why do horses curl their lips

Beyond the Bridle: The Mystery of Why Horses Curl Their Lips?

Jack here, galloping in with the inside scoop on why horses curl their lips.

Now I may not have a fancy animal science degree, but growing up helping my grandpappy on his ranch, I learned a thing or two about equine body language.

Let me take you back to a sweltering summer’s day out on the range when I was just a young whippersnapper.

Pappy had given me the important task of grooming our herd of paint horses before suppertime.

I’ll never forget old Buckwheat, with his splashy black and white coat.

He had a curious way of curling back his leathery upper lip, flashing those big front teeth whenever I came around to brush him. Used to scare the living daylights out of me!

But turns out this lip curling wasn’t Buckwheat sassing me or fixing to nip – it’s actually a natural instinct horses have inherited from their predecessors out on the ancestral plains.

By curling back their lip, horses can catch interesting smells wafting through the air using an organ behind their incisors called the vomeronasal organ.

Scientists call this the “flehmen response.”

It’s how horses explore new objects and places using their incredible sense of smell, which is 10 times better than you or me!

What Triggers Horses to Exhibit the Flehmen Response

Horses use the flehmen response kinda like we use our eyes – to gather intel about their surroundings and satisfy their curiosity.

why do horses curl their lips

There’s a few key triggers that’ll cause your horse to curl his lip to sniff the air:

  • Unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells: Horses are wary creatures, so new stimuli provokes them to do a smell check using flehmen. Say you’ve got a new barn fan, a neighbor dog barking, or you’re riding in an unfamiliar area – prime conditions for lip curling!
  • Mares in heat: Stallions have a knack for detecting hormones in mares’ urine using flehmen. So when that sweet lady horse is ready to breed, expect some luxurious upper lip curls from prospective suitors!
  • Scent of urine from other horses: Horses are quite territorial, and like to keep tabs on who’s been around using urine scent signals. Flehmen helps them determine if a rival horse has left their mark in the area.
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So next time you notice your horse exhibiting the flehmen response, don’t take it as an insult! They’re just satisfying their curiosity and ensuring their surroundings are safe and familiar.

The Flehmen Response Allows Horses to Communicate

Beyond information gathering, the flehmen response also serves an important social function for horses. Curling the upper lip allows them to detect pheromones and signal interest to other horses.

why do horses curl their lips

You’ll often see a stallion wrinkle his nose and curl his lip when investigating the urine of a mare in heat. It’s his way of confirming her readiness to breed.

And if she’s interested, the mare may return the flehmen as a way of flirting! So in the horse world, a little lip curling can lead to some frisky business.

The flehmen response also establishes hierarchy in herds.

The lead mare and stallion will exhibit flehmen when meeting new horses, gathering scent signals to determine if they’re friend or foe.

And flehmen often occurs during grooming as horses reinforce social bonds.

When You Should Worry About the Flehmen Response

why do horses curl their lips

While the flehmen response is totally normal horse behavior, there are a few scenarios where it warrants a closer look:

  • Excessive curling, especially accompanied by a tense facial expression: Frequent lip curling plus signs of stress may indicate discomfort, illness or a neurological issue.
  • Flehmen combined with uncharacteristic aggression: If your mellow gelding starts curling his lip and pinning ears, it could signal something’s amiss.
  • A new onset of flehmen in an adult horse: Horses exhibit flehmen less as they mature, so increased curling in a senior could point to dental issues or pain.

If your horse displays any of these red flags, have your vet run some tests to check for underlying physical or behavioral problems. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

Flehmen Occurs More in Stallions

If you’ve spent time around both mares and stallions, you may have noticed the boys tend to exhibit the flehmen response more often.

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There’s good reason for this – the flehmen response is critical for stallions to assess a mare’s breeding status.

Stallions have an incredibly sensitive vomeronasal organ equipped to detect the tiniest amounts of hormones like estrogen in urine.

So when a mare goes into heat, stallions rely on flehmen to pick up on her signals and determine if she’s ready for mating.

In the wild, the lead harem stallion will guard his band of mares closely.

He’ll use flehmen to frequently “sniff check” them and ensure no rival males have marked territory or covered one of his ladies.

So you can see why an elevated flehmen response evolved in stallions – it’s essential for monitoring breeding condition and guarding turf!

Young Horses Use Flehmen to Learn

Ever notice young foals, weanlings, and yearlings exhibiting the flehmen response more often than mature horses?

There’s good reason for this – flehmen is a key part of how horses make sense of the world in their early years.

Remember, horses rely heavily on their sense of smell to gather information and recognize friends from foes.

Youngsters encountering many new sights, sounds, and smells for the first time will curl their lip to catalog and commit these novel stimuli to memory.

You’ll see especially high rates of flehmen during the imprinting and handling training of foals and weanlings. It’s their way of investigating new human handlers and forming early bonds. Over time as horses become accustomed to their surroundings, flehmen tends to taper off.

So in short, frequent lip curling in youngsters is totally normal and a sign of their natural curiosity at work.

With more life experience, those silly flehmen faces become less common.

Flehmen Sometimes Signals Discomfort

Though the flehmen response is an innate horse behavior, in certain contexts it can suggest underlying issues.

If your horse exhibits prolonged, frequent flehmen accompanied by signs of distress, it may point to a health problem.

Horses experiencing unmanaged pain from colic, laminitis, or dental issues may display repeated flehmen.

The same goes for horses with neurological conditions like encephalitis or brain tumors that cause sensory disturbances.

Excessive flehmen when riding may also indicate saddle fit problems or early musculoskeletal injury before obvious lameness sets in. So be observant of any flehmen that seems excessive or coupled with other worrying symptoms.

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While some flehmen is normal, situations where it becomes amplified or distressing warrant a veterinary exam to get to the root of the problem.

Flehmen Can Reflect Temporary Confusion

Most horse owners have seen scenarios where flehmen seems to signal a moment of confusion or uncertainty in their equine companion.

Say you’re asking your horse to perform a new, complex maneuver – you may see him wrinkle his nose as he works to process your request. The flehmen response can act as a “thinking face” when horses are focusing intently.

Horses also tend to exhibit pronounced flehmen when you introduce unfamiliar objects like a new saddle pad or a flapping tarp used in training. It’s their way of expressing “Hmm, what do we have here?”

So don’t assume every lip curl means your horse is upset. Often, it simply reflects concentration and curiosity as he adapts to new challenges and stimuli in his environment.

Just be aware that excessive or prolonged confusion flehmen can also indicate learning difficulties or lack of comprehension. If your horse seems perpetually puzzled, reassess your training approach.

Prevent Excessive Flehmen with Proper Husbandry

While the flehmen response is natural horse behavior, as owners we can aim to prevent excessive lip curling by providing a low-stress environment.

Try to minimize abrupt changes in your horse’s routine or exposure to novel sights and sounds that could trigger prolonged flehmen. Make introductions to new horses, tack, and activities gradual whenever possible.

Stay up to date on dental care, hoof health, and saddle fit to avoid discomfort. Scan for signs of illness and address nutrition issues that could cause gut pain or imbalance.

Strive for consistency in handling and train your horse to accept touch and handling all over to prevent overreactions. The more comfortable a horse feels, the less reason he’ll have to overuse flehmen.

By being proactive caregivers, we can raise inquisitive but relaxed horses that don’t require excessive lip curling to cope.


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