The Importance Of The Tongue

Geoff Tucker, DVM FAQ - Advanced Leave a Comment

Pain Prevents The Tongue In The Horse From Moving Freely

If you have ever had a sore on your tongue or have bit it you know how difficult it becomes to move it around the mouth. Without this movement, 3 important effects are removed.

  1. Thoroughly cleaning debris from the mouth.
  2. Stimulating the tooth to strengthen it’s attachment in the mouth.
  3. Positioning food within the mouth for a good bolus formation.

The Importance Of The Tongue Is Completely Overlooked

In every discussion, article, and text about equine dentistry, there is never any 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 is not even mentioned.

The reason for this is simple. When talking about horse teeth or equine dentistry, everyone focuses on the teeth as they do in human dentistry. But in reality, it is the association of the teeth and the soft tissue around the teeth interacting with the horse’s perception of pain that 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 normally would be eaten? How about carrots or treats? Does it look like it is difficult 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 things like moist grain.

Do Horses Need Teeth To Maintain Their Weight?

As for digestion, an interesting study was completed recently where 17 horses with varying dental care were given the same feed. After a time, ingesta was sampled from the stomach, intestines and from the feces. Given the same feed and environment, but given 17 horses in different dental care, the end result (feces) was the same. If you have mucked stalls for any amount of time, then you already knew the results.

A conclusion from this is that as long as the food gets swallowed, the digestion occurs starting in the stomach. In fact this makes sense. The mouth, teeth, tongue, and saliva have the job of taking the raw food and making a bolus that the animal feels comfortable in swallowing. The saliva may add digestive enzymes and pH buffers, but it is basically a lubricant.

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. Pretty amazing to think that you can place the tip of your tongue behind your last tooth.

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 really doing is removing the pain and allowing the tongue to move freely. The horse goes better on the bit and eats better because pain has been eliminated.

In the past 7 days, I have had 3 horses extremely affected by the pain in their mouth. They could not chew comfortably and had become selective in what hay they ate as well as their consumption of carrots. One had even lost weight over the last few months. Within minutes after floating their mouths, the old chewing habits resumed 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 in it’s natural state 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 all involving old horses having difficulty chewing hay and grain and loosing weight. They were all great examples of pain as it relates to the ability for the tongue to freely move within the mouth.

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

The tongue as a muscle is equal in importance to 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 in forming 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, then the horse will loose 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 was seen in the 3 old horses I saw. Razor sharp points in horses with low thresholds of pain. After smoothing out the teeth and removing the sources of pain, all three horses within minutes were eating without spilling grain.

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

The first is to push the teeth which causes the teeth to become more firmly attached to the tooth socket. In older horses where the length of reserve crown (the part of the tooth below the gum) becomes as short or shorter than the part above the gum, an unstimulated tooth becomes loose and starts to wiggle. This allows feed and bacteria to invade the socket causing the tooth to eventually fall out. In every old horse that I have found loose teeth in, within 6 months of removing sharp pain causing edges, the teeth become firm within the socket.

The second is to clean the gum – socket junction. Almost every case of gum disease I have come across in the horse has resolved with first removing pain causing points and allowing the tongue to clean the area. In some cases, I additionally 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 it wears a trough midway back along the bottom row of teeth. I call this the “swale.” Others describe the resulting formation of higher back bottom teeth as a ramp. This ramp is normal and does not affect the horse on the bit but it should not be confused with a hook.

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 get the pain removed from your horse’s mouth and improve the dental health of your horses. Float them whether you use a bit or not.

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