Bitting, Bridles, Tongues, and Swallowing.


What is it about horses’ tongues that causes so many problems with bitting?

So, we need to appreciate just what a delicate organ the tongue is and what the horse needs to do with it while there is a bit in its mouth, as well as what effect there is in relation to the bit choice.

Horse tongue “activity” as opposed to thinking tongue relief can only assist us understand what other aspects of the horse’s needs, we need to consider when deciding on a choice of bit for our horses.

The tongue is involved in the requirement for swallowing, especially during the presence of salivation and in some cases, there are horses producing lots of salivation when the bit is in use.

Horses do not breath through their mouth because breathing is dealt with through the nostrils into the long nasal cavity to the nasopharynx, air then passes over the epiglottis, through the larynx, and into the trachea. The need to swallow is an important aspect of the activity within the mouth and for the horse to swallow the arytenoid cartilage, epiglottis, and soft palate change position shutting off the airway to the trachea leading to the lungs and this allows the horse to swallow so that any food or contents from the mouth travel into the esophagus leading to the stomach. Why is this important?

When a horse is working it cannot breathe and swallow at the same time and if it is having to swallow frequently for some reason it will be receiving less air into the lungs. This can be magnified in the case of an event horse working at the gallop with the need for maximum air intake and frequent swallowing due to too much saliva can impact on the horse’s performance and cause it to tire early.

A foamy mouth (usually a white creamy foam) is often found to be present when the bit is in place and the horse is being ridden.

It is generally accepted a foamy mouth indicates acceptance of the bit, as the horses’ salivary glands are activated. This is indicative of a relaxed jaw that is accepting a good level of rein connection due to the relaxed manner in which the horse is moving using itself correctly.

But too much foam can also indicate a level of tension in the jawline, with the tensed muscles pressing on the salivary glands, which is not a desirable state of affairs and one to consider if you feel something is not going quite right.

A horse with little or no salivation is a situation that indicates the horse is not relaxed or does not seek contact with the bit.  In a relaxed horse which is happy in its mouth we have a two-way thing going on with the rider seeking the contact. This can also involve increasing rider leg pressure to push the horse up to the contact from behind when the contact is falling away through a failing rear engine. We should always ride based on the premise of leg to hand.

In addition, a horse moving well will seek the contact by stretching out to find it. This results in what I will call the optimum rein pressure being created which feels like a weighted rein that is almost elastic given the riders ability to assist and compensate with sympathy throughout the movement process having a more relaxed arm that can carry and absorb some rein weight and act as a counterbalance throughout the movement process. This rein weight is then present in any gait where this involves constant motion (as opposed to an increase or reduction in pace).

Under these conditions both parties are comfortable resulting in a soft acceptance of the bit by the horse and a softly closed (untensed) riders’ hand with a softened wrist. Tension in the rider will always transfer to the horse’s mouth and the horse will begin to react to the tension by becoming more tense itself, and so we have a downward spiral as things become more and more unhinged. This is why horses usually work better for more experienced riders because they are capable of quickly setting things up between themselves and the horse and finding the sweet spot of acceptance by the horse of the rider’s instructions.

Where the horse is tense or hiding behind the contact and not connecting with the bit for whatever reason the saliva glands will not be activated fully if at all because the horse is not in a relaxed state.

This can also involve a horse that tends to salivate on one side only and is dry on the other side. Salivation on the one side only can indicate too much contact on that rein, as the horse is possibly not moving straight through their body and this inevitably will be found to be the stiffer side as the horse pushes against the contact resulting in the wrong type of salivation event. In this case on the other side the horse is hollowing and avoiding making any contact with the bit.

Getting the horse moving straight should bring salivation on to both sides although that is only part of the improvement you will need to make, and more work will need to be done to build up the carrying muscles evenly on each rein that will consolidate this progress.

While we are thinking about the bit and what the horse is doing with the it that we don’t like, for example such as pushing against our hand intermittently on occasions, we are thinking maybe more tongue relief is needed or some adjustment in this direction and while this may be true it can also be a tongue related swallowing issue.

The often commonly overlooked aspect of bitting a horse is the fact that the horse needs to swallow and regularly, especially if we are seeing lots of salivation and in doing so the horse needs to bring the tongue forwards under the bit to allow it to swallow.

