2011-02-12 / Columnists

HORSE TALES

by Candice C. Dunnigan

One of the funniest things to see is when a horse, any horse, pulls his ears back, lifts up his head, and curls up his front lip. All manner of decorum (whether he’s the most well-bred or prized steed in the stable) dissolves, because it usually makes the observer break into a smile. In fact, some horse people refer to this phenomenon as “horse smiles.” In proper terms, it’s called the Flehmen response, and there are several reasons why it happens.

We have one horse in particular who seems to lift up his lip to everything. He, out of all of our equines, happens to have the most prehensile of horse noses. In fact, if it were a little bit longer, he would probably use it like an elephant uses his trunk. In actuality, the Flehmen response is not exclusive to horses. Other mammals, such as deer, antelope, elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, and dogs, all at times can be seen raising their heads and curling their lips. Felines, especially the big cats, do this, too.

Did you know that the most important way to first greet a horse is not with a pat, but nose to nose? A brief sniff exchange between human and beast is like a well-placed handshake. Horses’ muzzles are great communicators, and perhaps it is their strongest way of communication. The nostrils will enlarge and their breaths become shallow, accompanied by snorts if they’re afraid. It has often been stated that horses can sense if humans are afraid of them, or some danger. I tend to agree with this. While in some cases, danger cannot be smelled, it may be sensed, and horses have extremely sensitive noses. Some horses do lift their noses up if they’re afraid, or sense a human is.

The vomeronasal gland is what aids this communication. The gland is located above the roof of the horse’s mouth. This gland is a chief defense for the horse and helps in many ways. For instance, the gland enables a horse to smell spoiled grain, molds on hay, bad grass, and brackish water. Likewise, the horse can seek by smell the molasses in sweet feeds, fresh grain, tender new grasses, apples, and carrots.


The Flehmen Response, often refered to as “horse smiles”, is not exclusive to horses. Other mammals, like deer, antelope, elephants, monkeys, and dogs, raise their heads and curl their lips. The Flehmen Response, often refered to as “horse smiles”, is not exclusive to horses. Other mammals, like deer, antelope, elephants, monkeys, and dogs, raise their heads and curl their lips. Horses will often “smile” when they’re introduced to new edibles such as sugar cubes, peppermints, Life Savers, and applesauce. A horse will often curl his lips at the smell of perfume, coffee, bleach, beer, milk, and warm water. It is as if he is saying, “This is a new smell, not necessarily bad, but one I do not know about. So I will test, proceed with caution.”

Roughly translated, the Fleh- men response means “testing,” and in essence, this is one of the main ways that horses analyze or try to communicate. The lipcurling quirk is also evident in newborn foals. Foals tend to curl their lips to everything in their brand new environment, as if to take in as much as they can in their first 24 hours. This is thought to be why scent is so important in imprint training of the young horse.


Horses’ muzzles are great communicators, and possibly their best form of communication. Pictured is Brian Dunnigan. Horses’ muzzles are great communicators, and possibly their best form of communication. Pictured is Brian Dunnigan. The lip curl in horses also occurs when a horse can smell actual danger such as smoke from fire, heavy rains and winds, or gunpowder. A horse will also often curl his lips when he is in distress, such as in some stage of colic or acute pain. Distress with the teeth can make a horse produce the Flehmen response.

On the lighter side, I usually get the biggest kick out of watching the horses standing around the drinking pool. While gathered there, many of them will actually play with the water, sniff, curl their lips before and after they drink. Some people actually refer to the Flehmen response as “drinkin’ lips.” I’ve also seen that when one horse does this, others will often follow. It happens a lot there.

At night, when we recheck our horses before going to bed and usually give them a horse treat, sometimes for fun, we will tickle the nose of one or two. These horses, as if on cue, will give us a horse smile. I wonder, do you think that they, in turn, can understand us smiling back?

Enjoy the rest of winter. Spring is just around a long bend on the trail.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and Mackinac Horsemen’s Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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