Hysteria is sweeping the Dressage Nation! Tongues are flying everywhere, blood gushing out! Nosebands are so tight they are causing horse’s muzzles to literally fall off their faces and lifeless blue tongues are lolling as a result of relentless bit violence! Seriously. This all reminds me of the Monty Python sketch that simultaneously makes fun of pompousness (no shortage of that in DQ land) and humanity’s seemingly insatiable appetite for gratuitous violence – real or imagined.

 I really hesitate to pick a fight with Astrid, but it goes against my ‘no sacred cows’ nature to keep quiet about her editorial from last week. So here I go, stepping in the brown, gooey stuff again: There is a disconcerting melange of topics all strung together in the article, suggesting an inextricable link from too-tight nosebands, to protruding tongues, to bleeding as a result of a bitten tongue or lip. On the too-tight noseband segment of her editorial there are two points I’d like to raise:

1. the photo of the horse with a ‘very low and tight noseband, nostrils flared’ is in fact a photo of a drop noseband, which has long been accepted, far and wide, by masters and amateurs alike, as a legitimate noseband option, both in schooling and competition. The ‘nostrils’ are ‘flared’ because the horse is clearly working.

Sweaty Racehorse with Flared Nostrils Stock Photo - 5657054

Look at this fine fellow’s flared nostrils. Can’t blame this on a tight, low noseband, can we?

2. the comment that riders ‘fix’ tongue issues by lowering the noseband is not borne out by reality. If you lower a cavesson much below the bottom of the cheek bone,  the lips will become pinched between the cavesson and bit, resulting in chafing, rawness and – wait for it – bleeding. The accompanying argument that nosebands are tightened to keep the tongue inside its proper home (instead of waving hello to the judges) reflects a lack of basic understanding of the anatomy of the horse’s mouth, which has a large gap between the incisors and the molars known as the bars. That’s where the bit sits. And no matter how tightly you do up the noseband, there is still plenty of room for a horse’s tongue to push through that gap. 


See this cutie pie here? That is my own horse, Theo, who obliged me with a demonstration of one of his favourite time wasting habits while standing in the cross ties a couple of days ago. This was no freaky moment caught by the camera; he performs this little stunt often, particularly when he’s excited to be going out for a ride, back to his stall for dinner, or when he’s just glad to see me (instead of a flashlight in his pocket). He’s always been what you call an ‘oral’ type, but he picked up the tongue trick from a paddock neighbour he had last year. The horse he picked it up from is a handsome little devil I’ve known since he was an unstarted two year old, and guess what? He has been sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth since long before he saw his first bridle.

 I suspect not everyone whose been opining on all things lengual has spent enough time in the stable and in the saddle lately. Sticking the tongue out is indeed often a sign that the horse is reacting defensively to the bit, which is attached to the rider’s hands via the reins, don’t you know. But it is not a universal truth. Some horses just like playing with their tongues, and sometimes that includes while they are in the tack.

If judges were to exercise discretion and good ‘judgment’ (what a concept) when witnessing the appearance of the naughty pink thing, and if they weren’t so hard on slightly open mouths when they are not accompanied by other signs of resistance, maybe folks wouldn’t be doing up their nosebands so tightly. Anyone ever brought that up in all those round table discussions?

As for the rightness or wrongness of the FEI Dressage Committee’s attempt to create a rule that fairly addresses small amounts of blood from a bitten tongue or lip, I need at least a week of sleepless nights to have anything like a well-thought-out opinion. The one cliche that does come to mind is that sometimes there’s just no way around it: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.