Horses and Their Tongues: What's up with that?

After such good, but heavy conversation in my recent posts, I thought it would be fun to take a look at a lighter side of race horses. This includes a new angle for betting I have stumbled upon for the Belmont and my prediction of who could win.

While touring the awesome stallions at Lane's End Farm, my buddy Aragorn stood out from the crowd with a talent I had not witnessed in person. His tongue was merrily wrapping up and around his handler's arm. That tongue was talented, and it was quite humorous.

That experience made me think back to pictures of Tiago and Cosmonaut from their races and daily activities. Tiago is captured eating strange trees and shrubbery, he seems to often be in his own world but is just cute. After Market's pics in the Del Mar Handicap on August 27, 2007 has great revelations of tongue action. Buddha displayed his tongue during the Wood Memorial Stakes in 2002. Pyro does it as well and since I am a big fan, here are some pics of him by Anne M. Eberhardt

Pyro by Anne M. Eberhardt
Caption: Pyro - Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Pyro by Anne M. Eberhardt
Caption: Pyro - Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

These things made me wonder what is up with horses and their tongues?

Evan suggested one idea. His wife trains Thoroughbred horses for three-day eventing, and she has spoken of horses licking their lips. She said there are horses who lick their lips as a sign of processing. So a horse licking their lips is a sign of thinking and learning, not that horses who don't lick their lips aren't. In eventing, horses have much more to learn, compared to racing, with various commands, techniques, and habits.

I often hear stories of horses who will stand around and simply roll their tongues. So Marta pointed me to Aljabr at Shadwell Farm. Stories have been told of his true tongue-rolling talent. If the tongue thing works out, then maybe a new genetic quirk for greatness exists, and I need to be credited for it's exposure. Here is Aljabr's page:

Big Brown by Rick Samuels
Caption: Big Brown and his Big Tongue - Photo: Rick Samuels

A new Triple Crown angle, that's what's up with their tongues.

The Belmont. Yes, the Belmont. I have learned through my co-worker Amidala, at least two past Belmont winners are horses who like their tongues being pulled. Victory Gallop, formerly at WinStar, likes his tongue to be pulled. Victory Gallop denied Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998 on a photo finish. On top of that, his son Anak Nakal will be contending in this year's Belmont. We could also look at Empire Maker, as he will stick out his tongue for you to pull. Empire Maker denied Funny Cide the 2003 Triple Crown. Is it genetics that plays a role, as in this son of Unbridled? Unbridled enjoyed having his tongue pulled. If that is the case, you might want to take a very close look at Anak Nakal!

Let me explain it like this: If Empire Maker and Unbridled both like their tongues being pulled, and Empire Maker is a son of Unbridled. Then if Victory Gallop won the Belmont and enjoys a good tongue pull, then Anak Nakal is destined to lick the field, right? I think we need to discover if Anak Nakal enjoys having his tongue pulled...if so, this angle just might work. Here is a recent article on Anak Nakal from

Curlin by Anne M. Eberhadt
Caption: Curlin - Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

How about Tongue Ties?

Tough-guy Tom Hall made a good point on tongue ties. Would you start a collection of famous horses' tongue ties? Marta laughed and said she would not, due to the excessive slobber on the ties. Then a discussion followed describing the different materials and objects they have heard of being used for tongue ties and how you can find a nice variety laying on or around the track if you look. I seemed to have pictured an event like searching for seashells on a beach.

Tongue Tie by Anne M. Eberhardt
Caption: Tongue Tie - Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Anyway, If you all demand it, there are other talent angles to choose from such as Summer Squall who enjoyed lifting the foreleg for a peppermint (courtesy of Suzanne) or horses who enjoy having their gums rubbed. I also enjoyed the peanut-butter on Mr. Ed's gums to make him "talk."

UPDATE June 2, 2008:

Well Scoop Novak helped me to track down a direct source of Anak Nakal. Apparently Anak Nakal does not like his tongue to be pulled, that dosn't mean he won't play with his tongue, but, this very well could throw out my theory of the tongue angle in the Belmont. Or could it? I am not sure if all the answers we need can be taken from this pretty simple statement. Our source stated, "We don't really mess with our horses after they're done galloping; we pout them up in teir stalls and leave them be." Then Scoop asked, "Does Anak Nakal enjoy tongue action?" and the source answered, "Never. He'll bite you, that's what he'll do." 

