A tongue tie is a large band (leather/rubber or lycra/neoprene) 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, racing authorities do not require any veterinary input or diagnosis before allowing trainers to use a tongue tie. 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 . However, a recent study showed that tongue ties used on racehorses did not increase the airway diameter and there was no evidence demonstrating improved upper airway function, with the authors questioning claims of the positive effect of tongue ties .
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 below for a video of how a tongue tie is applied.)
Racing rules introduced in 2020 require that a tongue tie must not be applied more than 30 minutes prior to the race time and that they must be removed as soon as practicable post-race. It is unclear as to the rigour to which these rules are enforced by stewards. The racing rules do not specify a 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 . 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 . 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.
Tongue ties are used by 71% of trainers in Thoroughbred racing with over 30% of horses having worn a tongue tie in at least one start . 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%).
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 . 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 whereupon their use in Thoroughbred but not standardbred racing was banned in 2018. Since 2004, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) prohibited the use of tongue ties across a range of equestrian sports. 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 have been scored as having a profound adverse impact on horse welfare by an international equine welfare workshop .
How you can help
The RSPCA continues to advocate the cessation of the use of tongue ties on horses as soon as possible but whilst their use continues, racing rules must be changed to require veterinary approval for each individual horse.
If you would like to make your concerns over the use of tongue ties known to racing authorities, please email Racing Australia email@example.com and Harness Racing Australia firstname.lastname@example.org
 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.
 Barton AK, Troppenz A, Klaus D et al (2022) Tongue ties do not widen the upper airways in racehorses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 55:642-648.
 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.
 Noschka E, Porter DBW, Franklin SH, Caraguel CG (2021) Tongue-tie use in Thoroughbred racehorses in Australia. Australian Veterinary Journal, 99(9):344-350.
 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. (accessed on Oct 8 2019)
 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. (accessed on Oct 8 2019)