Profile of a Tongue-Hanger
Rubesca was given to me for free, a petite eighteen-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred with a host of bad habits, one of which was tongue hanging. That big muscle lolled out of the left side of her mouth almost non-stop: she looked ridiculous.
Who would have thought she’d become the best horse I ever owned, winning countless one day events, dressage and show jumping competitions?
Approximately one year into our relationship, she’d kicked the tongue-hanging habit, which made me wonder why horses hang their tongues and whether my way of ‘curing’ Rubesca is common?
Reasons For Tongue-Hanging
In her article “Help for Tongue Resistance” Jessica Jahiel, PhD, clinician and lecturer, states that ‘tongue-lolling is usually a reaction to pain.’
Causes of mouth pain vary. Brenda Imus, of Brenda Imus Gaited Horse Services suggests getting the teeth examined and floated, as it’s possible the teeth cut into the horse’s tongue when the bit is inserted. The animal hangs it to avoid the pain.
Both experts point out that a horse’s tongue is very thick. There is little or no room for the bit, a contraption which causes him to salivate. He must be able to swallow that saliva comfortably. If the bit is too large, held too strongly or the nose band shuts his mouth too tightly, he will need to get his tongue out of the way in order to swallow.
Horses’ mouths differ, but Dr Jahiel recommends finding “the thinnest, smoothest bit that will be the most comfortable for your horse.”
My own experience supports this. Early on I changed Rubesca’s thick jointed snaffle to a thinner, smoother Happy Mouth. I used this soft rubber bit even though she was enormously strong cross country. Because it didn’t hurt her, she listened, and I think this contributed to her eventually forgetting to loll her tongue.
I ride her son in a fairly thin French link, which Dr. Jahiel recommends for horses with thick tongues and low palates. He’s happy with it and not hanging his tongue.
Once the teeth have been checked and the correct bit inserted, we riders must be careful with our hands. Dressage judges treat tongue hanging as ‘resistance’ because it’s so often a reaction to the rider’s hands.
It’s important not to use the horse’s mouth for balance. It helps to imagine how we would feel if someone rested on a shaft inserted inside our own mouths.
Dr. Jahiel stresses the importance of maintaining even contact with both reins: sometimes tongue lolling is a reaction to too much pressure on one side of the mouth.
Brenda Imus includes stress and boredom as causes for tongue hanging in horses, and suggests varying their work in areas with room for them to stretch and move. To this I would add turning the horse out as much as possible with friendly companions, and reducing his idle time in the stall.
Ms. Imus also says the habit may be “so ingrained that even after all the stressors are removed, (the horse) will need to have his tongue physically held in place until he becomes accustomed to it.”
That is a viewpoint I cannot share.
I plied Rubesca with daily TLC and rode her as if she had no quirks. Her workload was varied, with several trail rides a week.
I didn’t obsess about her tongue hanging (or head-wagging, bit-snatching, etc.) and concentrated on riding her as sensitively as possible, with consistent contact and even rein pressure. I took it slowly.
Over time I noticed her tongue staying in her mouth for longer periods. As Dr. Jahiel says, this problem doesn’t go away overnight. But it did go away. I’d removed everything that might cause my mare pain, stress or boredom and stopped worrying about her tongue.
I talked to trainers who’ve tried various ways to stop horses from hanging their tongues. After addressing possible physical issues, they found artificial attempts to restrain the horse’s tongue exacerbated the problem.
These horse-men and women use the same simple method I stumbled upon: keep the horse happy, ignore his habit and it will go away.
Jessica Jahiel, PhD Help for Tongue Resistance
Brenda Imus, My Horse is Hanging His -horTongue Out of His Mouth