What does it mean when horses yawn?

by Elaine Polny
(Ontario, Canada)


The University of Guelph conducted a study a few years back to determine if horses yawn for the same reason as people, turns out the answer is No! And in a majority of cases horses will yawn three consecutive times when they do it too.

When people yawn it is usually because we are bored or tired. But when horses yawn there is much more to the equation and the surrounding events need to be considered.

If a horse was basking in the sun, starting to take a nap, they may yawn less than 3 times in a row. However under training conditions when the horse is wide awake the reason is much different.

Under any situation that the horse feels stress, like when learning something new in a training session, he would yawn to release endorphins for the calming effect on the nervous system (once there is a break offered). And this is when you will always see 3 or more. I have witnessed up to 15 yawns in a row! What I once thought (and was told) was that the horse is processing and possibly understanding the lesson. This has now been proven false. The more the horse yawns tells us the more anxiety and stress the horse was under and feeling.

Licking and chewing have also been placed under this same false premise. Believing that this means a horse is digesting or understanding the information offered. But what it really means is the horse is processing information he found unsettling and needs a moment to relax in order to comprehend and would like to release the excess energy created.

So the next time you see a horse yawn, take notice how many times and under what conditions. You will learn a great deal about the horse, their language and how to grow a positive relationship with them.

Elaine Polny
Training Horses Naturally

Comments for What does it mean when horses yawn?

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Feb 16, 2010
Yawning horses
by: Michelle Dennis

I never noticed horses yawning to any great extent until I started learning about Natural Horsemanship and different types of energy healing work. I was told it is them processing the experience. If what the university study found is true then it would indicate that NH is more stressful than normal horsemanship. I have seen them yawn extensively after energy healing work was done on them by a vet friend of mine. After I did a course with him I have noticed that other people's horses start yawning when I'm around, not even doing anything with them. I can be sitting quietly at home enjoying the sunset or whatever and my horses will come and stand quietly, usually directly out in front looking at me, and invariably after a while they will start yawning as though releasing something then off they go. They also do it after learning something new or even watching another horse learning something new. I think there is more to it than people have realized yet.

Michelle Dennis

Feb 17, 2010
Yawning Horses
by: Elaine

Thanks Michelle for your sharing your valuable experiences!

I discovered the same things when I learned Natural Horsemanship.

Like everything, the surrounding circumstances need to be added to the equation. After I do energy work they would yawn and release endorphins and excess energies. But in training, I see it now as being indicative of something different.

Please let me know if you have counted how many under these different times. That shows another key. If it's under 3, it's usually about rest and revitalization (like when we stretch) but if it's more than 3 in a row, it could be something different.

Either way, we are just scratching the surface on the subject, but it has added another valuable tool of awareness to my approach with horses. Particularly moving more to positive reinforcement methods and further away from negative reinforcement.

Here's to further discoveries!

Feb 22, 2010
Licking and chewing
by: Cathy

This subject was touched on under the "Yawning" discussion, so I thought I would add my two-cents' worth. I believe that the phenomenon we often see after a horse has learned something -- often called "licking and chewing" is nothing more than swallowing excess saliva. When horses are stressed during a learning session, especially when learning something completely foreign to them, they do not swallow -- sort of like holding our breath when we're a little anxious. The saliva builds up in the back of the throat. When there is a "release" by the trainer and the horse can let down a little, they relax and swallow the excess saliva, which looks like licking and chewing.
Regardless of the reason for the behavior, it is always a good sign that the horse is feeling less stress.

May 29, 2010
Massage & The Yawning Horse
by: Lorraine Piercy

I have enjoyed reading this discussion. My observation of my own horse and others I have had contact with 3 yawns after a massage where the horse has been extremly relaxed, head way down, top lip trembling,fully stretched out lapping it all up. Then when done a look of "Is that all I get" followed by the yawns.Compared to learning some new ground work"think" chew it over.Thanks for your interesting articles.

Lorraine

Sep 25, 2010
when my horses yawn
by: Brenda Woods

I thought that your article and studies were excellent.My situation is somewhat different. I have an 18 year old horse and the only time that he has ever yawned is after coming up to the gate as he is waiting to be walked into his stall when he chooses the time to be ready to go to bed for the night. I have never experienced my 6 year old horse ever yawning. Neither horse does this after a training period no matter how difficult it may have been. What are you thoughts on this observation , and does age have anything to do with it. Is it possible that the older horse whether having been worked or not is just mentally programed to exhibit fatigue just prior to going into his stall at night? Thank you for listening.....

