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Why are horses equipped with tongue straps?

28 Apr 2016

Air Force Blue will have a new piece of equipment to help him try and win the QIPCO 2000 Guineas

Air Force Blue heads 13 horses bidding to win the QIPCO 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. Image courtesy of Racingfotos.com.

Aidan O’Brien sprung a surprise today by declaring Air Force Blue to run in a first-time tongue strap in the QIPCO 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on Saturday.

None of O’Brien’s previous 39 runners in the race, dating back to 1998, have worn the aid.

Shortly before the Guineas gets under way the odds-on favourite for the first Classic of the season will have his tongue pulled as forward as possible and tied close to its base around the lower jaw with a nylon strap.

It sounds uncomfortable but horses seem unperturbed by the practice, which was first used more than a century ago.

In many cases it helps them perform better because the aid assists the respiratory system by stabilising the upper airway.

Also, it ensures the horse does not flip his tongue above the bit, making it easier for the jockey to be in control.

O’Brien has never been averse to using tongue straps and only yesterday, at Ascot, equipped Washington DC with one at Ascot. He ran below expectations but had won impressively when wearing one on his previous start.

It is unclear whether a 2000 Guineas winner has ever been tongue tied but it seems unlikely. There definitely has not been one since 1988, and between that year and 2002 not a single contender wore one.

Since 2002, the picture has been different with 11 runners being equipped with tongue straps. None have finished closer than fifth (Dream Eater in 2008) although, in fairness, most of those have been outsiders.

In some countries tongue straps are illegal during the winter months because of the risk of frostbite to the tongue. In Switzerland, they are not permitted at any time.