Tongue Troubles

Q:I have an unusual problem. I have raised several foals in the past, some from birth, some from weanling/yearling age. I have a 2 1/2-year-old half Friesian mare that I have had from birth. I purchased her dam already bred and owned and rode her for a year. Her dam had a wonderful temperament and had no vices. Her filly was born on one of the hottest central California days, at 113 degrees at 11 p.m. I was present and other than some panting the first day due to the heat, her birth and health were normal.

I weaned her at 3 months, which I typically do because I ride the mares. She was weaned with another foal one month older and simply separated from her dam by a shared fence. The two dams shared one pen, the two foals shared another. It was uneventful for all and was done gradually.

When this filly was 7 months of age, I sold both dams and the other filly she shared a pen with, and I moved this filly in with my remaining older mare, then moved them both to another state. They bonded well. In fact, the filly suckled on her frequently for several months until she was about 1 year old. As there was no milk from my mare, and they were turned out together, I let it go. About this time, the filly started to suck on her own tongue occasionally.

She stays outside (70-by-120 pen), but she comes into the barn to eat for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. She is handled regularly, and I can take her away from my other mare without a problem. Both horses are on alfalfa only with occasional grain. I do not have a pasture.

I broke the filly at 2 years of age (she was 15.2 hands; 850 pounds), and she occasionally will stick her tongue out the side and loll it at times when I do ground training, but I have never seen her do it under saddle. She has been broke about six months now, and when I go to saddle her, she sometimes will try to bite at herself (her chest) and stick her tongue out. This can occur just while I'm brushing her. I rarely hear her suck her tongue any more. I have slowed the process way down and try to distract her rather than punish her. She is doing well in her training and because of her Friesian nature, I keep things more on the slow side as increased pressure will bother her and she can become angry/irritated if pushed too much. She is friendly and bold, so going slow keeps her in a friendly and cooperative mood.

Is she getting neurotic, stressed, or what? Is there any way I can alleviate the behaviors? Will they go away with time?

Gayle, via e-mail

A: Is it stress or a neurosis? For many horses with the tendency for unusual tongue behaviors, the rate and intensity of the behavior are greater during times of stress, either physical or psychological. Psychological stress doesn't necessarily mean just the classic "harmful" stress of extraordinary pressure or abuse. Simple anticipation of activity, excitement, or mild anxiety might evoke the behavior.

In the schooling scenario you describe, when each accomplishment is followed with presentation of the next new task, there is likely inherent momentary confusion. In those situations some horses show other signs of anxiety or "conflict," such as tossing their head or rubbing against objects, or whatever it is they do when mildly anxious. We have seen this in studies we have done with horses on cognition in which simple learning tasks progress from day to day. While they are figuring out the contingencies to receive the food reward, they often express their own quirky behavior, whatever that might be, including unusual tongue movements.

I should mention that any element of physical discomfort can add to the overall stress of a situation, so it is important to keep an eye open for anything physical that could be the cause or a contributing factor. Gastric ulcers, for example, have been especially associated with odd oral behaviors and with stress. Horses with physical discomfort can express an odd behavior with mild stress, then appear sour or display irritated behavior when pushed further, so since she can become "angry/irritated" with work, I would not be surprised if you were to find something physical bothering your mare. It might be the entire root cause or just another contributing factor.

Will it go away with time? Most horses I've known with these tongue or lip movement behaviors have maintained a lifelong tendency to perform the behavior. The most common pattern, perhaps, has been for the frequency and intensity of the behaviors to diminish coincidently with maturity and/or getting to "know the ropes" of their existence, so to speak. But during times of physical pain or new challenges, for example, big changes in social or physical environment, the behaviors might appear or increase again. For a few that I have known the rate and intensity has not diminished with time. Some have increased the behaviors and some maintained.

Your tact of pacing the training schedule to her cooperation is a wise approach. Most other things I know of that people do to try to alleviate oral behaviors, for example, punishment or physical prevention, seem to make them worse.

It's interesting that you mention that she is friendly and bold. My impression has been that horses that are especially willing and talented tend to be overrepresented in the group with quirky behaviors like this. Possibly, it is that characteristic we recognize as the "aim to please us" that predisposes a horse to mild anxiety associated with these behaviors.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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