Sep 26, 2010
Horses Yawning
by: Elaine Polny

Hi Brenda,
To date, there has not been enough evidence compiled to indicate if age plays a factor or not in the yawning process and like many other things about horses we are still discovering new information since everything continues to evolve.

If you haven't seen your 6 year old yawn it's probably just that you missed it. We don't always realize how much time we are not spending in their paddocks.

Under the conditions of your 18 year old who yawns at the gate I would bet it has more to do with what's in the stall (food) than displaying fatigue to go to bed. Horse's do not have the same day time/night time schedule as humans particularly when it comes to rest. Horses are usually quite awake and alert during the night time, since they only sleep 2 1/2 hours every 24 hour period. It would be more plausible to think that this horse is anxious to get the food and this routine has created a conditioned response from the horse.

P.S. Stalling horses in not conducive to their mental, emotional and physical well being. In order for a horses circulatory system to function correctly they need space to be able to constantly move in order to pump blood. It is much better to allow them 24/7 freedom to move with their own kind.

Nov 02, 2010
Yawing and licking what does this mean?
by: Amanda

My Boyfriend and I just moved into my grandmothers farmhouse, no one has lived there for years. She has a 10yr old quarter horse (Zero) that has been maintained by caregivers. Zero has been taken very good care of and has plenty and living space. I'm not a horse person, or so I thought... I have fallen in love with Zero and I have overtaken his care giving. I feed him daily and spend about an hour a day with him. I'm not in charge of is hoof cleaning/trimming etc. Since I know nothing about horses I'm very interested in learning how to interact and understand him better. I have been spending time with him everyday for about 2 months now. Zero sometimes yawns a lot. From what I have read that can mean he is stressed out. He is never tied up or made to be next to me. He is very loving and loves attention but he will just come up to me and yawn like 10 times in a row..? What can this mean. I have tried sitting on the ground so as not to make him feel intimidated or scared and he still comes to me and yawns. He will also push me with his head. He is not very forceful but he still pushes me with his head. He will walk behind me and push is head into my back or if I'm facing him he will push up on my chest. If I squat down on the ground he will gently nudge me over. He will also lick my face, the back of my neck and my hair. He sometimes puts his lips to mine almost like he's trying to kiss me. I'm very interested to know if you think I am bothering him and should give him space or if you think maybe he is happy to have a loving friendship with a person. Everyday he runs across the creek and up the hill to me... Maybe he just wants his oats or maybe he loves me too :)?? Any advice you can give me would be great!!

Thanks,
Amanda

Dec 04, 2010
horses yawning?
by: sandy

hey im a equine horse massge and when horses yawn its a sign of relaxing and giving into you :) x

Dec 06, 2010
Horses Yawning
by: Elaine Polny

Yes, under these conditions of being fully relaxed while getting a massage, yawning would be a sign of comfort and the release of endorphins. We do this too, when we stretch our arms out to the side while yawning it feels relaxing and if we were tired then sleepiness would set in too.
It's important to notice that for every one body language move a horse has, there is always more than one meaning. That is why we need to consider what is going on in the moment/environment surrounding the event to make a better educated decision upon the meaning.
There is no right or wrong ,cut or dry answer when it comes to horses, there are evolving just like we are! That is probably why I find them so fascinating!

Dec 27, 2010
old age yawning
by: old age blues

I have a 32 yr old retired hunter jumper. Sence he lost his buddy of 8 yrs he yawns more. We havent been rideing in 8 yrs do to my injuries and his splint back legs he still has energy but I try to walk him everyday but he will stop and not move so does he just need me more although he lies around or should i say hands around all day

Dec 28, 2010
old age yawning
by: Elaine Polny

Do I understand that this horse is now alone? Boredom but more importantly loneliness is not a natural living circumstance for horses. Horses are social creatures and require another horse's company for comfort. When this is not available to a horse eventually their health becomes a bigger issue. Physically as well as mentally. A horse's health depends upon movement. So if your horse stands around for hours at a time I would be concerned. Because of his age, I would first check with your veterinarian to be sure his health is intact then I would find another old retired horse for company.

