The tongue tie is a piece of equipment traditionally used on racehorses to keep them from getting their tongue over the bit and to give the rider better control. Tongue ties are also intended to prevent is dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP), commonly called “flipping the palate,” which interferes with breathing.
A tongue tie can be a strip torn off a clean cloth bandage or a commercial synthetic tongue tie with a Velcro closure. The tongue tie is dipped in water, wrapped around the horse's tongue, and then tied or fastened under the horse's lower mandible.
A rider with good hands will feel when a horse needs a tongue tie. The horse will fight the bit, suck its tongue back in its mouth, constantly manipulate its tongue to evade control, or nervously play with its tongue. Not only does this behavior create physiological challenges to performance, such as interfering with breathing, but the horse's obsession with fussing with the bit also may draw its focus away from running and make the horse difficult to control.
Multiple stakes-winning jockey Joe Steiner, who now coaches young riders, said that during the 31 years he raced, he could tell when a horse needed a tongue tie because it felt uncomfortable in the bit.
“I can tell a big difference,” he said. “The horse is uncomfortable, and it's opening its mouth without a lot of pressure pulling back on the reins. … That's the main purpose for a tongue tie, so they don't flip the tongue up and block their breathing area.”
Some trainers believe a tongue tie will prevent a horse from flipping its palate.
“When a horse is running and has been exerting energy, and then you can hear noise coming from their throat, usually that's what's going on there,” Steiner said.
The soft palate is the tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth that separates the entrance of the esophagus from the entrance to the wind pipe. Normally, it forms a tight seal that allows air into the wind pipe and food into the esophagus, but not vice-versa.
At peak exertion during a race, certain horses may break this seal. The soft palate begins to flap, just as it does in humans that snore, and the flapping of this loose, soft tissue causes severe airway obstruction. The jockey will hear a gurgling or choking noise, and the horse will stop running until it swallows, which allows the soft palate to return to its proper position.
Steiner said a tongue tie seems to prevent DDSP in some horses, but tying the tongue won't be effective if the horse's condition is so bad that it needs tie-back surgery.
Researchers Look at Tongue ties
While performing several studies on the efficacy of tongue ties at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Scotland, Dr. Safia Barakzai and veterinary student Catherine Finnegan made an interesting discovery: Horses that ran once or twice wearing a tongue tie did not improve their performance, while extended use was beneficial.
“If they ran in three to five consecutive races wearing a tongue tie, they had a significant increase in earnings and were up to four times more likely to improve their earnings than matched control horses,” they wrote.
Barakzai and Finnegan concluded: “It should be noted that whilst tongue tie use appears to enhance performance of selected horses with a perceived soft palate or behavioural (bitting) problem, we certainly do not advocate the use of tongue ties in normal racehorses as a performance-enhancing aid.”
Dr. Susan Holcombe and her colleagues at Michigan State University observed the mechanics of the horse's airway while it wore a tongue tie by looking at specific muscles involved in the upper airway.
“Application of a tongue tie did not alter upper respiratory mechanics in exercising horses and may be beneficial in exercising horses with certain types of obstructive dysfunction of the upper airways. However, application of a tongue tie does not improve upper airway mechanics in clinically normal horses,” Holcombe's team concluded.
Holcombe said although it hasn't been proven scientifically that tongue ties help certain horses, trainers know why they use them and why tongue ties work for some horses. Most good trainers use trial and error to determine which horse might benefit from a tongue tie and, after trying it, if the tongue tie truly makes a difference in the horse's handling and performance. If the tongue tie solves the problem, the trainer will continue to use it for that specific horse; if it isn't effective, the trainer will seek other options, such as a figure-8 noseband, a different bit, or a Cornell collar.
Right and Wrong Application
The proper way to put on a tongue tie is to grab the horse's tongue, wrap the tongue tie around it once, and then fasten the ends of the tongue tie together under the horse's lower mandible. This allows the tongue, although tied, to remain in its normal position in the horse's mouth. But sometimes you will see a horse with its tongue pulled way out the side of its mouth, with four or five inches hanging exposed for the entire time it is in the saddling paddock and running the race.
Holcombe said how a tongue tie is applied is important, and a tongue hanging way out may interfere with its other functions.
“The tongue is important for other things a horse is going to do while racing,” Holcombe said. “A lot of the muscles in the tongue are important for swallowing. Horses need to be able to swallow, and they do swallow while they're racing.”
Likewise, the tongue shouldn't be tied so tightly that blood flow is restricted, causing it to be cold and beginning to turn blue by the end of the race. An Australian study found that certain horses exhibited stress while wearing a tongue tie, including head tossing/shaking, ears pointed backward, gaping the mouth, and lip-licking. Horsemen need to keep this in mind when using a tongue tie.
Holcombe added that a properly applied tongue tie is not inhumane.