What is a tongue tie?

A tongue tie is a band that ties the horse’s tongue to the bottom jaw.

Once fitted, tongue ties are fairly inconspicuous.

Does a tongue tie hurt the horse?

Because the tongue is very mobile, wet and slippery, the tie has to be fitted tightly to stay on, so the tie acts as a tourniquet, restricting blood flow.

Over time, a tourniquet causes intense pain and the intensity worsens the longer it is left on. In human medicine, the pressure and length of time a tourniquet is applied is carefully monitored, and conducted with pain relief or under anaesthesia due to the intensity of the pain it causes.

Reports of injuries and lacerations from tongue tie use in horses are not uncommon. There are also cases of necrosis (death of tissue) and complete loss of the lower section of the tongue.

Nerve damage can also occur, leading to tongue paralysis and difficulty eating.

A tongue tie is also likely to make swallowing difficult, and by squeezing the tongue at the level of the bit’s mouthpiece, it reduces the tongue’s cushioning effect over the bars of the mouth, which may increase the risk of injury and bruising caused by bit pressure.

Why fit a tongue tie?

Tongue ties are fitted to prevent the horse from getting the tongue over the bit’s mouthpiece. Bits apply pressure on the horse’s tongue, and some horses find this very aversive, so they move the tongue around to find relief.

Tongue over the bit is usually accompanied by a loss of control and can lead to the horse bolting.

Proponents of tongue ties say that it helps maintain a clear airway, but researchers have found no evidence to support that premise.

Some proponents incorrectly believe that the horse’s tongue can ‘block’ the airway (or that the horse can swallow the tongue – this is incorrect). Anatomically, the tongue cannot block the airway – they cannot ‘swallow’ the tongue because of how it attaches to the bottom jaw. Additionally, the horse is an ‘obligate nasal breather’ – horses cannot breathe through the mouth.

There are reports of improved performance when a tongue tie is fitted on a horse, but experts say it is more likely because of increased control, and not a respiratory advantage.

Are tongue ties legal?

Tongue tie use is permitted in most major horse racing jurisdictions, such as Australia and New Zealand, the UK and the US. Germany banned them in 2020.

Tongue ties are permitted in Arabian horse shows. They have been approved for the warm up for some time and the AHA recently approved their use in ridden and driven competition. The rule will be effective from Dec 31st 2023 or earlier, when the USEF/EC approves the change.

Tongue ties are banned by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) over concerns about how long they would have to be on for.

A series of images describing how a tongue tie is fitted.

Fitting an elastic tongue tie is a messy and slippery affair.


Tongue ties. A horse with tongue tie applied.

How to fit a tongue tie

Fitting an elastic tongue tie is a messy and slippery affair.

Step 1: You need a large elastic band, a stocking, or a purpose-built tongue tie.

Step 2: Grab the tongue firmly (it’s slippery), and pull it outside the mouth so you can wrap the band as close to the frenulum as possible (the frenulum is the attachment to the bottom jaw) .

Step 3: Wrap the band once or more times (usually twice) around the tongue to ensure the tongue doesn’t slip out of the tie, then around the lower jaw, securing everything in place.

More information

Read the in-depth report on tongue ties here.

Webinar on tongue ties and tight nosebands, by Prof. Paul McGreevy

Find out why horses put the tongue over the bit and what you can do to prevent it (without tongue ties).

Learn more about the anatomy of the mouth and respiratory system

What is a tongue tie?