Mar 19, 2011
Maybe it's not the situation...?
by: Kate

I've been reading a lot of articles on why horses yawn and they all say the same "there are a lot of different reasons for a horse to yawn.." ect. But what if it's not the situation the horse is in but what the horse perceives as stress or relaxation. Every horse is different so every horse has a different "thresh hold" for stress, pain, focus, ect. as well as how quickly or easily they may become relaxed. I think it depends more on what your horse's personality is and what it's trained or being used for then the surrounding environmental triggers. I understand that a new environment is scary for some horses but like I stated before each horse adjusts to each new environment differently and at it's own pace... food for thought, I guess.

Jun 07, 2011
Stretching jaw b4 &after wearing a noseband
by: Diana

I only see my horse yawn before or after I have put on or remove his bridle. I think he is just stretching his jaw. However we hack out with a mare and she often yawns while she is being ridden. Neither me or Sarah have a clue why she is yawning, but she does seem more comfortable without a nose band on!

Nov 10, 2011
pasture yawn
by: Anonymous

my horse anthony is about 5 years old. he yawns almost everyday waiting at the gate to come in. there are 3 other horses with him. a mare and two geldings. one gelding is his buddy and the other protects the mare. anthony is the herd leader.my grandmother nor i knows why i does that.

Nov 29, 2011
Guelph study on yawning
by: Barbara Handelman

Do you possibly have a link to the actual published research you reference in your post about yawning. I've been all over the internet and cannot find the article. I'd be very appreciative of your help. You can contact me at barbarahandelman@mac.com

Nov 29, 2011
reference material
by: Elaine Polny

I wish I could find that original material I read but I can only remember that it was about 8 years ago that I read it! I can remember the time frame because it was so relevant to me at a time when it had struck me hard to reconsider my own thoughts around the subject.
Here's is another resource though that offers some up to date input: http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=6346

Nov 30, 2011
yawning
by: Barbara Handelman

Hi Elaine, thanks for your response and the link. I may try to reach Sue McDonnell directly, as my questions are quite specific to yawning. I have a series of photos taken of a horse I was observing in his pasture. He is one I often see yawning, especially while on the cross ties. However, I took the photo of a series of three yawns in quick succession, at a time when no one was interacting with him, nor had he been worked. I had never heard the three yawn information before, but there was the evidence in my own photo archives.

Barbara

Jan 07, 2012
yawning when nose is scratched?
by: @theteamaster

I took my liitle boy for a walk today to see some quite old local horses. They came over to see us and we were stroking them, I then gave it a good scratch down its nose, it seemed to like it as it seemed to ask for more, but after each it yawned, much to my little ones amusement, we then copntinued our walk to another field of retired horses and tried them same thing - it worked. I had to google it and found this site - can anyone explain it as i havce not been able to see any reason caused by a good nose scratch!!
Many thanks
Ross... @theteamaster

Jan 09, 2012
Just a speculated guess!
by: Elaine Polny

Hi,
Here’s my speculative guess! Given the circumstances you described around the scratching, what I see is a few horses all very relaxed and possibly at the stage of what I refer to as "siesta time", and they enjoy human contact since they approached you. Then it all reminds me of when we reach for a foreign object (and sometimes we need to try a few different objects to find just the right one!) to use in order to satisfy an itch we can’t reach ourselves (like high up and in the middle of your back). The relief is often followed by a big sigh; a stretch and/or an exhalation of breathe. Another example is when we do a big stretch with our arms way out to the side, it is often followed by inhalation then exhalation which often creates a yawn too. It all equates to the release of endorphins which expels excess energy. And that makes our bodies feel good. Maybe in this case you showed up just at the right moment and your fingers where the perfect object rather than a fence post!

Feb 28, 2012
yawning means being intellectual tired
by: JoAnne

I've heard that dogs often yawn after being intellectually challenged and I think it might be the same thing for horses. The other day I was working my young mare on the ground and teaching her new things about paying attention to my body language and when I put her back in the field she gave several big yawns which I've never seen her do before.

Mar 22, 2012
my two pennies worth - being a brit.. lol
by: Anonymous

ive had my horse 11 years and he has never yawned while stressed and has never licked or chewed after heavy work.

he has done both of those things after gentle, very gentle, energy work and games which chills him out completely.

i read horses eyes all the time, you can read what theyre feeling very easily and get a good idea of where theyre coming from in terms of attitude and mood.

in all the times that zig has chewed and yawned his eyes have been soft, gentle and happy.

to help youre research, on these occasions he yawns 3 or less times.

