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What is the RSPCA position on the use of tongue ties in horse racing?

Article ID: 736
Last updated: 09 Jul, 2018
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A tongue tie is a large elastic band or nylon stocking that is tightly wrapped around a horse’s tongue and then tied around the lower jaw to keep the tongue in place during training or racing. The use of tongue ties is permitted under the rules of racing and is widespread in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred (harness) racing in Australia. The RSPCA is opposed to the use of tongue ties because of the pain and distress they inflict on horses.

Tongue ties are used with the aim of improving racing performance for two main reasons:

  • to prevent the horse getting their tongue over the bit during a race
  • to preventing ‘choking’, or the airway being obstructed by soft tissue at the back of the mouth  during high intensity exercise.

However, the decision to use a tongue tie does not require any veterinary input or diagnosis. Research indicates that while tongue ties may prevent ‘choking’ in a small proportion of horses, the exact mechanism by which they do this is unclear, and they have no beneficial effect on the majority of horses [1]. 

Horses attempt to get their tongue over the bit to avoid the discomfort of unrelenting pain and pressure when the rider does not relax the reins. A well-trained horse that responds to light pressure and release will not usually attempt to avoid the bit in this way.

How and when are tongue ties applied?

The process of applying a tongue tie involves firmly grabbing hold of the horse’s tongue and twisting the tie around the base of the tongue in a figure of eight, then pulling or tying the band over the bottom jaw to hold the tongue in place. The band may be made of nylon stocking, leather or elastic and is applied as tightly as the trainer or handler decides. (See here for a visual description and video of how a tongue tie is applied.)

Tongue ties are usually applied before the horse leaves the stables prior to a race and are reported as usually being left on the horse for up to 30 minutes during training and 20 minutes during racing [2]. Racing rules do not specify a time limit for the use of a tongue tie and there is no requirement for veterinary assessment of tongue health after their use. 

Tongue ties are used by 72% of trainers in Thoroughbred racing with over 30% of horses having worn a tongue tie in at least one start [3]. Once a tongue tie has been applied to a horse, it was used in 84% of their subsequent races. The use of tongue ties is higher in jumps races (45%) than in flat races (32%).

Eighty-five percent of Standardbred trainers report using tongue ties during racing and/or training [2]. The main reason given for their use was to prevent the horse getting their tongue over the bit (78%) with only 37% of trainers reporting that their use was related to suspected airway obstruction. 

What are the animal welfare impacts of tongue ties?

Problems associated with tongue tie use include horses showing signs of pain, anxiety and distress, difficulty swallowing, cuts and lacerations to the tongue, bruising and swelling. The restriction of blood flow by the tongue tie use can cause the tongue to turn blue and can result in permanent tissue damage.

A recent study of 12 Standardbred horses found that those fitted with a tongue tie showed significantly more signs of stress than horses without a tongue tie, and this stress increased with previous use [4]. This suggests that horses find tongue ties aversive and do not habituate to this discomfort.

In Germany, the racing industry has recognised tongue ties as a serious problem and recently banned them. Tongue ties have also been banned across a range of equestrian sports by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). In some countries their use in winter is prohibited or restricted because of the potential for tissue damage and frostbite of the exposed tongue. Tongue ties were scored as having a profound adverse impact on horse welfare by a recent international equine welfare workshop [5].

How you can help

If you would like to make your concerns over the use of tongue ties known to racing authorities, please email Racing Australia racingaustralia@racingaustralia.horse and Harness Racing Australia hra@harness.org.au 

References

[1] Franklin SH, Naylor JRJ and Lane JG (2002) The effect of a tongue-tie in horses with dorsal displacement of the soft palate. Equine Veterinary Journal, Suppl. 34:430-433.

[2] Findley JA, Sealy H and Franklin SH (2016) Factors associated with tongue tie use in Australian Standardbred racehorses. Equine Veterinary Journal 48, Suppl. 50:5–30.

[3] Porter D et al. (2017) Tongue-tie use in Australian Thoroughbred horses over a 5-year period (2009-2013). Proceedings of the World Equine Airway Symposium, Copenhagen, Denmark, p155. 

[4] Latimer-Marsh L et al. (2017) The effect of tongue-tie application on stress responses in resting horses. Proceedings of the 13th International Equitation Science Conference, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia, p38.

[5] McGreevy et al. (2018) Using the Five Domains Model to assess the adverse impacts of husbandry, veterinary, and equitation interventions on horse welfare. Animals 8(3):41. 
 

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