Users of tongue ties in racing believe them to be highly effective at preventing the tongue from moving over the bit and improving upper airway function, but there can be complications from their use, the findings of a pilot study suggest.
Dominic Weller and his colleagues, writing in the journal Animals, noted that the long history of horseracing has seen the introduction of many devices designed to increase control of horses and generally improve their performance. Tongue‐ties and nosebands are common examples.
The authors noted that concerns about the effect of tongue-ties on equine welfare have led to their use being banned in equestrian disciplines under the umbrella of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) since 2004 and, for racing in Germany since 2018.
More recently, Racing Australia banned the use of nylon stocking tongue-ties in Thoroughbred racing, although other materials are still allowed.
Tongue‐ties are also still widely used in racing elsewhere in the world, such as the United Kingdom where reportedly 5% of horses race with them.
The Australian study reported on the results of a survey of 112 racehorse trainers exploring their reasons for the use of tongue-ties and nosebands.
The survey respondents comprised 72 Thoroughbred trainers and 40 Standardbred trainers. About two-thirds were from Australia and 13.4% from New Zealand, with others from Sweden, Britain, the United States and a range of other countries.
Researchers in the University of Sydney study also investigated the reported effectiveness of tongue-ties and possible complications from their use.
Tongue-tie use was reported by 70 of the racehorse trainers (62.5%). The users believed them to be very or extremely effective at preventing the tongue from moving over the bit and improving upper airway function.
The reasons for tongue-tie use varied between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred trainers.
For Thoroughbred trainers, the most common reason for their use was to prevent or reduce airway obstruction, followed closely by preventing or reducing airway noise.
Standardbred trainers assigned equal importance to preventing or reducing airway obstruction and to prevent the horse from moving its tongue over the bit.
Tongue-ties were considered significantly less effective at improving performance than at reducing airway obstruction and preventing the tongue from moving over the bit, Weller and his colleagues reported.
For respondents who used both tongue-ties and nosebands, there was a mild to moderate positive association between the reasons for using both.
Of the 70 tongue-tie-using respondents, 36 reported having encountered either a physical or behavioural complication due to their use, with 20 users reporting redness/bruising of the tongue, which was the most common physical complication reported.
The length of time the tongue-ties were used also influenced the risk of complications. The likelihood increased with every minute of reported use, and nine minutes of use doubled the odds of the trainers reporting a complication.
Tightness was a risk factor for physical problems. Checking tongue-tie tightness by noting the tongue as not moving was associated with increased reporting of physical complications.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said the potential physical and psychological harm that tongue-ties can inflict on horses is of concern from a welfare perspective.
“Previous research has found tongue-ties have a significant negative effect on a horse’s physiological and behavioural state.
“In the current study, 42.9% of tongue‐tie using respondents had observed some form of physical complication.”
They noted that there were no official guidelines from administrative or governing bodies in any of the major racing jurisdictions on the length of time over which a tongue-tie can be applied safely, although Racing Australia stipulates that they should not be applied more than 30 minutes before a race.
“The findings of the current study, in particular the increased risk of behavioural complications past the 8 to 9 minute threshold, highlight the need for further investigation into the effects of tongue-ties on soft tissues such as the vasculature or neural structures found within the tongue, lips or chin.”
They noted that if tongue-tie use were to be discontinued, then alternative treatments would need to be implemented to prevent the occurrence of dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP) in racehorses, since the condition itself may compromise welfare.
“Tongue‐ties are just one of a range of treatments for DDSP in horses.
“Among the conservative treatments, the use of a ‘Cornell collar’, grackle or crossed nosebands, as well as a variety of bits or bit attachments, that act to depress the tongue, have been described.
“However, there has been limited scientific study of the efficacy of these items, either in combination or isolation.”
Horse sports are in the public eye more than ever and the improper use of equipment must be discouraged for these sports to maintain their social licence to operate, the researchers said.
“Racing authorities may see merit in committing to further research that explores the use of tongue-ties and their justification in sports that wish to be considered ethical.
“As the current report reflects the findings of a pilot study, we encourage those considering further research in these areas to consider its real‐world implications.”
They said their pilot study provided some insight into how and why tongue-ties are applied by some racehorse trainers, and the potential risks associated with their use.
The authors recommended a study involving a larger pool of horses and trainers, adding that their results were only valid for the 112 trainers who responded and cannot be generalized to the equine industry.
The study team comprised Weller, Glenn Shea, Kate Fenner, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy, all with the University of Sydney; Samantha Franklin with the University of Adelaide; and Cristina Wilkins, with Saddletops Pty Ltd.
Weller, D.; Franklin, S.; White, P.; Shea, G.; Fenner, K.; Wilson, B.; Wilkins, C.; McGreevy, P. The Reported Use of Tongue-Ties and Nosebands in Thoroughbred and Standardbred Horse Racing—A Pilot Study. Animals 2021, 11, 622. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11030622