Aug 03, 2012
Yawning
by: Anonymous

I have a young stud, 1-1/2 years old, and he yawns a lot. I notice this when I am working with him and it seemed to me that he was stressed when doing this; not overly stressed because I don't push him that hard, but even on doing anything new he yawned. So, I googled this and found this site. Just as I suspected, he is most likely doing this when he is stressed....even in the littlest bit. I have an old mare as well, 25, and she yawns as well that I have noticed, but under different circumstances. He is young and in his learning stage and I do believe it is because he is feeling stressed about anything new.

Aug 13, 2012
Licking and Chewing
by: Kirsten

Hi,

I feel like I have a very close relationship with my 28 year old Arabian gelding. About 3 - 4 years ago we got another, younger horse who was 9 at them time. A few months after he was settled in, Windey, the Arab, was lying down in the pasture and Mickey, the new guy, went over to him and bit his neck and started shaking him. We chased him away from Windey, and as Windey was running away, Mickey ran after him aggressively... I was only 12 at the time and that hurt me really bad emotionlly toward Mickey. I'm 16 now and can say that after trying so many times, I still don't get along with Mickey because of that... But back to my question. Windey and Mickey have been alone together since winter because the other two horses in their "herd" have passed away. I often sit on the ground with him while he naps. He seems to always be licking and making chewing motions with his mouth. It seems like he is relaxed but after reading several books and articles about licking and chewing meaning that it could be stress. I am confused? What do you think it means? Is he stressed out by me? Or is he stressed out worrying when Mickey will come and bother him? I don't believe he was doing this before Mickey arrived. Maybe you could give me your opinions and insight to the situation. I over think things quite a bit and I am worrying that I am doing something wrong? Windey is the world to me and I love him very deeply. I want to be the best I can be for him and do the best for him. I would love to get your opinion. Thank you so much!

Kirsten Gerlach

Aug 15, 2012
Hard to be stressed while lying down
by: Elaine Polny

The first thing to know is that the licking/chewing/yawning behavior must also take into account what is going on surrounding the situation and taking all the environmental factors into account. So if my horse is yawning while standing under a tree on a hot day, he’s probably just relaxed and sleepy. But if my horse is yawning/licking/chewing during a training session, he is probably not relaxed and possibly anxious. Does Windey do this while lying down if you are not present? Does he do this every time he lies down? If he only does this when you are that close, maybe he would rather you not be so close, but if he does this anyway, it may not mean that at all either. In general a horse would not lie down to begin with if they were under mental stress so the best way to know………what does it feel like for you? Feel it from your gut. You have already said he seems relaxed, so that’s probably what it is! Don’t sweat it kiddo! You’re heart is in the right place and it will always guide you best.

Feb 03, 2013
Crickey
by: Anonymous

Crickey girls i dont know what to think now ..... :-( ........ Well my yawns 2-3 times when's he's at the gate waiting for me to bring him in sometimes this is after a barging session with the others waiting to come in alo .....but really confused now what to think ..... Other than ..... My horse doesn't like me much :-((((( ????????

Jul 05, 2013
yawning
by: jeffrey judice

my 10 yr old paint mare yawns everyday and with the yawn her eyes flip back in her head and blinks....I thought her eyes itched or were dry.i put eye drops in her eyes when I see her yawn excessively.
I also thought it was an attention getter. when I go to the barn to feed the other animals,she meets me by the barn fence,and will either yawn or paw the hurricane fence till I give her attention........go figure

Aug 11, 2013
Yawning is a good sign
by: Anonymous

In the natural world the physical act of yawning is a release action. In the horse world it is the same. It can mean the horse is sleepy, it can be a stress reliever and it can be a communication inidcator that your horse is merely happy and content. If you notice that young horses especially will 'mouth' and lick, and yes even yawn as a sign of submission around more dominant figures, other horses and humans. This is normal and natural behavior. In my horse experience of several decades, I believe strongly that yawning in succession is signaling that your horse is comfortable with you, respects you and is happy to have yor company. S/he is not stressed but is expressig the opposite and is calm, relaxed and content. Release of endorphins is a happy feeling, yawning promotes this.

