Flabby Cheeks

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“Flabby Cheeks” Is A Major Cause Of Most Bit Problems In Horses

Excessive tissue laying in front of the bottom first cheek teeth can become extremely irritating to some horses. Here is where a picture is better than words (see below). Rounding the first cheek teeth is commonly called the bit seat. The purpose is to smooth out the edges to prevent the trapping of this excessive tissue. Flabby cheeks is actually in some horses the primary cause of bit pain.

For some reason I get everyone’s attention when I say “flabby cheeks”, but its’ importance cannot be overstated. It is the reason behind the creation of a bit seat and why many horses have trouble with a bit in their mouth.

“Flabby cheeks” is my description of excessive cheek tissue just behind the corners of the lips. In my experience, many of these horses are easy to float as long as I don’t go anywhere near the lower first cheek teeth. I sometimes need to administer pain medication just to finish the float. These horses are literally scarred of anticipated pain. My goal is to round the front aspect of this tooth so when the excessive tissue moves into this area, it can also easily move out without becoming trapped.

Another area where excessive tissue can become trapped and pinched by the teeth is at the base of the tongue next to the last bottom cheek teeth. These horses are very sensitive and respond favorably to the smoothing of the inside area of the last bottom teeth. I call this “Flabby Tongue” and is less common than “Flabby Cheeks.”

Flabby Cheeks in equine dentistry“Flabby Cheeks” – This picture is an example of a severe case of “Flabby Cheeks” where the cheek tissue drapes over the lower left first cheek tooth. This horse actually had a sore that is underneath the skin.

“Flabby Cheeks” And The “Threshold Of Pain” – A Question About Bits


This request came to me last week.
“Watched the Bit Seat video and would like to request a topic for consideration – how bits work and what goes into selecting the right bit for the job. There’s got to be some science here, beyond just what feels right. Am particularly interested in how leverage really works on the horse’s mouth, how different bits fit into different mouths and associated categories of benefits and drawbacks. Heard the Stable Scoop interview with Myler and have watched that video series also. Concur that some but not all of that theory makes sense. I’ve worked with and watched trainers for many years and have been fortunate enough to know some very good, thoughtful ones. However, none has ever been able to give an answer to the “How does this bit work?” question in a “mechanical” sense.”


My response:

This subject is emotionally charged with horse owners today. There is a rift developing between those that use bits and those that ride bit-less. This question only asks how a bit works. My response may surprise you in that I believe that it is not how the bit works, but how the horse RESPONDS to the bit.

This space does not allow for an in depth response, however it will allow me to introduce two ideas I feel have been lacking in the discussion.

About 1980 there was a study done with fluroscopy (a movie using x-rays) where the position of the parts of the mouth were viewed without a bit and then with several bits. The name of the veterinary journal was Vm/Sac in case someone wanted to look it up.

Apparently it showed that pressure was applied to the tongue, bars, and the roof of the mouth. I think you and I could have guessed that.

There can’t be a single answer to the question “How does this bit work?” because horses, like people, are different. What works on one horse may not work on another.

There are 2 considerations. First is that too many people ride with their hands and not their seat. The hands and the bit should convey subtle cues. The second is very important but has not been adequately addressed. It is the threshold of pain of the horse. This is the most variable aspect regarding a horse’s response to the bit regardless of the bit’s action on the mouth. It needs to be factored into every horse when assessing bit response.

The cause of pain in the horse’s mouth needs to be addressed. Primary is the sharp edges of the first cheek teeth. More importantly is the excessive soft tissue in front of these teeth that is pinched when the bit traps it. I call this “flabby cheeks” and I have been trying to draw attention to this for years. While it is not an issue in every horse, in my experience, “flabby cheeks” affects to some degree about 1/3 to 1/2 of the horses I see.

From my perspective, the added mechanics of the bit, such as curb chains, long shanks, and twists, are all to respond to the horse’s reaction to resistance, bracing, reluctance to turn, or reluctance to bend. I know that after floating horses with bit issues, coupled sometimes with changing the bit to a smaller diameter, many horses show remarkable improvement.

Some “bit issues” are not in the bit at all. I have seen horses with nuchal bursa inflammation and cervical pathology (both in the neck) that once treated, resolve bolting and other severe “bit issues.” I have also seen a few horses that only riding without a bit resolves the issue.

Your question, “How Do Bits Work,” needs to be restated to “How should bits work?” Gently, quietly, and with a light touch, no matter what kind of bit is used. I advocate smoothing all tooth edges, becoming aware of a horse’s “flabby cheeks”, and using light hand pressure. With these adjustments, I feel that any bit, and at best the simplest of bits, will work on most horses.

Maybe this is not what you wanted to hear, but I am as frustrated as you are with what people say about this issue. The facts, from my perspective, are clear. Float well, respect your horse’s response to “flabby cheeks,” and lighten up on the hands to resolve most bit issues.

By the way, you mentioned the word “theory.” Did you know that most theories in the horse world are unproven, especially in the world of equine dentistry? We all theorized without facts that the sun circled the earth until someone had enough facts to prove the theory of the earth circling the sun.

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia
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