Last Updated on April 2, 2022 by Allison Price
Q: My nine-year-old mare has an odd habit that seems to be getting worse rather than better. I have regular instruction–dressage basics with some jumping. My horse refuses to take more contact if I ask him. He sticks his tongue out more often the more contact I make. He has received regular dental care and periodic floating. The problem has not been solved by different bits such as a KK or a regular snaffle. Dropping the noseband doesn’t seem to solve the problem.
A:This problem is difficult, but you can look at bits and teeth to see if you are on the right path.(Photo by Amy K. Dragoo
Tongue lolling can be a sign of pain. Your horse will often pull his tongue towards the back of his throat if he is feeling pain in his mouth or tongue. Tendency and tongue cramping can be caused by trying to keep his tongue in a restricted position. The rider will then try to find a way to alleviate the pain of tongue cramps, tongue pressure and impaired breathing. He may do this by hanging his tongue out from his mouth. This will allow us to begin to solve the problem by looking at the jaw, tongue flexibility, bitting, and hands of the rider.
Jaw flexibility and tongue flexibility:
Your horse should be able to move its jaw from side to side. He needs to be able move his jaw freely from side to side when he holds a bit of food in his mouth. The tongue moves towards the palate when he swallows. A bit that is too thick, painful or strong is likely to prevent the horse from swallowing comfortably. To swallow the bit, your horse will have to press hard with his tongue against it.
There is more to the tongue of your horse than what you see. Your horse’s tongue is the largest muscle in his head and upper neck. Even when horses are happy and relaxed, their tongues fill up with food, leaving little to no space for any other items.
Finding the right piece:
Horses with thick palates and large tongues are often unable to bear the pain of a single-joint. These horses are more comfortable with a loose-ring French connection.
Double-jointed KK bits, which are popular for their severeness, can cause serious injury to horses. These bits may not touch the horse’s palate as much but exert more pressure on his tongue. The thinnest and most comfortable bit for your horse will be the one that is smoothest. If your horse cannot tolerate pressure or a loose-ringing French-link snaffle (or if you are unable to tolerate it), then you might consider a French_-link Baucher. Do not force your dog to reach for a thick piece of meat.
Each horse’s mouth is different, so a lighter bit will feel more comfortable. The bit should be placed so that it touches the corners of the horse’s mouth. After this, the horse can decide if the bit should remain in its default position or if it should be lifted or dropped slightly. To make your horse feel comfortable, you need to make sure he is relaxed and able to understand that the bit is not intended to inflict pain. It’s a two-way communication device that can be held lightly. Experiment. Experiment. Your horse will tell which part he likes and where it is most comfortable.
The rider’s hand:
Because a rider’s hands are almost always involved in the lolling of the tongue, it is considered a resistance. A “resistance”, as we humans refer to it, is a horse’s natural response to pain, fear, or confusion. Keep your contact as light as possible to ensure that you can communicate calmly and reassuringly with your horse through the reins. Although there are no absolutes in dressage, I have found that horses respond better to riders who keep their “weight in their hands” at 3 ounces or less.
Next, make sure you check your contact with your horse’s mouth by comparing your reins to your own. Horses can hang their tongues because riders, often without realizing, are putting more pressure on one end of the bit than the other. Horses tend to stick their tongues out to the left side of their mouths because their riders are more active and stronger with their right hands. Your horse will splay his tongue to the right, so make sure you only apply the gentlest pressure possible on your left rein.
Dressage teaches horses to search for the bit. However, if his body is not flexible, strong, and responsive to your leg and seat, he will struggle to find the bit. You can strengthen your horse’s body by incorporating as many transitions between and within the gaits into your riding program as possible. Your horse will be more comfortable if you ride him gently, kindly, and correctly. He will also learn to hold his tongue in his mouth and not have to pick it up.
The problem with your horse’s tongue-lolling won’t disappear overnight. Your horse will be able to see that you are a good rider, who is determined to achieve the best results, even if it takes a long time.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!