoulders, known as the ‘withers’.

The average height of a thoroughbred racehorse is sixteen hands and one inch at the withers, which is usually written as ’16.1hh’; note that while hands are expressed decimally, they are base four units, so a horse measuring 66”, or 5’6”, would be described as ’16.2hh’, not ’16.5hh’.

What are blinkers?

In horse racing, blinkers refers to cowls, or cups – typically made from fabric, leather or plastic and attached to a garment that fits over the head – that are placed next to the eyes of a horse to restrict its field of vision. Blinkers come in several different varieties, ranging from so-called ‘cheaters’, which barely restrict any vision at all, to ‘full cup’ blinkers, which are highly restrictive.

Horses are naturally ‘prey’ animals and, as such, are blessed with a 275°, panoramic view of the world. They also have small blind spots, directly in front and directly behind, so the purpose of blinkers is allow forward vision, but to deny rear and, in some cases, side vision, all or in part. The application of blinkers forces horse to concentrate on forward vision, so that they are less likely to be distracted or upset by anything elsewhere in their natural field of vision.

What is a martingale?

A martingale is piece of equipment, or tack, used in a variety of equestrian disciplines, to prevent a horse from throwing its head in the air. In so doing, it protects the rider from being hit in the face and prevents the horse from lifting its head beyond the angle at which it can be safely controlled. The two most popular types of martingale are known as a ‘standing martingale’ and a ‘running martingale’.

The standing martingale is effectively a strap that attaches a cavesson or flash nose band at one end to the girth or breastplate at the other. It works by putting pressure on the nose. A standing martingale is, however, more restrictive and potentially more dangerous than a running martingale and is forbidden in the cross-country phase of eventing competitions.

A running martingale consists of a chest strap, which passes between the front legs and attaches to the girth, before splitting into two. At the end of each strap is a ring, through which the reins pass, and the split strap is held in position by an adjustable neck strap. The running martingale works by applying downward pressure on the mouth, rather than the nose, and is popular for jumping or riding cross-country. However, it must be used in conjunction with rein stops, which prevent the rings of the martingale from becoming entangled with the bit or reins.

Confusingly, Martingale, with a capital ‘M’, is also the name of a theoretically perfect, but practically fatally flawed – and, in fact, downright dangerous – betting ‘system’. Martingale is a negative progression system for games of chance with a nominally 50% chance of winning or losing, such as betting on red or black, or odd or even, in roulette. The idea is that you start each cycle by betting a single unit stake, bet a single unit stake every time you win and double your stake every time you lose. Theoretically, every time you win, you win enough to cover your losses and make a profit of a single unit stake.

However, Martingale perpetuates the common gamblers’ fallacy that a succession of, say, red numbers on a roulette wheel means that a black number is more likely to occur. Of course, each spin of a roulette wheel is independent, so a black number is no more likely to occur on, say, the tenth spin than it is on the first, regardless of what has happened in between. If you had an infinite bankroll and a bookmaker or casino with an infinite payout, Martingale would be perfect but, in the real world, has no merit whatsoever. Even a losing run of six bets leaves you with the prospect of betting 64 times your original unit stake to make a profit of just one unit, still with no guarantee of success, so avoid Martingale like the plague.

What is Weight-for-Age?

Weight-for-Age (WFA) is a weight allowance given to younger horses, usually three-year-olds, to compensate for their lack of physical maturity and allow them to compete with older, mature horses on equal terms, at least in theory. The so-called Weight-for-Age Scale was first formalised by Admiral Henry John Rous, Jockey Club Steward, in the mid-nineteenth century and, although it has been revised several times over the years, the underlying principle remains the same. The modern Weight-for-Age Scale is a table that lays down, fortnight by fortnight, how much weight horses of different ages should receive from their elders, over different distances, until they reach maturity at the age of four years. The weight allowance decreases, in linear fashion, as the year progresses, and is based on the development of the theoretical ‘average’ horse.


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