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Racehorse Tongues Are Often Tied, Do You Know Why?

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Racehorses have a lot of equipment they wear during a race. One item is a strap tied to a horse’s tongue and secured under its lower jaw. Why are racehorses’ tongues tied?

Racehorses’ tongues are tied for two reasons, 1) to prevent the horse’s tongue from getting over the bit, and 2) to avoid breathing interference caused by the displacement of the soft palate.

Various materials are used to tie a horse’s tongue, from a strip of cloth to an elastic band. Tying a horse’s tongue for racing has been practiced for generations.

Picture of a horse with its tongue tied.
By dee.lite

What does a Tongue Strap Do?

Next time you’re at the horse track pay attention to the horse’s mouths and look for a strap secured under their chin, that’s the tongue tie. It typically doesn’t hurt a horse but does provide a purpose.

A tongue strap secures a horse’s tongue, so it doesn’t move during a race. A horse must have the capability to pull in as much oxygen as possible, and not be allowed to move his tongue over the bit.

What happens when a horse gets its tongue over the bit?

Tongue ties are used to keep a horse’s tongue from getting over the bit. But why is it important to prevent a horse’s tongue from getting over the bit?

When a horse puts its tongue over the bit, the rider loses a substantial amount of control over the horse. A jockey that loses control of the horse is not only likely to lose their race, but it also creates a dangerous condition on the track.

Bits are used to control a horse’s movements through pressure to various parts of a horse’s mouth, including its tongue. Bits put pressure on a horse’s tongue and can be uncomfortable.

The natural reaction of a horse is to try to relieve the pressure by making adjustments. To move the bit, a horse will throw its head back, open and close its mouth, and pull its tongue in and out of its mouth. These evasive actions often result in the horse’s tongue coming over the bit.

In non-racing horses, the behavior can be addressed with different training methods and adjustments to the bits. Port bits and tongue ports are designed to prevent a horse’s tongue from moving over the bit.

Tongue ports attach to the center mouthpiece of a bit, and the flap lays on top of the horse’s tongue. You can also ride with a hackamore or bitless bridle if a bit is causing damage to your horse’s tongue.

Picture of racehorses.

How does tying the tongue prevent breathing problems in a horse?

Besides preventing a horse’s tongue from getting over the bit and losing control of the horse, a tongue tie also makes it easier for a horse to breathe better when racing.

Tongue ties keep airways open for horses with soft palates. During a race a soft palate can obstruct horses breathing, the tongue tie helps prevent this blockage and allows the horse to breathe freely.

Although control of a running horse is essential, the most critical reason for tying a horse’s tongue is to prevent the restriction of airflow. Horses have a soft palate inside the upper portion of their mouth.

The soft palate functions as a seal to keep the entrance of the horse’s esophagus separated from the access to its windpipe. During exertion, the palate loosens and obstructs the horses’ airway.

The medical term for this condition is the “dorsal displacement of the soft palate(DDSP). DDSP presents in horses because the soft palate moves upward and rests above the epiglottis and obstructs airflow.

In some instances, tongue ties are effective in preventing DDSP from occurring. The ties do not have any adverse effect on breathing, nor do horses seem to mind the tongue restraint.

Researchers at the School of Veterinary Studies at The University of Edinburgh found ties useful and enhanced performance over time.

A report in the American Journal of Veterinary Research examined the effect of tongue ties on healthy horses. It determined they gained no benefit from tongue tie-downs, but they also recognized the benefit in horses with obstructive dysfunction of the upper airways.

The researcher found that upper respiratory stability was enhanced in horses with their tongues tied, resulting in better breathing. (Click here to find out why racehorses have to pee so much.)

What does it mean when a horse flips his palate?

Some trainers describe the dorsal displacement of the soft palate as flipping the palate. The terms are interchangeable.

When a horse flips its palate during a race, the animal’s airway becomes partially obstructed. The floppy palate no longer has a seal, and on exertion, some air goes underneath the palate moving it in front of the trachea blocking the airway.

When this occurs during a race, a horse has to slow down to swallow, and this action typically gets the palate back into its normal position. Horses that can not get their palate back into place by swallowing usually have to undergo surgery to repair the condition.

What causes a horse to flip its palate?

There seems to be no consensus on the causes for a horse to flip its palate. Some theories are that racehorses have inflammation in the area; they run with their mouth open or have congenital malformation.

Epiglottic Entrapment is similiar to DDSP in Horses

Epiglottic entrapment occurs when the aryepiglottic fold entirely covers the epiglottis. As discussed above, dorsal displacement of the soft palate occurs when the palate moves upward and rests above the epiglottis.

The conditions are similar in that they both result in respiratory noise and exercise intolerance. Besides respiratory sound and poor performance during exercise, some other signs a horse may be experiencing epiglottic entrapment include cough, nasal discharge, and headshaking.

An endoscopic examination is used to diagnose epiglottic entrapment accurately. If a horse is suffering from this condition, it is usually a permanent condition, and surgical intervention is necessary to repair it correctly.

Picture of a black racehorse.

Can a Horse Swallow its Tongue?

A horse can’t swallow its tongue. Sometimes a horse flexes and constricts its throat muscles, causing the base of the tongue to push the soft palate back and into the nasopharynx. The movement of the soft palate reduces airflow and leads to DDSP.

When this occurs, some horsemen say, “the horse swallowed its tongue.” It is another way of describing a displaced soft palate. However, horses can move their tongues around and even retract them pretty far, but again they can’t swallow them.

Why do Race Horses Tongues Hang Out?

If you’ve been to the race track, I’m sure you’ve noticed horses crossing the finish line with their tongues hanging. My granddaughter did and she wanted to know why.

In some instances, a trainer will tie their racehorse’s tongues out to the side of its mouth before their race. Tying a horse’s tongue outside of the horse’s mouth is not a proper method.

If you notice a horse with his tongue hanging out but not tied, it is likely because the tongue has nerve damage. When horses’ tongues are tied consistently tight, they suffer nerve damage to their tongue.

The result is a horse with its tongue hanging out to the side of its mouth, and it is especially noticeable when the horse is relaxed.

Below is a YouTube video showing how to tie a horse’s tongue.

Tying a horses tongue isn’t cruel

It’s not cruel to tie a horse’s tongue, but there is some evidence that it causes horses stress. Research shows that tying a racehorse’s tongue decreases the instances of DDSP and allows horses to breathe better while running.

Australian researchers studied the effect of tongue-tying on racehorses and concluded that it causes significant stress. The researchers observed horses’ reactions to having their tongues tied and compared the responses to horses; they manipulated their tongues but didn’t tie them down.

What they found was the horses with their tongues tied tossed their heads more, positioned their ears backward, and gaped during the tongue tie procedure.

Other indicators noted in the horses with tongues tied included lip-licking on the removal of the tie, and increased saliva, indicating a physiological stress response.

In non-racing equine sports, tongue-tying is banned by the Federation Equestre Internationale. Further, the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), a not-for-profit organization aiming to enhance horse welfare, believes the uses of relentless pressure to modify a horse’s behavior are against the principles of ethical training.

Picture of racing horses with their tongues tied.

Tying a horses tongue can cause health problems

Some common problems associated with tongue-tying include lacerations, bruising, swelling of the tongue, difficulty swallowing, and behavior indicating stress.

Researchers have proven that racehorse does not improve when their tongue is tied if the horse does not have an airway obstruction issue. A horse should only have its tongue restrained if a veterinarian determined it is necessary. More research on tongue-tying would be beneficial.

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