Some of the world’s best equestrians have a few, notable things in common.

A focus on nutrition, conditioning, and the mental health of their horses; a strict fitness, sleep, and dietary regime. And, for a select group, the tendency to stick their tongues out while concentrating.

Take Great Britain’s Matthew Sampson. 

Sampson recently made headlines for his tie-win with Irish rider Paul O’Shea in the Friends of the Meadows CSI5* Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows. But that’s just the tip of the winnings iceberg for Sampson, 32, who’s been tearing up Canada’s West Coast with more than 18 victories at Spruce Meadows and Thunderbird Show Park this summer, alone.

In fact, according to JUMPR App, Sampson has banked more than 380,000 euro in prize money in 2022, posting clear rounds 57 percent of the time, including an impressive 53 percent in CSI5* competition. 

By all accounts, Sampson has some serious horse power at his disposal thanks to top mounts Fabrice DN, Ebolensky, and Curraghgraigue Obos Flight. And the British rider has certainly earned a reputation for his guts and speed in the ring. But maybe, just maybe, could Sampson’s recent slew of top results could be due to another factor?

We’ll just leave this here: 

Calgary, Alta Sep, 4, 2022 Matthew Sampson of GBR riding Ebolensky during the Friends of the Meadows Grand Prix 1.60 at the Spruce Meadows Continental. Mike Sturk photo.

Toddlers have always been known to stick their tongues out while concentrating. But it’s a well-documented fact that precise motor activity, specifically while using the hands, often leads to tongue-sticking in adults, as well. And when you’re jumping six-foot-tall fences at high rates of speed, let’s fact it: the slightest squeeze of the reins in your hands can make the difference between a clear round and thousands of dollars in prize money or a much less productive day at the office.   

But Sampson’s not the only example.

Other athletes with a penchant for tongue-sticking while show jumping include Ireland’s Simon McCarthy, a regular podium-climber as part of the standings-leading Helios Major League Show Jumping team.

There’s Belgian Olympian and 2022 World Championships Team Silver and Individual Bronze medalist Maikel van der Vleuten.

Maikel van der Vleuten. ©LGCT

Oh, and basketball G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan, lest you think these guys aren’t in good company.

But is it all just tongue and games, or is there some science behind all this lolling? 

According to a 2015 research paper by Comparative Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr. Gillian Forrester, something called ‘motor overflow’ can occur during complex activities involving the use of our hands, causing some of us to stick out our tongues. Forrester and her team studied how a group of four-year-old children did just that while participating in increasingly complex fine motor tasks. 

The result? Dr. Forrester discovered that not only is there a correlation between fine motor activity and tongue-sticking, but the way in which the children stuck out their tongues—typically, to the right side of their mouths—suggests an evolutionary link could be at work. 

“For me, the most exciting interpretation of the study is that right-biased activity of the tongue and hands during fine motor tasks supports the idea that hand and tongue articulation is governed by shared brain processes,” Dr. Forrester told the University of Westminster. “This would have provided a natural bridge for an early communication system to pass from hand gestures to speech in early man.”

Michael Jordan at Boston Garden. Steve Lipofsky at, CC BY-SA 3.0

According to IFL Science, a 2019 study found that the area in the left hemisphere of the brain that deals with complex hand movements sits next to another part of the brain that engages when we use language. For some individuals, Dr. Forrester believes, these overlapping areas on the left side of the brain can result in tongue-sticking to the right side when motor overflow occurs.

Since the tongue has a big job in its own right (think: helping you swallow, taste, and yes, create words when speaking), sticking out one’s tongue when the brain is engaged in other intensive activities (think: the timing of a critical half-halt, maintaining one’s position in the air, signaling the next fence to your horse) makes sense. It’s helping to eliminate one additional factor in the massive amount of data-input the brain is already working through. 

So, there you have it: Not only is sticking out one’s tongue while show jumping (or dunking) a perfectly normal tendency, it may also provide the athletes that do it with an evolutionary-prescribed advantage while focusing. 

Isn’t science grand?