THE upper respiratory tract (URT) is a good place to look in a bad-breather and the soft-palate a particular place of interest if the horse is heard to gurgle at the gallop. The condition under discussion here is properly termed Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate (DDSP) but is variously known as ‘swallowing his tongue’ and ‘flipping his palate’. The common first and cheapest trick to try is a tongue-tie - securing the horse’s tongue down and forward in the mouth so it cannot push up on the palate or get over the bit.


Unlike humans, horses have to breathe through their nose, never their mouth, even when running at full speed. Horses have to inhale/exhale once for every gallop stride and the pipework must be dilated wide and free from obstruction. If not, the horse struggles in his breathing and falters in his stride. It’s often the winning or losing of a race, particularly over longer distances or on heavy going. Five-furlong sprinters might get over the line almost before their body knows it lacks oxygen, but stayers fall in a heap going to the last - fence or furlong as the case may be.

Loosened sail

All jockeys have experienced a faltering horse, hopes dashed of lasting it home. They know the sinking feeling of a horse running out of gas beneath them. These horses ‘gurgle’ as they push the tongue up and back, displacing their palate from its expected position. The palate flaps like a loosened sail in the wind; the horse swallows and slows; and so the race passes by.

Nylons and rubber bands are commonly and cheaply used to tie the tongue down and forward. Fixing flaccid, flabby palates in their proper place can really make the difference, but fitness, maturity and good respiratory health really matter too – look for lung disease before blaming the palate.

Alternatives to tongue-ties include:

  • Nasal strips placed to dilate nostrils might improve airflow.
  • Australian nosebands (an orange rubber strip seen down the front of the face) help hold the bit higher in the mouth.
  • Glycerine syringed into the mouth might make palate and tongue stick more to each other.
  • A crossed noseband might encourage the horse to keep his mouth closed and lips apposed.
  • Cauterising (burning) the soft-palate may stiffen it so that it less likely to flap free at the wrong moment.
  • Chemicals injected into the palate may get it to function better, staying firmly in place unless a swallow is in order.
  • A ‘tie-forward’ operation permanently moves the larynx to lie up more cosily against the soft palate.
  • Horses with tongue-ties may:

  • Seemingly tolerate them okay, particularly during exercise when the mind is focused elsewhere.
  • Get distressed by the tongue being held fixed to the lower jaw, shake their heads and fail to concentrate on the task at hand, defeating the purpose.
  • Suffer sore, cut or occasionally paralysed tongues from poorly fitted devices.
  • Bleeders

    Remember the fad for treating ‘bleeders’ by tying a ligature around the tail, anyone? For a device that might distress or harm horses, it seems odd that there is no standard applied to tongue-ties beyond a race-declaration. There is no need for veterinary evidence to support the benefit in an individual horse nor real oversight of how well it is fitted or by whom! Is trial and error really good enough these days?