Thoroughbreds and their Hanging Tongues

Yesterday I discovered a small discussion on the Chronicle of the Horse forums about an OTTB who sticks his tongue out. I cross-posted onto my Facebook page, and that became a huge discussion. The problem is that dressage judges commonly mark down horses with their tongues out as “an evasion of the bit.”

Now, since nearly all Thoroughbreds are breezed and raced with tongue ties – and some tough customers go out with a tongue tie all the time – there is going to be a certain percentage of the population who sustain some sort of nerve damage. The tongue gets tied too tightly, or for too long, or is tied out of the mouth (it shouldn’t necessarily protrude four inches and be flapping all over the place, despite what you see on televised races) and, eventually, it is damaged.

Hate the game, not the tongue - Bon Appeal, four months after her last race. Tongue out means she's chill.

Exhibit A is Bon Appeal, of course, who lets you know when she’s relaxed by not bothering to hold her tongue in. Jaw tight and upset? Tongue in mouth. Jaw soft and relaxed? Tongue out, dry to the touch, bouncing around.

How do I know there is nerve damage? Well, several very good vets told me. Also, you can play with her tongue and she won’t even notice.. a friend once poked her for several minutes before she finally got her attention with a few drops of coffee. I guess her taste buds still work!

Exhibit B is the Google search for “Thoroughbreds tongue hanging out” which brings up question after question to the effect of “Why does my Thoroughbred stick out his tongue?” It’s not an isolated incident. Off-track Thoroughbreds let their tongues hang out. You’re going to see it more and more.

When it comes to treating this as an “evasion of the bit,” I get a bit peeved. I’m of the general opinion that a horse with a lolling tongue is visibly different from a horse who has his tongue out, wiggling it around, trying to evade the bit, and that a judge ought to be able to discern between the two.

On the other hand, if the horse’s tongue is in motion and he is fussing with it, it might not be the tongue tie. I also found an interesting post on Ultimate Dressage, about a horse who was using his tongue actively to get away from the bit. The owner, after speaking very caustically of the trainers who recommended that she crank his mouth shut and force him to stop, had his mouth examined in depth and found:

My horse has bone spurs on the bars of his mouth, from severe handling and heavy handed training. This is the reason for the tongue over the bit, sticking out the side of his mouth, protecting his bars, fussing, pain going on the bit, bolting from the pain, etc. Not “avoiding work”. Geez!

I had my vet and equine dentists check the bit fit in my horses mouth. To quote my vet “Somebody beat the hell out of his mouth”. They told me to get the smallest diameter bit I could find to make my horse as comfortable as possible, putting as little pressure on the bars as possible.

I wonder if this isn’t more common than we might think. Has anyone else seen a horse’s bone structure damaged by poor handling? And what do you think of the OTTB tongue lolling?

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4 Comments

Filed under Racing, Sport Horses, Stereotypes, Training Theory

4 responses to “Thoroughbreds and their Hanging Tongues

  1. Gabe hangs his tongue and he plays with the bit constantly, but not when he’s stressed…he does it when he’s relaxed and having fun. When he’s stressed or tense, the mouth is clamped tightly shut and he grinds his teeth. You can see the tension in his jaw and in his lips. I’d much rather see him hanging that ole floppy tongue or playing with the bit than going around with a tightly closed mouth! Screw the dressage judges, my horse is who he is and if they are going to count against him for being relaxed and playing around with a soft, supple, happy mouth, that’s their issue, not mine. I’m ok with it. Play away big guy!

  2. Leonora Falcon

    I used to ride a horse that would always stick his tounge out when he first arrived. I changed his bit to a small myler comfort snaffle that gave his tounge more room. I also removed all tight fitting nosebands. I also used his tounge out as a trigger to soften my contact and eventually he stopped doing it. I was a case of listening to the horse and not imposing what I thought he should put up with. However he was a case that was objecting to pressures in the mouth. I am not sure about horse’s that drop their tounge out when relaxed as I haven’t experienced it.

  3. Mary Walsh

    Did anyone just notice “Always Dreaming”‘a younger hanging tonhis right after the ( Kentucky Derby) Race? Do you think they tied it for the race? I am confused, is that painful to the horse???

    • Hi Mary! Always Dreaminf and probably every other horse in that race had a tongue tie on, so that’s why you saw his tongue. Tongue ties are carefully applied, are not painful, and are there to prevent the tongue from doing something it shouldn’t during the race – nor impede it from doing anything natural. At a guess I would say 75% of US horses race in a tongue tie because it’s just a good horsemanship practice, like wrapping the legs of horses with long pasterns whose heels might brush the track in full gallop, etc. It’s a safety precaution. It’s also fairly easy to do, which is a pretty decent indicator of whether or not it hurts the horse. If the tongue tie hurt, the second time you tried to put it on, the horse would rear up and probably flip over to get away from your hands, making it impossible to do! Horses who don’t want their heads worked with are holding all the winning cards before tranquilizer comes into play!
      Unfortunately as you can see with Bon Appeal, her tongue had some nerve damage and while we consider it was probably from a tongue tie being inexpertly placed, we can’t be sure and that side effect is rare – and doesn’t affect her! She’s a very happy field hunter today.
      Thanks for stopping by and asking about tongue ties.

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