In this month's edition of How To Fix, we ask the experts for their thoughts on horses who habitually get their tongue over the bit. This can pose a particular challenge to riders and can also be a safety issue, as it removes a great deal of riders' control during a busy time at the track. We wondered how much of this problem is behavioral, and how much is a simple equipment malfunction.
Dr. Sue McDonnell, founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine:
It can be either a present equipment issue or a learned response that lingers following an equipment issue. I contacted Dr. Orla Doherty from the University of Limerick in Ireland, who has been focusing her research on noseband tension, but also is an expert on these oral behaviors related to bits.
She responded: 'Horses initially react to unpleasant bit pressures/pain delivered by the bit by trying to alleviate it. This may be done by carrying out mouth movements, adjusting the position of the bit in the mouth, using the tongue, by opening the mouth, raising the head or by pulling the tongue back. If the behaviours result in reduced discomfort, that behaviour will immediately have been rewarded, and is likely to recur. If, in trying to reduce the discomfort, the horse retracts the tongue far enough that it is removed from under the bit, it is likely that the discomfort being experienced by the horse is reduced, and therefore the behaviour will persist.'
She credited some research by Manfredi et al, 2009, in which they concluded excess rein tension (and not bit type) was the key factor resulting in mouth and tongue movements, including tongue over the bit.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge, veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at Park Equine Hospital: That's a good trainer question; I'd defer to them. You can put a figure eight noseband on them. I guess if you're looking from a vet standpoint, I've seen horses with tongue injuries. I've seen pleasure horses who were tied with a bit in their mouth and pulled back, and injured their tongue. I have seen a few where people forgot to take the tongue tie off and create a laceration on the tongue or even have the whole thing rot off.
I would look to make sure there isn't an old tongue injury causing the horse to either resent the bit or if they have a shorter tongue than usual [as a result]. I've seen them bite their tongue pretty badly, too. The tongue heals pretty well—you can have some pretty terrible stuff happen to it and still have it heal. The blood supply is great.
Tom Morley, multiple graded stakes-winning trainer:
Figure eight, tongue tie. End of story. If they don't like the tongue tie, figure eight. You've got to get that mouth shut. Those can be especially tough to ride, because they've got to learn quickly that's not the way to go.
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