What do we know about how horses…er…gustate? Not very much, apparently, so let’s also take a look at a few other significant functions of the tongue.
1. Good reception
Horses do have taste receptors, which are similar to our taste buds and can certainly distinguish between various flavours. Their taste receptors are mostly located on the roof of the mouth and the rear portion of the tongue. Hence their ability to lick pure salt without grimacing.
2. Sniff test
Smell probably plays a larger role in food preference than taste alone, however, it is very difficult to separate smell from taste when studying food preferences, just as in people. So, ideally, a proper study would have all foods presenting the same aroma, but with different tastes – think chocolate that smells like fish…or vice versa.
3. A spoonful of sugar
Horses appear to prefer tasting sweet and salty flavours. This is why you can use molasses or applesauce to mask oral medications. At least for a little while.
4. We don’t discriminate…
Contrary to some old farmers’ tales, horses do not possess “nutritional wisdom” and do not choose healthy foods over other food options if those options are equally palatable. However, they are selective grazers, based on taste and texture, when there is enough forage available to choose from.
5. …except sometimes
They usually will avoid toxic plants if there are better choices available, but will eat them if pasture or hay is limited, so check for problem plants if there are any in your area, particularly if your horses’ forage is restricted for dietary or management reasons.
6. Baby that’s good!
They will also choose to graze down younger, more tender plants over tougher, more mature plants, but it’s unclear if taste or texture is the main reason. Rotational grazing plans, mowing, and pasture dragging to keep horses grazing in a more uniform and efficient pattern is recommended.
7. On the tip of my tongue
The horse’s tongue is very mobile and helps the incisors and lips select and grasp feed and move it into the mouth. The tip of the tongue is very sensitive and allows the horse to choose what it wants in its mouth since it can’t see right in front of its nose.
8. Hold your tongue
The equine tongue has 12 different muscles, and is mucosa-covered and slippery on the bottom and sides to allow food particles to slide along without getting stuck where the tongue presses against the teeth.
9. Tongue twister
The top of the tongue is covered with tiny protuberances called papillae that provide traction for moving food down to the esophagus for swallowing. A food mass will stick to the top of the tongue so the horse can press it against the roof of its mouth and move it to the teeth for mastication. The more the food is masticated, the more it breaks down, releasing nutrition, and the more saliva is produced to assist in digestion.
10. Tongue in cheek
And, as some of us do, horses do use their tongues to clean their teeth, poking out leftover food and allowing saliva to wash over them. Seconds anyone?