There has been some discussion of tongue ties and the previous picture. Here is a "hot off the press" look at Big Brown's personal tongue tie. 

Caption: Big  Brown's Tongue Tie Photo: Rick Samuels

Caption: Big Brown's Tongue Tie Track Side Photo: Rick Samuels



Leave a Comment:

Claire Novak

Nice entry, Adam! One of your best yet.

30 May 2008 11:15 AM

A horse named Charlevoix, an allowance winner (now retired) used to stick his tongue out at anyone passing by.  JZ Warrior will lift her leg for a peppermint, and Jini used to do a little shuffling dance with her front feet while waiting for hers.

30 May 2008 11:31 AM
needler in Virginia

OK, if we're telling tongue stories, I submit the following:

In 1989 we visited Three Chimneys (back when they stood only four stallions and one pensioned fella -- Nodouble), and got to meet the wonderful Seattle Slew, Chief's Crown, Shahrastani and we were told by the manager that Slew O' Gold LOVED having his tongue pulled, but that we had to "stick with it". He, apparently, hated NOT having his tongue pulled. So we talk some more, and I'm pulling the tongue, and the stallion seemed happy enough, but when I took a nanosecond off from the pulling, he lodged his complaint AND his teeth in the meaty part of my arm just below the elbow.  The manager kept apologizing as my arm turned black, but HEY! I'm the fool who stopped pulling, and it wasn't the farm's fault! The horse settled right back when I resumed pulling.....with my LEFT... the right was somewhat disabled.


It's those quirks that we remember, right??

Cheers and safe trips to all.

30 May 2008 11:32 AM

I have an ex racehorse ( ran 11 years over 120 starts) that is now a jumper.  He has his tongue out when ridden 99% of the time.  He also spends alot of time in his stall "making faces"  where he will play with his tongue, yawn, and open his mouth.  He is happiest with his tongue out.

30 May 2008 12:09 PM

The tongue thing seems to be an Unbridled line trait.  Grandson Rockport Harbor.  Buddha babies I've met.  (El Prado loves it, too.)

The "giving the paw" thing for mints -- Vindication and Lion Hearted come to mine.

The notion of the horse licking his lips while processing or thinking sounds plausible.  I've seen clinics (with wild mustangs) where the "horse-whisperer" indicated it is a good sign during the training regimen, that the horse is considering trusting you and accommodating you in what you want him to do.

30 May 2008 12:13 PM

your last photo of the tongue tie and tonguee sticking out--this happens when the tie is improperly placed.  after the tie is put on, if the tongue then hangs out, the tie should be removed, the tongue put in proper position and the tie retied.  horses who go to the track with tongues out (a very recent phenomenon) either have improperly applied tongue ties or other equipment problems.  horses naturally keep their tongue in their mouths, much like humans.

30 May 2008 12:13 PM

ahhhh. Adam, gotta luv ya, lol. i love your articles, and you sure know how to lighten things up...

my FELLOW PYRO FAN! i like pyro too....i have no clue what's going on with any ideas?

30 May 2008 12:19 PM
Sarava Partners

We do the marketing for Belmont winner Sarava in his stud career, and he definately has the tongue. He'll stick it out for his owner and let you pet it while its out. We have a photo of him while he was still on the track with his tongue sticking out like that. You could be on to something...

30 May 2008 12:27 PM
jonathan kurtin

i had a horse name Madgical about 10 yrs ago.  loved to have his tounge rubbed.  that was the good news the bad news was he had a bad case of the slows

30 May 2008 12:28 PM

Very interesting, why do some have their tongues tied while racing?

30 May 2008 12:32 PM

Fun article! Not all things must be so serious even as we approach a historic run for glory.( I always did like that Victory Gallop colt although I am hoping for a triple crown winner)

30 May 2008 12:35 PM

One of my favorite little fillies will spend twenty minutes per hand, licking it like a puppy.  She's won her share of races!

30 May 2008 12:50 PM

Way back in the late 80s, I visited Claiborne Farm and met another horse who enjoyed tongue play. Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor would flip his tongue over so that its bottom would be facing the roof of his mouth for a treat. (More trivia: Sir Ivor occupied the stall next to Secretariat's, which would later become Unbridled's.)

And I read somewhere that Sir Gallahad III (sire and grandsire of Triple Crown winners) loved to have his tongue pulled.

