All About Tongue-ties

A tongue-tie, also called a tongue strap, is usually a soft cotton, nylon or leather band. It may also be a strip of bandage or even, in emergencies, a pair of ladies’ tights. The tie is looped around the tongue and tied under the jaw, where the ends of the tie can often be seen hanging.

The tongue-tie is sometimes used to prevent a horse from getting his tongue over the bit. He may want to do this to relieve pressure on his tongue. A horse with a big tongue, for example, will dislike a bit with a thick mouthpiece, as it will make it difficult for him to swallow. Once a horse gets his tongue over the bit it’s harder for the jockey to steer and control the horse, as pulling on the reins will make the horse throw his head up.

The main reason for using a tongue-tie on a horse is to help it to breathe normally when racing. Some racehorses suffer from a condition known as dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP), which causes breathing problems when galloping, and the tongue-tie is an attempt to prevent this by keeping the airways clear.

The soft palate is an extension of the roof of the mouth, and acts to separate the nasal and oral cavities. The epiglottis, a thin, cartilaginous flap at the root of the tongue, helps to direct the air that the horse breathes into the trachea, or windpipe. The epiglottis normally sits on top of the soft palate, except when the horse is swallowing.

When a horse has DDSP the soft palate becomes displaced when the horse is galloping, probably due to paralysis of the muscles, and flips over the epiglottis, creating an airway obstruction when the horse breathes out. Unable to breathe properly, the horse suffers a reduced intake of oxygen into its bloodstream via its lungs. The horse will probably slow down or stop, at which point it is usually able to return the soft palate to its normal position by swallowing.

Conservative treatment of DDSP may include rest, anti-inflammatories and the use of a tongue-tie. Some trainers may use a drop noseband in conjunction with the tongue-tie. By pulling the tongue and epiglottis forward, the tongue-tie aims to position the epiglottis more securely over the soft palate.

In 2009 the Journal of the British Equine Veterinary Association published statistics on the use of tongue-ties by racehorse trainers in the UK. From a survey of sixty randomly selected race meetings held during the years 2001-2003, it was found that 5% of the horses raced in a tongue-tie. After its first use on a horse, the tongue-tie was used in an average of 77% of its races in the following twelve months; subsequently it was used in only 55% of its races.

Also in 2009 the Equine Veterinary Journal reported on research carried out on the effect of tongue-tie use on the racing performance of thoroughbreds in the UK. Data was obtained from the Racing Post Online Database for horses that had raced while wearing a tongue-tie, and also, as a control group, for horses that had never raced in a tongue-tie. Horses wearing a tongue-tie were subdivided into three groups: group 1 included horses that wore a tongue-tie at least once (i.e. all the horses in the study); group 2 included horses that wore a tongue-tie on at least three consecutive occasions after the first time they wore a tongue-tie; group 3 included horses that wore a tongue-tie on at least five consecutive occasions after the first time they wore a tongue-tie.

The prize money won was noted for a horse’s five starts before and five starts after a tongue-tie was introduced, and these totals were compared with the winnings of the control horses. It was found that horses using a tongue tie were between 1.85 and 5.05 times more likely than the control horses to have improved prize money totals. The more times the tongue-tie was used, the greater was the improvement in prize money earned. This was probably because trainers didn’t persevere with the tongue-tie after the first use of it if there was no obvious improvement in performance. This suggests that the use of a tongue-tie may improve the performance of some horses but not others.

In 2015, in the course of research for my book, ‘Picking Winners On Looks’, I surveyed 1066 consecutive races, Flat and National Hunt, involving over 10,000 horses. A first time tongue-tie was used on 106 occasions, resulting in seven wins (6.6%).

The following recent comments on horses wearing a tongue-tie were made in the Racing Post Weekender’s results section:

Kempton, 3.10.17; 5f nursery handicap (Class 5): analyst Steffan Edwards commented that the winner, Big Time Maybe, had taken time to fulfil his potential but won comfortably here, wearing a tongue-tie for the first time.

Chelmsford, 5.10.17; 1m 2f fillies’ handicap (Class 5): William Haggis’s filly Feint was easy in the betting on her handicap debut but, fitted with a first time tongue-tie, found a clear passage up the rail to win by half a length.

Chelmsford, 5.10.17; 6f handicap (Class 7): The winner, Justice Rock, had won only twice in 46 starts, but twice from nine starts when wearing a tongue-tie. Analyst Steffan Edwards felt that this was the key to the gelding showing his best form.

Huntingdon, 5.10.17; 2m 3f handicap hurdle (Class 5): analyst David Orton noted that the well-backed, easy winner, Sissinghurst, was equipped with a first time tongue-tie.

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