While horses are herbivores, they have substantial teeth. So the first time you see a horse reveal their teeth can be quite a frightening experience.

So why do horses show their teeth?

There are a few reasons why horses will naturally show their teeth. Some are reactions, while other reasons are a display of aggression or instinct. There are even horses who pick up a habit that will result in them displaying their teeth.

Reasons Why Horses Show Their Teeth

  1. Flehmen Response

Flehmen response is the most common type of teeth-displaying behavior that horses will engage in. While the Flehmen response is not native to horses only, and other animals like dogs and bulls do it too, it is a behavior that is common among male members of the animal kingdom.

horse showing teeth

When a horse smells pheromone-laced urine, it will usually raise its top lip, drawing in more of the scent particles. This is most common among male horses when they smell the scent of a mare’s urine that’s in estrus. Raising the lip is linked to better scent detection to help a wild stallion smell when a mare is ready for breeding.

  1. Neighing

Horses neigh to communicate and call each other. When a horse neighs, it may raise its lips and part its jaws to produce more volume. This is why a horse that is neighing may show their teeth.

  1. Relaxation

Believe it or not, a horse can also be really stressed or completely relaxed. A horse that is feeling relaxed and peaceful may hang its head, which will stretch its bottom lips, revealing its bottom teeth.

A horse that is relaxing may hang its head on a firm surface like a stable door. Their mouth will sag, and they will push onto their gums. This can cause their teeth to show.

  1. Lick-and-Chew

Most experienced horse people will tell you that a horse will lick its lips, showing its teeth slightly when they are thinking. Thus, a horse licking and chewing is busy thinking and learning. This thinking process will result in the horse’s teeth showing.

  1. Anxiety and Fear

An anxious horse may also have an open mouth, revealing its teeth. Young horses who become fearful will revert back to foal behavior by opening and closing their mouths.

  1. Food Expulsion

While people can use a toothpick to get some food particles from their teeth, a horse has to rely on its tongue to expel any food that remains in its mouth.

You may see a horse opening and closing its mouth, often showing its teeth while they use a tongue to push any clogged up pieces of hay or feed from the sides of its mouth.

  1. Choke

When a horse chokes, it is a serious condition. Since horses can’t vomit, they struggle with getting food out of their throat.

As a result, horses may open and close their mouths, showing their teeth as they try to expel the food. This will usually coincide with coughing or gagging sounds.

Getting a vet to look at your horse is vital when this happens.

  1. Dental Complications

While we may not believe horses need to see the dentist, they do. A horse that has suffered a fracture to a tooth, has an abscess, or struggles with an overgrown tooth can find it difficult to chew.

As a result, they may open and close their mouth, and their tongues may even loll out. This behavior will usually show their teeth too.

  1. Natural Yawning

When your horse has just eaten its concentrate or feed, it may yawn a lot. This is a combination of enjoyment and getting the last yummy goodness from behind their molars.

Horses may also yawn after they have had a morning snooze, and this will reveal the horse’s teeth as they stretch their jaws open.

  1. Pain

A horse in pain may lift up its upper lip, wiggling it from side to side. This is a response to pain that we often see in horses with colic.

The lip massages the gums of the upper jaw, releasing endorphins to help soothe the pain. With trauma, a horse may also twist their lip to the side. Either these lip movements will reveal the horse’s teeth and indicate pain.

  1. Playful Behavior

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch some horses at play, you will have seen them playfully nip at each other, raising their lips and snapping their teeth.

This is often seen when two geldings play and display stallion behavior such as rearing up and nipping at each other’s legs. Young colts also tend to engage in this playful behavior.

  1. Submissiveness

Foals are a lot of fun to watch, and they have the most interesting communication habits.

Opening and closing their mouths and softly clacking their teeth is a sign of submissiveness when a foal meets an older horse that’s not their mom. This will result in their gums and baby teeth showing.

  1. Habit

Some horses develop a habit of showing their teeth. This can be as a result of them receiving some form of stimulation or a nervous tick they have acquired.

One horse at the barn where my horses are stabled will slide his teeth along the door of his stable, almost “sharpening” them when it’s feeding time. This behavior shows his teeth, and he also combines this with licking and chewing as he is clearly thinking about his feed.

  1. Self-Satisfying Behavior

You may notice that some horses have a behavior of rubbing their faces and mouths on you when you stand close. This is to engage in self-satisfying behavior where the contact with their mouth and gums releases endorphins to make them feel good. This will result in their teeth showing. With some horses, you can even hold your hand, and they will slip their upper lip over your hand and rub their gums on your hand, releasing feel-good hormones.

Don’t allow this behavior and teeth showing unless you are 100 percent sure the horse is not aggressive as you would be in a vulnerable position, and the horse could bite you.

What to Do When Your Horse Has a Bad Teeth Showing Behavior

Some teeth-showing behaviors among horses are not good for them. Your horse may have acquired a habit of showing their teeth or rubbing their teeth and gums on objects, wearing away their teeth. If this is the case, you will need to persuade your horse not to do it.

The problem is, you can’t exactly tell your horse not to rub their teeth or gums. This kind of teeth-showing behavior is like a nervous tick in people. So telling them off or “disciplining” them will not help.

If the teeth-showing behavior progresses into crib-biting, you can invest in a cribbing collar, which straps around the horse’s throat and prevents the arching behavior that accompanies cribbing. This may sound extreme, but preventing further health complications like colic resulting from the cribbing behavior is necessary. 

If your horse shows its teeth and rubs its teeth on the surfaces of the stable, then you can remove any possible rubbing areas like feed bins or hay racks. Instead, you can feed low with feed boxes, and you can open their stable door, opting for a stable chain instead.

Next, you can provide a distraction to help your horse forget about this unhealthy teeth rubbing urge they have developed. Treat balls, hay nets, and strings with vegetables on will amuse your horse and keep them occupied so they won’t engage in rubbing their teeth as much.

Why Horses Show Their Teeth FAQs

Why do horses lift their upper lip?

Horses lift their upper lip in what is known as the Flehmen response. This is usually a response due to the scent of pheromones from urine or pungent smells like essential oils. Play, yawning, and expelling food are also reasons for lip-lifting behavior in horses.

What does it mean when a horse lips you?

Some horse owners report their horses like to be mouthy and lip them. This is an affectionate behavior that stems from mutual grooming among horses. When a horse lips you in a non-aggressive way, it means they like you.