30 May 2008 1:02 PM

haven't had one yet out of five that had a tongue feddish...all have been good Horses...Mr. Squeaky had a little mean streak...

30 May 2008 1:35 PM

I know a couple of dressage horses that seem really licky while tacking up.  I take it as a sign that the horses are paying attention to the rider on the ground.  

On good days, my horse will stick his nose into my tummy while I'm bridling him (when I'm standing in front to make sure everything is even) and chew the bit.  On really good days, he'll do that *and* lick me.  Which leaves a slobbery green mess on my shirt, but oh well.  

(A "good day" is when the horse is attentive, energetic, and responsive.  A "really good day" is when they're so eager to please that sometimes they try to anticipate what I want.)

30 May 2008 1:46 PM

flyinhome: thanks a lot, I believe Pyro peaked early, but will be back in the game here soon. He needs to stay in a few graded races that work for closers. Then the confidence will come back.

J McM: That is a good question and topic, I will look into that and post more on it.

Sarava Partners: That is great! Another Belmont winner with a tongue fixation. Not just that, but I was told he is the largest long shot ever to win the Belmont.

30 May 2008 2:30 PM
s lee

They say that some horses stick their tongue out when they've had enough.  In the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in deep stretch War Admiral supposedly flipped his tongue out of the side of his mouth and Seabiscuit's jockey said to himself, "that's it, he's done" and they started to draw away.

As with so many things, each horse is probably a little different!

30 May 2008 2:55 PM

Anyone remember the Woodward a few years back when Premium Tap and Second of June battled down to the wire and Premium Taps' tongue just flapped the whole way down. That was the first time I really started to notice that A LOT of horse run with tongues flapping.

30 May 2008 4:52 PM

Remember ***BAYAKOA?***

That champion mare loved to run with her tongue hanging all the way out. It would just hang out the side of her mouth during the race.

Given that she was a front runner, it would seem that she was literally sticking her tongue out at the competition!!! It was hilarious.

30 May 2008 6:09 PM

While under tack, the main reason a horse sticks their tongue out is discomfort.  You never see horses running around in the field with their tongues stuck out.  

30 May 2008 9:55 PM

I'm a Pyro fan too!  I read he is next scheduled to run in the Northern Dancer Stakes on June 14th!

30 May 2008 10:38 PM

Chewing or licking can definitely be a sign of thinking or understanding, and I agree that often a horse that likes to play games with his tongue is of above average intelligence. I have had many wonderful animals with that trait that were a dream to train and several world champions in the group.

It is also true that "spitting the bit" or a horse pulling his tongue up over the bit is a sign that he has had enough. Actually, a horse with his tongue over the bit can put his rider in a very dangerous situation, the bit sits on the very fragile bars of the horse's mouth, leaving the rider with a steering wheel that is too far sensitive and prone to injure the horse. Preventing the tongue from getting on top of the bits is a primary reason for tying the tongue for most breeds, but it is NOT a practice for an uninformed user. It is VERY easy to actually kill the horse's tongue with misuse. (just in case someone new to the business wants to try this...please ask a skilled professional)  

I can say that at least in some cases those horses are racing with their tongues intentionally tied flapping in the wind. The point is that the trainer pulls the tongue out as far as he considers "comfortable" (hard to imagine isn't it?)in order to minimize the bulk of the tongue that fills the upper cavity of the horse's palate. The idea is that this helps increase the breathing room for some horses, particularly those with unusually long or bulky tongues. We are talking about the top winning trainers, not uninformed rookies either. This is highly preferable to the practice I have seen (although very rarely) in several other breeds where the tongue is actually shortened by 3 or 4 inches surgically. Again, I am talking about top professionals, not barbarians out in the plains...

31 May 2008 11:20 AM

Oh yea Second of June was a hell of a Race Horse...$7,500 2yo in training purchase @ Ocala sale...

31 May 2008 6:16 PM

Add this to the list of great (good, rather) horses who run with their tounges sticking out-Dreaming of Anna ran the entire Breeders' Cup Juvinile Fillies with her tounge sticking out-you can see it on the replays.

31 May 2008 8:40 PM

Thank-you LIZ. You know what you are talking about.  Some of these other comments are from left field...

01 Jun 2008 9:37 AM

We had the pleasure of owning a quarter horse, Nervous Engery until he was 28 years old.  After racing through age 12, I kept in pasture to enjoy his life.  He was always chewing on his tongue, sideways.  It was pretty funny.  He would stand in front of the window when it was time to eat and just chew away.  I sure miss my friend.

