Don't You Stick Your Tongue Out at Me!

Q: My 5-year-old Thoroughbred mare sticks her tongue out when I ride her, especially when asked to accept the bit or to go "on the bit." I have had an equine dentist examine and float her teeth, and I have tried different bits. I have worked on getting her to stop by saying "no tongue." She puts her tongue back, but eventually it comes back out. She has shown improvement at home and on the trail, but not when we go for a lesson at the nearby stable. How can I get her to stop this behavior? She is otherwise a very well-behaved, intelligent horse.

via e-mail

A:Your problem is not uncommon in young horses in training. While the problem is not usually a medical one, you must rule out problems with the teeth, tongue, jaw, and cheeks. Consulting a veterinarian who specializes in equine dentistry is certainly a logical place to start. If she has had her mouth properly balanced, has no sign of temporo-mandibular joint pain, and the dental practitioner saw no obvious cause for the "tongue out" behavior, the next thing to rule out would be some sort of facial nerve damage that makes it difficult for her to keep her tongue in the proper position. Facial nerve damage can be quite severe and therefore unmistakable, or somewhat subtle with less obvious signs. Does she show any other signs such as difficulty chewing or swallowing? Does she drool? Is her face symmetrical?

I'm assuming that you have ruled out or can easily rule out these other concerns. If so, the most likely cause of the unsightly behavior is just that: Behavioral. It is usually a sign of evasion. Since you said that it is worst when you ask her to "go on the bit," she is probably doing her best to avoid doing just that. By moving her tongue out to the side, she is avoiding correct contact with the bit and therefore your hands. Evasion can stem from lack of understanding, poor communication, or pain. Sources of pain outside the mouth or head need to be ruled out also, such as lameness, back pain, etc. It's possible that she is just unhappy with your choice of bits, but if you have tried several to no avail, I think it's safe to assume that you have a young horse with a training issue.

Training aids such as a "crank" or a flash noseband can help get over the hump by making it more difficult for her to get her tongue out, but the key is finding an instructor that can recognize the problem and help you both work through it.

Have your equine veterinarian give her a thorough examination to rule out any serious pain issues, then take a deep breath, be patient, and see about some focused instruction. Good luck.

About the Author

Mary DeLorey, DVM

Mary S. DeLorey, DVM earned her veterinary degree from University of Missouri in 1992. Since 2000, she has devoted her entire professional energies to equine dentistry. Her practice, Northwest Equine Dentistry, Inc. serves the states of Washington and Idaho and is based near Seattle. Dr. DeLorey has traveled internationally to instruct veterinarians in equine dentistry techniques and speaks to horse owners nationwide. She trail rides and raises sport ponies from her ranch in Eastern Washington when she's not on the road.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More