Sep 28, 2013
anxiety?
by: Anonymous

One horse yawns a lot when she learned to trailer (when I would stop at a station for instance)and while I fix her feed. My other horse does it after he eats as he is starring at my ottb that takes longer to eat( he gets more) like he wants it so bad;) neither one as disturbing as it can be has any health problems just a sort of anxiety I guess

Jan 23, 2014
Older gelding.... Pain?
by: Jen

I have an 18-year-old gelding that I owned for 13 years I've never really noticed him the yawning until recently he had a terrible bout of pigeon fever and he yawned a lot I knew it was because he was in pain (he couldn't walk and would yawn and yawn) now he's all better and doesn't have any symptoms for quite some time yet when I going to his pasture he still yawns over and over and over again it's so odd the change in behavior that starting to worry me I wonder if he is in pain or if maybe he's lonely -the only horse that I have an option to Pasture is unbroken young horse who never gets exercise- I think my horse gets annoyed with him so not sure if I should put them together

Mar 13, 2014
Young Stallion Yawning Experience
by: Anonymous

Just to share my experience, and how I got to this website in the first place!! I have a coming 4 yr old stallion who thought it might be fun to test my dominance at turn in tonight. I did get him in the barn without being injured! However, I stood between him and his hay and made him stand in the corner while I stared him down (just a non-physically aggressive way of re-establishing my dominance quickly). Anyhow, he stood about 4 feet away from me and continually yawned and lowered his head for about 10 minutes before I invited him to have his hay. I'm not a natural horsemanship follower, but this was my yawning experience!

Apr 03, 2014
Re: Yawning
by: Rebecca Fine

TY this is very helpful. My horse coliced last night. I noticed her yawning 3-4 times in a row then 10-15 minutes pass and then more yawning. It seemed unusual- I had observed this a few times in the past (20 years) when I've noticed my horses yawning at times that didn't make sense. This article is VERY helpful! It makes complete sense- TY!

Apr 03, 2014
how my mare yawns
by: Carolina

Hi, I was interested in reading about this because my 25 year old mare (retired jump and broodmare) yawns in a very curious way. Every time I'm gardening or something like that she will come really close and stands there like a company dog, then after a while she starts trying to take off my hat or do those horse chews on my skin or clothes (she has improved her softness a lot)I tell her "I know, I know" (I don't really know what she wants be I tell her I do anyway haha) and after that she starts yawning (3 or more times) with really giant yawns and she always chooses to do them about 2 inches from my face, I can see her whole mouth! Note that I would not remain that close to any horse doing that literally on my face but she's really a unique horse and I really trust her, but I'm going crazy about understanding what that means (my only idea is she's trying to get my attention to feed her or play with her). She's not angry nor stressed when she does that and also she has a very dog-like way of acting. Any ideas??

Apr 04, 2014
Update
by: Anonymous

I wrote the comment above about the horse with pigeon fever.

Even after he healed and had no pain he continued to yawn. Huge yawns, directed toward me. I put him on ulcer treatment just to see if it would help and it did seem to- I called the manufacturer of the natural ulcer treatment I used and asked why it's supposed to be a 21 day treatment but my horse almost seems to need to be on it to look and feel good. He asked me if he was alone- yes, we moved to a rental where I can keep him on the property but he's my only horse so he had no companion or visible horses.

I brought a friends horse over last weekend, and I haven't seen him yawn since :/ hopefully this means I'll be able to take him off the ulcer supplement too... In all my 14 years owning him the yawning only happened for the last few months, and now seems to have stopped.

Apr 04, 2014
Yawning - a combination of events
by: Elaine Polny

Hi Jen, I think it’ fair to say you may have discovered excessive yawning correlating to the combination of pain and a horse without company (of their own species) is present. Very interesting and probable!

Hi Carolina, could Jen’s experience have a place in your situation? Is your horse alone? It certainly appears your horse is seeking attention from you and enjoys your company!

It’s necessary for us all to take every aspect of the environment (i.e noise, change, company of others, routines), the horse’s health and all interactions into account when we try to come up with an understanding about this behavior.
Yawning is not a one size fits all behavior! :0)

Apr 04, 2014
how my mare yawns 2 NEW
by: Crolina

Yes she is my only horse, she's been with me for 4 years. The property is surrounded by hills where horses and cattle roam free so she can see and interact with other horses but she kind of hates other horses, if they get too close to her she attacks them and sometimes yawns at them. If I release her to interact she takes a look and then comes after me, just like a dog. She prefers to be in the terrace outside our house, if she could she would probably be on my bed along with my dogs. I noticed she tends to yawn in my face more when I'm on me knees or sitting on the ground. Maybe because I'm busy she thinks I'm ignoring her?? I don´t think she has an ulcer, she's pretty healthy and definitively happier here than with her previous owner . (I get a lot of "I have never met a horse like this" from people who meet her ha,ha. But she's weird in a good sense)

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