Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slipping the tongue over the bit--I'm all tongue-tied

This young Standardbred, Olive, is giving her owner, Shari, the old slip... of the tongue, that is. If your horse is getting its tongue over the bit, read on to learn how to handle this slippery problem.

When I looked up the etymology of the phrase “tongue tied” I learned a few things I didn’t expect. For example, I now know where I can buy tongue rings online. And that “giving the slip” means to escape noiselessly from a pursuer (which sounds a lot like getting the tongue over the bit to me), but is actually rooted in sea-going lingo.

I learned that the phrase “tongue tied” first appeared way back in 1529. But I was unable to discern its origin.

What does this have to do with Standardbreds? I thought maybe “tongue tied” started out as a track expression that eventually morphed its way into the general lexicon.

The “tongue tie” is a humane way to ensure a harness racer does not get its tongue over the bit. It is basically a very soft strip of fabric that is laid over the horse’s tongue. It is then looped under the tongue loosely. The two ends then exit either side of the horse’s mouth and are secured under the chin, much like a chin strap or curb chain.

The tongue tie is a necessity on the track; but a Standardbred makes the transition from harness horse to saddle horse, his training must include acceptance of the bit.

I started thinking about all this because of an email from ALL ABOUT STANDARDBREDS reader, Shari. She writes:
I enjoy your blog (thanks, Shari!). My OTT STB can't keep her tongue under her bit. When I first put a snaffle in her mouth, she stuck her tongue over it and then out the side of her mouth...almost licked her eyeball with it. I had her wear it around while I did ground work in her halter. She eventually stopped flapping her tongue around so I added reins and there was that tongue again. It seems that if there is any weight or pressure added to the snaffle, she gets her tongue going. I have tried a few kinds of snaffles but that doesn't seem to make a difference. Any suggestions?

Shari is right to be concerned. “Slipping” the tongue over the bit means you have no control over your horse. This can be dangerous for any rider, and for harness racers traveling at speeds up to 35 mph, it can spell disaster.

One of the first steps to curing this problem is to understand why a horse does it in the first place. What it comes down to is the horse’s comfort; either she is uncomfortable physically or she is uncomfortable mentally.

Physical reasons for slipping the tongue over the bit One of the premier physical reasons that a horse will slip its tongue over the bit is due to physical discomfort . This can be because there is a need for dental work, or because the bit is too big, too small, or is incorrectly fitted. To find out whether or not you have the right bit for your horse, you need to first look at the teeth.

Shari let me know that she has already had Olive's teeth worked on and feels confident that the reason she is struggling to get away from the bit has nothing to do with her teeth. But if you are experiencing similar issues with your horse, your fitst step should be an appointment with a reputable, qualified equine dentist.

Next you want to examine your horse's tongut. In the space under your horse’s jaw, between the chin and the throat latch, there lies a sort of gully, in which the tongue rests. It that area is fairly wide, it’s likely that your horse has adequate room for her tongue. If, however, that area is narrow, it can severely impact your horse’s comfort with a bit.

Next, you want to look at whether or not your horse has a narrow or thick tongue. A horse with a more narrow tongue can handle—and will probably appreciate—a bit that is thicker.

However, a horse with a thick tongue will most likely hate a thick bit. Her mouth is already full of too much tongue; adding a thick bit can negatively impact her ability to swallow, a scary thing to anyone, whether human or horse. A narrow bit is the best solution for a thick tongued horse.

To determine if your horse has a thick tongue, pull her lips aside to see if her tongue “spills” out past the teeth. If the answer is “yes,” this means your horse has too much tongue for the physical structure of her mouth, and will need a thin bit.

Correct fit of the bit Another aspect of physical comfort relates to correctly fitting the bit. After determining whether your horse needs a thin or thick bit, you must then make sure you have selected a bit of the correct size—and that it is properly sized in the bridle.

A properly sized bit should extend about 2 mm on either side of the horse’s mouth. Fitted in the bridle, you should see one to two wrinkles at the corner of your horse’s mouth and, when you pull back lightly on the reins, the bridle should remain flat on the side of your horse’s face. A headstall that “breaks” away from the face indicates your bit is too low in the horse’s mouth.

Use of a cavesson or nose band One other step that can help Olive and other horses who slip the bit to learn acceptance is to use a cavesson or a nose band. As you can see from the photo Shari sent me of Olive in action, she really has her jaw open. A properly fitted nose band or cavesson can help immensely with this problem. An additional consideration might be a drop nose band, or even a figure-8: these nose bands are used routinely in the training of dressage and eventing horses of all levels. and could be a himane way to slowly help Olivie accept the bit. My favorite is the figure-8, as I personally feel I can adjust it to truly fit my horse well.

For information on the proper fitting of a cavesson, noseband, or drop nose band, click here. This article is from a journal on Icelandic ponies, but offers excellent advice on the ins and outs of dropped nose bands.

Mental reasons for discomfort So now you’ve corrected the thickness and size of the bit, and added a properly fitted nose band—but you’re still being “given the slip." So, it’s time to examine your horse’s brain.

Every Standardbred I’ve retrained from the track has come from trainers and owners with great compassion and equine savvy. But the unfortunate truth is that not every horse is so lucky. I already know where Shari’s horse came from—she is actually my mare’s sister—so I have full confidence that Shari’s mare had good, kind care. But if you have a Standardbred that appears mentally on edge, it is always a good idea to delve into her past to see if she ever experienced any trauma.

And while I’m a great champion of the Standardbred brain, the truth is that not all brains are created equal. Take, for example, our newest, a 4-year-old mare who raced under the name Joanne’s Fancy, but whom we re-christened Sammi.

Cordealia, Kiwi, and Stormy were all easy to train. They were calm, interested, and intrigued, about their new jobs as saddle horses. Sammi, by contrast, has a much more fragile demeanor. I’ve had to take it much slower with her training. Her former owner, Stephen Chambers, has attributed this to a kick in the head Sammi sustained when she was just a baby, in pasture with other rambunctious babies.

Regardless of the reason, the bottom line is that every time I work with her, I have to spend twice as much time doing ground work in the round pen than I do with any of the other horses. If I work for 20 minutes with Cordealia, I will plan to give Sammi at least an hour of quality, patient natural horsemanship time.

It’s well worth the effort. Taking it slow, as I’ve said many times, means quality progress and long-lasting results.

If, after looking for physical reasons, your horse is still getting her tongue over the bit, my advice is to get back to basics. Start working with your horse as if she is brand new to all corners of training. My guess is that taking a renewed training approach, with a lot of slow work in the round pen, will help your horse adjust better to her environment and her new job as a riding horse. An added bonus is that this work will only shore up the trust between the two of you.

And of course, there is a last resort, if none of the above solutions work; try a bitless bridle.

Here’s a great online article for learning more about hackamores, bosals, and other bitless alternatives.

Good luck, Shari. Let us know if any of my suggestions were helpful.

If you have a training question about your Standardbred, feel free to drop us an email at All About Standardbreds, at burke-miller@mindspring.com