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Unusual Horse Behaviors and What They Mean

Published on: May 31, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Horses are interesting animals with some quirky ways. Understanding these unusual horse behaviors is important for their health and well-being. This article explains some of these acts, like the flehmen response, cribbing, and mutual grooming.

Stallion, typical behavior during the breeding season (Flehmen response)
Stallion, typical behavior during the breeding season (Flehmen response). Das Nili, CC BY-SA 2.5

The Flehmen Response

One unusual horse behavior is the flehmen response, where a horse curls back its upper lip, exposes its front teeth, and inhales sharply. This often happens when a horse smells something new or interesting.

Significance: This response helps horses analyze smells. By curling their lip, they open up nasal passages to an organ that detects pheromones and other scents. Horses often do this when they encounter new smells or during mating.

Relation to Health and Well-being: The flehmen response is usually normal, but if a horse does it too much, it could mean there’s a strong irritant or a health issue that needs checking.


Horse sets front teeth on something to crib.  This is on of the unusual horse behaviors.
The horse sets its front teeth on something to the crib. Source: Dee.lite, CC BY-SA 4.0


Another unusual horse behavior is cribbing, where a horse grips a solid object with its teeth, arches its neck, and sucks in air.

Significance: Cribbing is usually a sign of boredom, stress, or frustration. It’s a coping habit for horses that don’t have enough mental or physical activity.

Relation to Health and Well-being: Cribbing can cause dental problems, weight loss, and colic. To help reduce cribbing, provide more turnout time, environmental enrichment, or change the horse’s diet.


Two light chestnut horses grooming each other.
Two light chestnut horses grooming each other.

Mutual Grooming

Mutual grooming is an unusual horse behavior where two horses stand head-to-tail and groom each other, usually focusing on the withers, neck, and back.

Significance: Mutual grooming is a social activity that strengthens bonds between horses. It helps establish social hierarchies and provides physical benefits by reducing itching and promoting relaxation.

Relation to Health and Well-being: Mutual grooming shows good social relationships and a low-stress environment. It can also help identify body areas that might need attention due to parasites or skin conditions.


Understanding Other Behaviors

  • Yawning: Horses yawn for various reasons, including relaxation, stress release, or even as a response to gastrointestinal discomfort.
  • Pawing: Horses pawing the ground can indicate impatience, boredom, or anxiety. It can also be a way for them to explore their environment or signal discomfort.
  • Rolling: Horses roll in the dirt or grass to scratch themselves, cool down, or simply for pleasure. However, excessive rolling can indicate discomfort, such as colic.


Why do horses exhibit the flehmen response?

Horses exhibit the flehmen response to analyze scents more effectively using their vomeronasal organ.

Is cribbing harmful to horses?

Yes, cribbing can lead to dental issues, weight loss, and colic. It often indicates a need for more mental and physical stimulation.

What does mutual grooming indicate?

Mutual grooming indicates strong social bonds and a low-stress environment among horses.

Should I be concerned if my horse yawns frequently?

Frequent yawning can be normal, but if it’s excessive, it might indicate stress or discomfort, and a veterinarian should be consulted.

What can I do to reduce my horse’s cribbing behavior?

Providing more turnout time, environmental enrichment, and adjusting the horse’s diet can help manage and reduce cribbing behavior.

Conclusion: Unusual Horse Behaviors and What They Mean

Understanding and interpreting unusual horse behaviors is key to maintaining their health and well-being. Recognizing behaviors like the flehmen response, cribbing, and mutual grooming can help horse owners provide better care and address any underlying issues.

Call to Action: If you found this article insightful, share it with fellow horse enthusiasts and join our community by subscribing to our newsletter. Visit your local stables to observe these behaviors firsthand, and feel free to share your experiences or questions in the comments below or on our social media channels. Visit our website at Horse Racing Sense for more articles and resources on horse care and behavior.

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