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A Slip of the Tongue...Identifying and Addressing Tongue Issues in Horses

A Slip of the Tongue...Identifying and Addressing Tongue Issues in Horses

Posted by Charmae Bell on May 04, 2015

“Charmae, please help! My horse is having issues getting his tongue over the bit/sticking his tongue out and I have tried everything - it is costing me valuable points. What is going on in there!”

On a very regular basis I get queries from concerned and frustrated horse owners about a horse with tongue issues. It’s costing them points in the arena or making training difficult.

Let me start by saying tongue issues are usually a symptom of another issue and not a problem in its own right – although there are exceptions. Unfortunately, there is no simple magic solution, but there are measures that can be taken to ensure the likely hood of these issues arising or worsening is kept to a minimum.

Tongue issues can be described as:

  • Poking the tongue out of the mouth either the side or front
  • Getting the tongue over the bit
  • Sucking/rolling the tongue back up into the mouth
  • Excessive playing and flapping of the tongue
  • Opening the mouth and poking the tongue out

First things first! We need to look at the possible causes and get to the root of the issue. There are some issues that are physiological and others are psychological.

Possible physiological causes of tongue issues include

  • Sore back/Pain in the body
  • Ill fitting tack/saddle
  • Dental issue
  • Farrier issue
  • Horse not working correctly with hind quarter under himself and using the muscles correctly over his back
  • Permanent tongue damage or trauma*

*More on this separately

Possible psychological reasons include

  • Anxiety/Stress
  • Habit

Some simple ways to tell if it’s a physical or psychological is running through a quick ‘when, where, what and who.’ Which will usually bring us to the ‘why’.

WHEN does the horse do it? Standing at the rail/only at the walk/all paces/jumping only etc

WHERE does the horse do it? Home only, trail riding, competitions, training days etc

WHAT does the horse do when he does it? Tongue out to the side, out the front, tongue over the bit, sucking the tongue back etc

WHO does the horse do it with? Every rider, just me, just my instructor, dressage riders only, beginners etc

If you are ever unsure I am happy to have a chat and help get to the basis of the problem. Once all other avenues have been exhausted we can look at making the horse more comfortable with a bit change.

Horses do speak to us with their mouths but not with words – they speak with actions. A tongue issue is another way of the horse telling us that something isn’t right or that they are in pain, but there are other signs well before hand that we can pick up on. Please see below:

Thankyou to Researcher Karina Bech Gleerup from ‘Horses and People Magazine’ ( for allowing us to use and share this fabulous ‘Pain face’ poster. Download your free copy here!

There is also what refer to as advanced signs of pain which include

  • ‘Smiling’ or gritting the teeth and/or showing the teeth
  • Tongue out
  • Mouth open
  • Nostrils excessively flared and breathing laboured without cause or reason

Tongue issues with the absence of pain signs indicate a good chance it’s a psychological issue. Many horses associate the bit and bridle with stress or anxiety and this manifests itself as a tongue issue. The horse will usually do it ALL the time, in every situation, with every rider and sometimes even without a bit and bridle on if this is the case. Off the track racehorses and highly-strung breeds/horses in general are renowned for it.

Many horses that have had bad experiences like to hang onto them and the only way to help this is with consistent positive reinforcement and encouraging relaxation.

OK, the horse has had a full body, dental, farrier and gear check work up and has come up squeaky clean showing no signs of pain, no signs of stress or anxiety and he is STILL doing 'that thing' with his tongue…now what?

Ok, well now we can look at a possible bit change.

Bits that I have had success with regarding horses with tongue issues are:

Neue Schule Verbindend Snaffle - Dressage legal

This bit works by placing pressure on the bars of the mouth and eliminating tongue pressure altogether and forming a shape under contact that allows the tongue to move freely under the bit without restriction. Its also a copper alloy which warms up very quickly to body temperature eliminating that cold metal foreign feeling therefore promoting rapid acceptance.


The Sprenger WH Ultra Loose Ring Snaffle – Dressage Legal

This bit has a cleverly designed rolling ‘disc’ in the central lozenge which can have a pacifiying/massaging effect on the tongue of horses that stick their tongues over the bit encouraging them to relax in the contact through the tongue and jaw.


The WTP Lightweight Eggbutt – NOT Dressage legal

The WTP bit works by minimising pressure points and creating a larger surface area over the tongue itself for the pressure to be dispersed and is a very gentle comfortable bit that is designed to also protect the palate.

*Permanent physical tongue trauma

We regularly encounter off the track racehorses that have significant physical trauma to the tongue caused by the use of the tongue-tie. This is a whole other issue in itself as the nerves in the horses tongue are generally so damaged he cannot physically control it. And therefore no amount of training, therapy, bitting changes or gadgets will ‘solve’ this issue.

One example of a tongue tie


Tongue damage caused by tongue tie

My recommendation for horses with extreme tongue trauma is simply making them as comfortable and protected as possible through the use of bits that are very still and stable in the mouth (Eggbutts, bauchers, Dee rings) and by and using a bridle that also stabilises the bit and protects the horse from unsteady hands such as a Micklem Bridle with the ‘tongue protection system’ bit clips (note. Bit clips not permitted in competition dressage). And also to make sure the horse is working properly forward, with his hind quarters under him and a nice strong carriage through his back.

Paris in her Micklem

My own horse ‘Paris’ in her Micklem Bridle fitted with the ‘tongue protection system’ bit clips.

I hope you have found some of this information helpful and useful, please contact me anytime with any questions or concerns