The Importance Of The Tongue In Horses

Pain Prevents The Tongue In The Horse From Moving Freely

If you have ever had a sore on your tongue or have bitten it, you know how difficult it becomes to move it around the mouth. Without this movement, five important effects are removed:

  1. positioning food within the mouth for a good bolus formation,
  2. lubricate the bolus of food for swallowing,
  3. the ability to thoroughly clean debris from the mouth,
  4. distribute saliva and its enzymes and immunity chemicals (immunoglobulins),
  5. and stimulate the tooth to strengthen its attachment in the mouth.

The Importance Of The Tongue Is Completely Overlooked

In every discussion, article, and text about equine dentistry, there is no mention of the tongue except for gruesome laceration stories. The importance of the tongue in the ability of the horse to consume the food given it and to the overall maintenance of the health of the teeth should always be mentioned.

The reason for this is simple. When discussing horse teeth or equine dentistry, everyone focuses on the teeth as they do in human dentistry. But in reality, the association of the teeth and the soft tissue interacting with the horse’s perception of pain around the teeth causes disease or abnormalities.

Has your horse’s ability to chew hay or carrots changed? Is he now leaving behind the long stems or coarse hay that generally would be eaten without a problem? How about treats? Does it look like it is challenging to position? Chances are, the tongue is pressing against sharp points, and the horse is saying it’s just not worth it. After spitting out the food, he seeks out softer things like grass or smaller items like moist grain.

Do Horses Need Teeth To Maintain Their Weight?

As for digestion, a recently completed study was done where 17 horses with varying dental care were given the same feed. Afterward, material was sampled from the stomach, intestines, and feces. Given the same meal and environment but given 17 horses in different dental care, the result (feces) was the same. If you have mucked stalls for any time, you already know the results.

In conclusion, as long as the food gets swallowed, digestion starts in the stomach with the help of enzymes and the microbiota. This makes sense. The mouth, teeth, tongue, and saliva take the raw food and make a bolus that the animal feels comfortable swallowing. The saliva may add digestive enzymes and pH buffers, arguably the start of digestion, but it is primarily a means to get raw materials into the system.

The role of the tongue is to help position the food between the teeth, to switch the forming bolus from side to side, and to pass the bolus back to the larynx, where the esophagus takes over in the swallowing process. In addition, after the bolus is gone, the tongue moves around into every corner of the mouth to clean out pockets of food left behind. Go ahead, try it in your mouth. Amazingly, you can place the tip of your tongue behind your last tooth, as can the horse.

Recognizing the importance of the tongue to feel safe in the mouth is the basis for my approach to dentistry. If someone else calls it “balancing the mouth,” “equilibration of the mouth,” “creating proper lateral excursion,” “advanced equine dentistry,” “proper dentistry,” or whatever else, it doesn’t matter. Because what they are doing is removing the pain and allowing the tongue to move freely. The horse improves on the bit and eats better because pain has been eliminated.

In the past seven days, I have had three horses extremely affected by the pain in their mouth. They could not chew comfortably and had become selective in what hay they ate and their consumption of carrots. One had even lost weight over the last few months. The old chewing habits resumed within minutes after floating their mouths, and they all ate carrots without spilling. One even started to consume the long-stem hay he had left since the morning.

Most of you know that as a horseman, I like to keep things simple because life naturally is simple. Complicating things may make someone feel better, but I would rather make the horse feel better.

There Is Little Written About The Horse Tongue

Some interesting cases this past week involved old horses having difficulty chewing hay and grain and losing weight. They were all great examples of pain as it relates to the ability of the tongue to move within the mouth freely.

A review of all my veterinary texts offers no information regarding the tongue other than it can occasionally become cut in two. So, I will tell you what I know about the tongue.

As a muscle, the tongue is equally important as the heart and diaphragm. It is part of the swallowing process. The purpose of the tongue is to position the food between the teeth, help form a bolus that is the correct shape for swallowing, mix the food with the saliva for lubrication, and finally propel the bolus back to where it is swallowed. Several studies have proven that if food can be swallowed, then a horse can thrive. If efficient swallowing is prevented because the tongue is in pain and a bolus can’t be easily formed, the horse will lose weight from not swallowing the food.

The tongue must be free to move throughout the mouth to complete the bolus-forming and mixing process. The one thing that consistently prevents this freedom is seen in the three old horses I saw—razor-sharp points in horses with low thresholds of pain. After smoothing out the teeth and removing the sources of discomfort, all three horses ate without spilling grain within minutes.

But Wait… There’s More! The Horse Tongue Has Two Other Important Jobs

The first is to push the teeth, which causes them to become more firmly attached to the tooth socket. In older horses, where the length of the reserve crown (the part of the tooth below the gum) becomes as short or shorter as the part above the gum, an unstimulated tooth becomes loose and wiggles. This allows feed and bacteria to invade the socket, eventually causing the tooth to fall out or cause gum disease. In every old horse where I find loose teeth, the teeth become firm within six months of removing sharp pain-causing edges.

The second is to clean the gum–socket junction. Almost every case of gum disease I have encountered in the horse has been resolved by removing pain-causing points and allowing the tongue to clean the area. Sometimes, I add antibiotics and an oral flush with hydrogen peroxide (Peroxyl by Colgate).

One more thought on the tongue. In days long ago, men shaved using a straight steel blade that was sharpened by “stropping” the blade against a leather strap. The tongue acts like the leather strap stropping the teeth. This action causes two things. It sharpens the edges of the teeth into razors and wears a low spot midway back along the bottom row of teeth and the cheek side of the upper row of teeth. I call this the “swale.”

Have I seen a tongue cut and hanging by a thread? You bet. Did they have razor-sharp teeth? Unbelievably! Treatment? Float and give the tongue a safe place to heal, plus antibiotics. Outcome? Perfect reattachment.

So, remove the pain from your horse’s mouth and improve your horse’s dental health. Float them whether you use a bit or not. Remember, if the horse is chewing, their teeth need doing!