When the rein tension is increased the bit will rotate in a downward roll as the contact is further taken up and in doing so the bit will press down more on the tongue as the riders’ hands are above the level of the bit. The horse’s reaction is to draw the tongue back and in doing so this prevents the horse being able to swallow.

This can present as a situation where the horse is pushing forwards and down against the riders’ hands in its desperation to get rid of excess saliva.

So frequently the horse needs to relieve that situation in order to swallow all that saliva and so they must push the tongue forward and downward again which pushes their weight through their shoulders and onto the forehand and at the same time the rider is unbalanced by the strong desperate thrust by the horse to take a gulp.

Often this situation is directly related to the need for tongue relief but this is not always due to the presence of a large tongue in a small jaw, and so even where the is not a large tongue needing relief the mechanics involved with bit action and rotation mean tongue relief may be an important consideration due to the actions involved where the tongue is excessively impinged by bit pressure as with a traditional snaffle which apply direct backward pressure into the tongue and bars of the mouth.

That said, when we are diagnosing our bitting crisis we need to give some thought to the fact that some symptoms may be swallowing related as opposed any to resistance to the bit acceptance especially where there is a healthy amount of saliva requiring frequent swallowing actions.

While we are around this subject of swallowing, we should also consider our nosebands and how we close them. Clamping a horse’s mouth shut tight is not only cruel it is counterproductive. Discomfort is our enemy with our horses and if you believe you need to clamp a horse’s mouth shut this should indicate that everything else needs looking at because you have reached this point of desperation.

The horse can swallow without opening its mouth, but with the additional presence of a bit we need to provide a little more wriggle room for the horse to move the tongue around especially when they need to swallow.

Just think about the situation when the noseband has been clamped tight. We put a bit in a horse’s mouth, and it fits perfectly. We are now on the cross country course and we have just jumped the skinny and are directing the horse hard right or hard left at pace to meet the next obstacle a few strides away, but with competitive adrenaline running high you end up needing to take a big pull which creates a momentary extreme bit position somewhere in the horse’s mouth (note, this has not been checked for comfort) and the only feedback from the tensing horse if distracted enough by the pain , will be either a run out or stop completely.

So, we should ensure the horse can open its mouth a little to cope with a possibly painful situation so it can relieve the discomfort at the very moment you want the horses focus on the next fence.

I do not believe any horse should be ridden with the noseband clamped tight shut. Especially when the horse needs to swallow and the bit is going to change position in the horse’s mouth when the reins are acted upon, causing the tongue to be drawn back.

Often you see recommendations saying leave enough space for two fingers under the noseband, grackle, flash strap or curb chain.  So, have you ever measured your two fingers and compared the measurements with someone else’s fingers?

I believe in measurements as a guide, and my recommendation is that there should be one for the noseband (high level) should be 15-20mm, and under the chin (low level) a little more room ideally between 20-25mm due to the jawline pivot action and any flash strap is fastened further from the Temporomandibular joint that acts as the top and bottom jawline pivot.

Note, if you choose to leave 15mm at the high level you need 25mm at the low level. Think of the crocodile’s mouth which when moved a short amount nearer the eye this will mean the incisor end of the mouth will be open much wider and so in a similar way the horses jaw line should be treated the same. No greater benefit can be found in closing the noseband completely and the opposite effect can result causing more control issues for the rider.

We want to allow enough movement for comfort without negating the reasons we are using these noseband choices. Too loose and the noseband becomes ineffective so there is a balance you need to find by trial and error in each case with the intention of leaving a little wriggle room for the horse to use for comfort and to prevent the molars being forced together by pressure from the noseband.

This “rule of finger” can vary on different finger widths by 10mm easily depending on whose fat or thin finger sizes are doing the checking.

So, in summary this blog is to highlight the relationship between the horse tongue, the bit, saliva, and the need for swallowing when thinking about tongue relief and the horses’ other basic needs.

I will have more to say on some of these issues in relation to bit choice in my coming blog posts.

Hope you find the above of interest and a little thought provoking meanwhile.

Ian Taft

Saddlemasters Equestrian Ltd