I remember it happening a few times when we were younger, but I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we know how to fit bridles better or if it’s the fact that bits are more ergonomically shaped and with different types of joints, so it’s actually harder for tongues to get over the mouthpiece.
However, it did happen a few weeks ago while I was lunging, which led me to wondering how many people would recognise the signs of a horse getting their tongue over the bit and how to prevent it happening on a regular basis.
The horse I was working with was trotting around sweetly in side reins when he started fidgeting with his head, not really shaking it but it became more mobile. Then his tongue came out the side of his mouth a couple of times as he contorted it and he lost all impulsion as he hollowed. A bit of white lipstick appeared suddenly and by that time I was bringing him back to a walk to sort him out.
I unclipped the side reins and gave him a moment. After all, if he got his tongue over the bit, he may be able to wiggle it back under. Which he did. I had a close look at the bridle he was wearing and decided that the bit could potentially be sitting slightly low. So I put one cheek piece up a hole and then straightened the bit in his mouth. It looked to be sitting slightly better, with a fraction more of a smile at his lips, and as I didn’t want a repeat performance I left it like this. We set off, and he continued as if nothing had happened.
From the ground, it’s quite easy to see a horse in discomfort in his mouth because you can see the tongue moving around, and the head shaking. What are the symptoms though, when you’re riding?
Firstly, it feels like the horse comes behind the bit and very light in the hand. Their neck may feel tense and contract towards their body. You should also feel a lot of movement in the mouth – almost like chomping at the bit – and possibly some head shaking. They’ll lose focus on the exercise and hollow.
If you think your horse has their tongue over the bit then it’s important to dismount in case they start to panic. Immediately give them a loose rein and find somewhere safe to jump off. Once on the ground you can see if their tongue is above or below the bit, and if they’re able to resolve the problem. Undoing the noseband, especially if it’s a flash or grackle, is sometimes enough to enable the horse to correct the tongue. I’ve known people to put their fingers in the corner of the horse’s mouth and push the tongue down. Obviously the horse needs to be fairly calm for this otherwise you could get injured. Alternatively, and this relies on you being in a safe place (I.e. not on the side of the road) you can take the bridle off and then replace it. Undoing one cheek piece and letting the bit drop carefully in the horse’s mouth is also helpful in allowing the horse more space to sort their tongue out.
Putting the tongue over the bit is an evasion tactic, and often occurs in youngsters who are playing with the bit whilst being backed. It can also happen because the horse is physically uncomfortable, either because of the type of bit or because of pain in their mouth.
If a horse repeatedly gets their tongue over the bit or seems generally uncomfortable with the bit and bridle, it is worth getting an equine dentist to thoroughly examine the mouth. The molars may be sharp, or the cheeks, gums or tongue irritated by the sharp edges.
Unfortunately however, getting the tongue over the bit releases endorphins so a horse is tempted to recreate the situation and give him a buzz. Which can make it a difficult habit to break.
Then you need to assess the bridle and it’s fit. Is the bit in good condition – plastic coated bits often develop rough edges over time which can cause callouses on the tongue and cheeks. The type of mouthpiece is important to consider as horses with different mouth conformations will find different shaped bits more comfortable and a horse who is comfortable in the mouth will move their jaw and tongue less so will be less likely to get their tongue over the bit. Horses with fleshy lips and tongues will find thinner mouthpieces much more comfortable, whilst some horses dislike pressure on the tongue so prefer a ported mouthpiece or multi jointed mouthpiece. You could even consider bitless bridles.
A bit that is fitted too low in the mouth commonly causes the tongue to go over the bit because there is physically more space above the mouthpiece and the bit is more mobile so there is more scope for the tongue to move around as the horse tries to stabilise the bit why get can cause it to get into trouble.
A correctly adjusted bit should sit so that there are two wrinkles at each corner of the lips. I miss the traditional bridles where the cheek pieces can be adjusted independently and the headpiece can sit slightly off centre. For example, the bit can be at the perfect height for the horse with one cheek piece on the third hole and the other on the fourth hole. The plain leather headpiece can sit slightly asymmetrically but the horse is very comfortable. However, with padded and shaped headpieces the bit has to be adjusted evenly on both sides to maintain symmetry in the mouth. Which sometimes I feel affects your ability to find the perfect fit.
I think in years gone by one answer to horses getting their tongue over the bit was to tighten the noseband or apply a flash or grackle. However, now education has increased and we are more aware of facial nerves and the effect of overtight nosebands people are moving away from this answer, and trying to find the root cause as opposed to fixing the symptom.