When your horse yawns, what does he really mean?

When your horse yawns, what does he really mean?
Though yawning is an instantly recognisable behaviour shared among horses and humans, this simple phenomenon continues to baffle equine and human scientists. 

Experts once believed that yawning was a way to restock the oxygen supply in the brain, but science has yet to find any strong evidence that this is true. Horses do yawn when they are tired, but this is to improve blood circulation and brain cooling. 

What does yawning mean? 

The best way to understand why your horse is yawning is to look at the situation and context. While many horse owners assume yawning is a signal of sleepiness or boredom, experts think that situational stress and social communication between horses is a more likely explanation.

If your horse yawns occasionally, he’s probably only tired, a horse who yawns a lot is more likely to be experiencing stress. If you catch something specific happening shortly before or after every yawn–this is likely to be the cause.

Possible causes of stress-yawning

Key risk factors include intense bouts of exercise, eating too much at once, isolation and confinement, and emotional or physical stress. 

  • Some horses yawn as a reaction to being subjected to a range of handling and management procedures. Yawning may defuse the tension.
  • A yawn may imply anticipation of pain. Your horse may yawn repeatedly when he’s about to be ridden to neutralize his feelings of anxiety. 
  • Some horses yawn AFTER the stressor has been taken away (for example, when the bridle is removed after a ride). This may indicate oral pain or even pressure inside the inner ear. 
  • Continual and excessive yawning may be a symptom of chronic liver disease or colic. In this case, the act of yawning is likely a self-calming mechanism when the horse is suffering from significant pain, or as a means to feel relief.

The next time your horse yawns while you’re riding him, try changing your approach to see what happens - it may be an early warning that something isn’t quite right with his bit or he may be suffering from jaw tension. 

Remember that finding the cause of your horse's yawning is not always a simple task. A critical situation can present the same signs as a not-so-urgent issue.

yawning horse

Are You Listening?

Usually, when your horse yawns it is nothing to worry about. 

Although the function of yawning remains debated, more often than not, yawning is simply a normal part of daily life, just as it is for us human beings. Horses relaxing in herds often yawn when relaxing with their pals, and studies show that social contact could be a positive trigger of yawning.

However, if you are concerned that excessive yawning may indicate something more serious, pay attention to what your horse is telling you. If your horse yawns every time he is bridled, for instance, and other signs of stress (resistance to contact and head shaking) are overlooked, his call for help may escalate. 

Next time your horse yawns, rather than ignoring it or explaining it away, consider that he may be trying to express something important to you. 

If you are interested in the welfare of your horse and keeping them as comfortable as possible you may want to consider a horse blanket to protect them from insects, sun and the cold.