From the Horse’s Mouth... Actually the Horse’s Tongue

Sun, 05/30/2021 - 18:16
Health Care
A horse's tongue :: Photo © Vikki Fowler

-- by Vikki Fowler, Veterinary equine dentist

After my recent post regarding fitting a bit to the individual horses mouth, it has become clear that horse riders don’t understand the horse’s tongue. At all. The horse’s tongue is the key to everything. It can tell you what a horse is feeling and thinking, it can tell you how true a horse’s carriage is or can reveal tension that is limiting their performance.

The Tongue Connects Back to the Hind Legs

The horse’s tongue is a huge bunch of muscle, like way bigger than you think. The last tooth is about level with the horse’s eye, and the tongue goes even further back than that. Just behind the bit, the tongue doubles in height to completely fill the mouth. The tongue connects, via a long line of interconnected muscles, all the way back to the hind legs. What happens with the horse’s tongue DIRECTLY affects the horse’s ability to use his hind legs.

Yet many many riders consider the tongue a nuisance and tie it away. Using drop nosebands, flashes, grackles, micklems, “anatomical” nosebands, cranks etc. Some use spoon bits (remember the tongue doubles in height behind the bit), while others actually tie the tongue down! You are missing a vital source of information that the horse is eager to give!

Tongue out to reduce pressure in the mouth
Why does a horse stick its tongue out? It is NOT bad manners and it is not a bit evasion, it’s a cry for help. When the tongue is in the mouth, it is short and fat. Any sharp points on the teeth can cause pain, and pressure from the bit is amplified. The horse’s immediate reaction is to stick their tongue out. This makes the tongue long and thin, reducing the pressure from the bit and any sharp teeth. If this is prevented using nosebands, even loose ones (if it’s below the level of the bit, it’s a problem, loose or not, consider leverage distance to the temparomandibular joint) then the horse will resort to pulling their tongue back by tensing it or even putting the tongue over the bit. A drop noseband will not stop this happening, you just can’t see it happening anymore.

When the tongue is pulled back, it causes tension all the way down the neck, along the back and into the hind legs. If the tongue is over the bit, the bit lies directly on the bars. The bars are knife-edge-sharp bone with a very thin layer of gum over the top. When the bit directly contacts the bars it is extremely painful and horses will react very strongly, sometimes rearing or ditching the rider. This is not naughty behaviour, it is pain. The horse is creating pain trying to avoid pain, they can’t win and they can’t vocalise this. No matter how hard they try.

Tongue Tension

Ill fitting bits, hard pulling by rider
Tension in the tongue isn’t only caused by poorly managed teeth and poorly fitted bits however. The outline a horse is worked in also affects the tongue’s tension. Tuck your chin up and in, feel how large your tongue feels. Hold it there for a while and the back of your tongue will begin to ache. Now open your mouth and stick your tongue out. Sure it’s not comfortable, but it’s a relief from that tension. This happens in the horse too, but on a much larger scale. Anything that makes the horse carry itself like this (over bent, nose behind the vertical) will cause tongue issues. Whether that be poor riding, back pain or subtle hind limb lameness. This reaction is not limited to a bit, an overbent horse in a bitless bridle will still have a restricted tongue as soon as the head moves behind the vertical. Looking at it the other way around, most have heard of bridle lameness, this is when the tension in the tongue actually causes a visible lameness.

There is a reason why having the tongue out is seen as a bad thing in dressage, and it’s not because it’s bad manners. It’s because it highlights tension and poor training. The lazy solution seems to be, tie the mouth shut. Personally I believe all nosebands below the bit should be banned for dressage and 2 fingers should comfortably be placed under the bridge of the nose of a cavesson. That would sort the wheat from the chaff.

Check List

Tongue out
To summarise, make sure your horse’s teeth have been checked by a qualified Equine Dental Technician or dental trained vet, make sure your bit fits the anatomy of your individual horse, ride with a loose noseband that does not sit below the bit, make sure your horse is working correctly over their top line, truly engaged and swinging over their backs. Then your horse will not feel the need to stick their tongues out.

As a side note, the tongue is a symptom and not a problem in itself. Do not allow anyone to mess with your horse’s tongue. The trend of releasing the Hyoid apparatus using the tongue is not only dangerous but a load of rubbish. Do not fall for it.

Always remember, dentistry is basic care NOT a luxury.

-- Text by Vikki Fowler - Photos © Fowler - Astrid Appels

Related Links
Noseband Special: Part I: The History of the Noseband
Noseband Special: Part II: The Purpose of the Noseband
Noseband Special: Part III: Riders and Trainers on Their Choice in Noseband
Noseband Special: Part IV: The Thicker, the Wider, the Better?
On the Ignorance of Noseband Tightness and Vague FEI Noseband Rules
The Double Bridle: An Instrument of Understanding