10 Reasons Horses Show Their Teeth

If I were an inexperienced horse keeper, I’d most likely have a hard time interpreting many horse behaviors, including the reason why horses show their teeth.

The difficulty, in this instance, stems from the fact that horses can show their teeth for a number of reasons.

From aggression to stress relief, horses will often show their teeth. Before you do anything, I recommend you stay calm and carefully assess the situation.

Some of the reasons are harmless and natural, others — especially medical reasons and aggression — need immediate attention.

Below, I explain 10 reasons why a horse may show its teeth or have a gaping mouth that will reveal its teeth.

Anger

This is one of the reasons why horses will show their teeth. And usually that’s a warning sign to stay out of the horse’s reach as it may be preparing to bite.

Horses can show anger or aggressive behaviors for any number of reasons including getting spooked by something.

You should try to calm the horse and counter any aggressive behavior early on. First, however, you should recognize the signs of anger or stress in your horse.

In my experience, the following are some of the early tell-tale signs of a horse preparing to bite:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Pinned ears
  • Gaping mouth
  • Widened eyes
  • Restlessness
  • Stiff neck

Once you see these signs, make sure to remain calm and implement calming strategies to avoid escalation to biting and kicking.

A horse that’s about to kick will strike out with its foreleg or kick with its hind legs. Pawing can also be a sign of irritation, not just boredom.

Horses are very good at letting you know if they’re angry, so you’ll need to respect their boundaries and implement calming strategies, including giving it space to calm down.

It’s important to correct aggressive equine behavior and make sure you never reward aggressive behaviors by giving your horse food or treats right after an undesirable behavior.

Pain

Another reason that your horse might show its teeth is if it’s in pain. Your horse may be in pain for several reasons including an ill-fitting saddle, objects stuck in one or some of the hooves or other type of injury.

If you’ve excluded any potential aggressive behavior as the reason behind your horse exposing its teeth, do a quick check to see if there’s any ill-fitting tacks.

Then, proceed to check for any injury including potential objects stuck in hooves. If you’re still not sure what may be the source of your horse’s pain, contact your vet who will be able to zero in on the problem.

Other signs that your horse is in pain include wincing, curling lips, reactiveness when touching tender areas. Dental problems are also high on the list of why horses bare their teeth.

Your aim here should be to address the potential causes so that any discomfort or pain does not become more serious.

Flehmen Response

A horse may also show its teeth when smelling something unusual or sensing a smell that’s new to them.

I admit that this is one of the more endearing reasons, because of the goofy look on your horse’s face.

Scientifically, this behavior is called the Flehmen response and it’s used by horses to detect pheromones and other chemicals in the air.

It’s useful for determining if a mare is ready for breeding. Therefore, you’ll often see stallions showing their teeth before breeding.

Another case in which you can observe the Flehmen response is when a mare gives birth and smells the foal.

The vomeronasal organ is involved in the Flehmen response, which is part of the horse’s nose.

When exhibiting the behavior, the horse will curl its upper lip, revealing its teeth, while raising its head. Then it simultaneously breathes in and blows the air out.

Therefore, a completely harmless — and even fun — reason why your horse is revealing its teeth is simply because it’s smelling something unusual to it.

Threat or Warning

Horses also establish pecking orders and in doing so they’ll warn other horses to stay away from them or else…

A horse bearing its teeth to another horse may do so to warn the other horse to stay away from its food, for example.

A horse can be startled by other horses and even harassed by other horses and bare their teeth in both cases to warn other horses that it may bite them if it comes to it.

Discomfort

Similarly to a horse in pain, a horse that’s feeling discomfort can also reveal its teeth. You may come across a tender spot while grooming, and then your horse may show its teeth or react in other ways — whipping its head around — to signal that it’s uncomfortable with your touching a certain area.

If this happens, make sure to get your horse checked out by a vet, who can evaluate your horse’s health status and pinpoint the underlying cause.

Some horses, for example, may have chapped skin around their lips, which can determine them to open their mouth, revealing their teeth.

Chapped skin is not the only reason for a horse to reveal its teeth. Horses with dental problems can also show their teeth.

Submission

When horses are around other horses they don’t know, they may show submission by clacking their teeth, which can also seem like they’re showing their teeth.

You may notice this behavior in young horses when they meet older horses or strange horses, signaling to them that they don’t want confrontation and they don’t present a threat to them.

It’s also said that clacking also has a self-calming effect on horses when they’re presented with a horse they don’t know, and they don’t want to assert dominance.

Yawning

If you ask me, horses yawning is the cutest thing. When yawning, horses naturally reveal their teeth. A horse that’s yawning after a period of quiet and rest is in a relaxed state.

Your horse may yawn right after you remove the bridle to relax their jaw muscles, but they may yawn also because of stress or discomfort.

Continuous yawning is one of the more subtle signs of your horse dealing with colic. However, yawning is not the only sign in this case, and you should look for other symptoms of gastrointestinal upset including:

  • Sweating
  • Getting up and down
  • Pawing
  • Flank watching, and
  • Muscle tremors.

As you can see, one type of behavior or one symptom doesn’t tell the whole story, so you’ll need to take a more holistic approach to find the actual cause of one symptom or other.

On its own, yawning may be a sign of relaxation, but taken together with other symptoms, it may mean discomfort or pain.

Don’t worry, however, with time, you’ll know how to interpret your horse’s behavior and become familiar with what’s normal and natural, and what should be cause for alarm.

Meeting New Horses

When horses show submission around other horses, they may show their teeth, toss their heads and even run to signal to the other horses that they are submissive.

If they try to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’ horse or the dominant horse, they may also show their teeth, nip or even kick.

Therefore, baring their teeth can basically go either way — to show dominance or submission, depending on other behavioral cues.

Slack Mouth

A horse with a drooping lip or slack mouth can also show their teeth. This usually happens when they’re sleeping or they’re in a relaxed state.

You have to be careful when approaching a horse in this state as you risk frightening them and getting kicked as a result.

The best way to avoid getting kicked or even bitten because of a scare if to use your voice and speak up before approaching the horse.

If you’re sure they’re heard you and they’ve acknowledged your presence, you can proceed in approaching them.

Whinnying

Horses whinny or otherwise vocalize to express a range of emotions, and while doing so they may expose their teeth as well.

Sometimes whinnies express positive emotions like when horses want to attract the attention of other horses or their owners. Positive whinnies are believed to be shorter and start at a lower frequency than negative whinnies.

Handlers can learn to distinguish whether their horses are expressing positive or negative emotions while whinnying or neighing.

Wrap-Up

Apart from these 10 reasons why horses expose their teeth, chewing can be another reason why you may notice the teeth of your horse.

It’s important to understand each behavior and know how to interpret it, so you can help your horse if it’s in pain or discomfort, or try to calm it, if it’s in distress or angry.

Because they’re large animals and aggressive behaviors like biting and kicking can have very serious consequences, it’s important to learn how to manage and address them.

I hope my explanations above will help you get closer to understanding your horse’s behavior, so you can act in time if your horse is in pain, discomfort or simply get out of an aggressive or angry horse’s way.

Horse Facts

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