01 Jun 2008 2:15 PM

I had a horse that turned his tongue sideways between his front teeth and played with it all day. He loved for you to scratch it or pull on it, but if he didn't have anyone to play with, he would entertain himself. I also had horses who would spend hours playing a gentle tug-o-war over a fence with their tongues. It was almost like they were holding hands. I am always amazed at people who don't realize that animals have individual personalities and intelligence comparable, in some ways, to that of a human.

02 Jun 2008 9:50 AM

Not a racehorse story, but my best friend used to ride a little bay gelding who spent his days in his stall with his tongue lolling out (he licked and slobbered on people, too). The joke around the stable was that he was half Thoroughbred and half...beagle.

02 Jun 2008 11:36 AM

So Adam, do you like these horses because they stick their tongues out, or is that just an added bonus?

One of my friends and I got to see Victory Gallop and Real Quiet  on the same day (after they had been retired). Victory Gallop had licked her hand and let her pull on his tongue, so she felt guilty when she was petting Real Quiet a few hours later!

02 Jun 2008 3:13 PM

I have a tongue tale. "Back in the day" I used to work with sales 2yo's and hold horses for the blacksmith. One of the 2 year olds I worked with was a colt that loved for you to play with his  lip and pull his tongue. He was eventually named Louis Quatorze, & went on to win the Preakness! So, there MUST be a connection there.

02 Jun 2008 4:46 PM

Eddington, Unbridled's son, will stick his tongue out for a peppermint and leave it hanging until his handler produces the treat. Adam, you are a genius! That's it! The secret of speed and endurance is in the tongue!

02 Jun 2008 9:12 PM

Also, the great race mare, Bayakoa, ran with her tongue hanging out!

02 Jun 2008 9:13 PM
julia b

Thats funny you write an article about this - I got a kick out of photographing horses at the Breeders Cup at Churchill a couple years ago - some of them had their tongues hanging out  so I took pics of them all- we like to look at them and laugh !

02 Jun 2008 9:26 PM

Justbecause: Tongues are an added bonus. I admit I started following Pyro when he started his 2YO racing career due to his name. What a sweet name. Then I was very impressed with how well he did and thus still support him today.

I am guilty of often liking horses for their names...but it seems the horses I pick do great anyway. I still need Jedi Code to get healthy and prove more of himself.

Tiago is just a cute horse. We have pictures, which I can't post, of him eating strange shrubbery and trees ect...he just has a day dream demeanor about him hehe.

FloridaMel:Not just Belmont winners but Preakness winners too huh?

03 Jun 2008 9:36 AM
equine paparazzi

My wife visited Winstar to see Tiznow and made friends with Victory Gallop. He let her pull on his tongue forever. It made Tiznow jealous as she had been paying attention to him up to the tongue pulling session.

Also, Bluesthestandard, who ran 2nd in the 2003 BC Sprint, loved getting his gums massaged. He would let us rub his gums for as long as we could do it. He was a notorius for biting; in the beginning it was a leap of faith

to stick your hand in his mouth. He never bit us, but he was the devil with his grooms.

03 Jun 2008 6:22 PM

I don't think racehorses should have their tongues tied while they are racing or at any other time.  Can you imagine athletes running with their tongues tied?

25 Aug 2008 12:40 AM

my horse yawns and sticks his tongue out a lot.  is something wrong? or is he just bored or anxious to eat.  i just want to make sure something is not wrong. He does not do it when he is riding. any ideas

13 Oct 2010 11:45 AM

i dont think tying a horse's tongue should be seen as "helping" the horse breathe better, just another example of the harshness in some industries. horses will place their tongues over the bit to avoid the pain some bits cause on the palate, obviously this effects the control of the rider. horses "playing" with the bit or sticking out their tongues is more likely just a sign of discomfort. a bitless bridle can work just as well as any other control mechanisms by just understanding the horse better.

31 Jan 2011 4:26 AM

Great thread.

I worked with Deck of Stars, a quarter horse legend.  Though not a thorough bred, he was a big horse.  Anyway, I used to go in his stall and draw pictures of him....a hobby of mine.  Every time I went in, he stuck out his tongue and would walk toward me.  The handler told me he just wanted his tongue scratched.  He did it every time anyone got near him.  Great horse.

17 Apr 2011 4:54 PM

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