Why do foals and young horses move their mouths funny when meeting new horses?

Have you ever seen a young foal, maybe just after weaning, when it meets another horse it doesn’t know? Did you notice that they often do something strange with their mouths?

I call this ‘baby talk’ and if you watch a lot of horses you can figure out what they are saying. Very young foals use this mouth movement to announce to the world, “I’m a baby….don’t hurt me!” It is a submissive move.

In this video the little horse, the weanling, is very aware that his big half-brother enjoys pushing him around. The baby is reminding him that he is no threat.

Below is a short video showing two young horses turned out with my older dominate horse, Popcorn. Watch how they open their mouths, drawing the corners of their mouths open, and making a ‘chomping’ type movement to say they are babies….don’t hurt me.

The interesting part of this video is that the yearling, Desmond (the bigger colt) has been ‘lying’ to Popcorn. What that means is that Desmond has said to Popcorn, “I’m a baby…don’t hurt me!”…and then when Popcorn let his guard down…Desmond attacked! So Desmond was lying.

In this video you will see both young horses using ‘baby talk’…although Popcorn tells Desmond that he doesn’t appreciate being lied to. Popcorns ‘corrections’ will lead to Desmond no longer exhibit ‘baby talk’ as Desmond isn’t really a baby any more and shouldn’t be claiming it.

This mouth movement is common in young horses and for the most part completely disappears in older horses although some do hang onto it.

44 Comments

  1. Riikka on August 1, 2016 at 8:22 am

    My 16 YO mare does a very similar thing when ‘flirting’ with geldings and I’ve been wondering what it is as never seen any other horse do it. She stretches her neck and head straight out towards the gelding and opens and closes her mouth very much like the foal on this video, but does it for a minute or two straight without stopping. First time I saw it I thought she was choking! She does it whilst ‘winking’ and squirting… not an attractive sight LOL!! Do you think it’s the same message as here, kind of a “I come in peace” gesture?

    My mare is always at the bottom of the herd and the geldings she’s met like this are on the other side of the fence, if that makes any difference.

    • Kiri Ann Wood on September 21, 2017 at 9:50 pm

      Omg my mare does this as well. She is besotted with my gelding.

  2. Louisa on December 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you for taking time to reply. I think horses will take advantage of a situation when they see an opportunity – an open gate, another horse with his defenses down, but they can not calculate to take advantage of a situation in advance. This is what makes them so refreshing from humans. Horses always act true to their feelings in the moment.

    In the case of the colts, I think they clack because they genuinely feel intimidated. They do it naturally, similar to how we hold our breath when scared. I don’t believe they think, “I am intimidated I think I will clack to get the other horse to back down,” or even more of a stretch, “I am going to fool him into thinking I am a baby so I can get the upper hand.” In the following moment they simply recognize (by his body language) that the mature horse is not threatening them. This knowledge makes them feel safe. Their next feeling is the urge to play fight, and they now feel bold enough to try to challenge the other horse.

  3. Louisa on December 16, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    Horses don’t lie. They are not capable of lying. This “clacking” behavior is a vestige of being a baby and will fade as the youngster matures and learns his rank among adult horses.

    It worries me when horsemen – especially one as accomplished as you Stacy – speak of a horse lying, because attributing human traits to horses generally leads to people misreading horse behavior and then punishing them for behavior they do not properly understand.

    If you dissected a horse’s brain you would see that it has great capacity for emotions but not for rationalizing.

    • Stacy on December 16, 2014 at 11:20 pm

      I agree and disagree with you.
      People do misread horses and in many cases the way the word ‘lying’ is used with horses, I would agree it is misused.
      But I do believe that horses will try to ‘pull one over’ on one another. It is, for some, the way they learn their rank (as you stated).
      I have seen a young horse, like the one in the video, or like Jac…say they are ‘submissive’ right up until they are in a good position to bite or kick…and then they take advantage of the situation. It is the ‘misleading’ use of saying they are submissive to gain position to then kick and bite that I am referring to as lying. Is there a better word? Maybe that is all we differ on.

  4. Morgan on December 16, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    We’ve always called that “baby face”. I know it’s not always babies though. I’ve seen a n 11 year old Appy do that to his older brother.

  5. Sydne on December 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Both the foals in our yard do it with the older horses. My mare couldn’t care less- no matter how much they do it, she gives them their share of bared teeth. It’s a shame- they clearly are trying to appease!

  6. Kyley on December 16, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    I know others have said this in the comments, but I have a pony (now 11 – I’ve had him since he was 4) that still does this baby talk thing. I knew it was a submissive thing (and yes he is bottom of the pecking order in the pasture), but what’s interesting about him is that he doesn’t just do it to other horses. He does it daily hanging his head over his stall door – seems almost like he’s trying to use it to get more food? And he does it while I am riding him & trick training him. It’s almost become a habit for him that he’s had since youth. I’ve always sort of wondered why he does it so often and not just with the other horses as it pops up in such random situations – like just leading him from the barn to the arena for instance.

  7. Lesia Lowe on December 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Stacy?…are the 2 young ones Vaquero’s babies????

    • Stacy on December 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm

      They yearling (black halter) is Vaquero’s half brother. Same mom..
      The younger one is no relation, but owned by the same people.

      • Lesia Lowe on December 16, 2014 at 5:11 pm

        oh ok….. I thought that they kinda looked like Vaquero….lol… guess I was half right…. In the video when Jac met PoPcorn the first time… I didn’t see Jac do the baby talk at all…. maybe he was full of himself thinking he was the boss….lol

  8. Bobbi Naylor on December 23, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Colonel is often the one that feels the need to “train” the new horses as to pasture etiquette. Therefore, he is often called a ‘butt’ by other people because he will kick or correct other new horses that come to our barn. I wouldn’t say he is dominant as there is an alpha male in our herd. But, he does correct new members. I only make him behave if we are in the barn. Ex: he is not allowed to kick at the other horses or snap at them in the barn. If his ears go back, he will get ‘correction’ from me with a little pop to his behind. But, on his own, he can do whatever he likes. In other words, somebody has to correct the newbies. I’m glad my horse is aware enough to do it when needed. 🙂 I will watch for the chewing with the babies. We have two. Love the videos.

  9. Maryann on December 22, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    My alpaca herd sire does this daily towards me. It’s our secret banter.

  10. Katherine on December 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    I have a filly , ive had since she was a weanling, ive seen babies do this quite often but she doesnt, she gets picked on in the heard im wondering why she doesnt do that..?? She is pretty submissive with other horses..

  11. Jessica on December 22, 2013 at 8:19 am

    This is confusing for a none horse person as I asked earlier that about my young daughter who got told off for chewing gum (off course its not good for her safety while riding but…) saying that to the horse I am submissive and the horse can take over… so I am confused haha.

    • Stacy on December 22, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Hello there! Actually, I had you in mind when I made these videos, because of your question. This submissive mouth movement does exist in horses. I love chewing gum. I chew it all the time…even in the barn and when I ride. I do not believe that chewing gum would make enough difference to the horse to cause issues. I allow gum chewing. Having said that, it is still a good idea to respect those that you take lessons from/ride with.

      • Cathy on December 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm

        I have never heard about the gum chewing. I don’t chew gum, but I do find it to at least be a safety issue for the chewer. Interesting.

  12. Saskia on December 22, 2013 at 5:48 am

    This behavior is basically the same as licking and chewing when they give in to training. It is submissive behavior and foals are always lowest in rank and will therefor do that all the time. Research has been done about this, but I would have to go find the proper resource.

    • Stacy on December 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Saskia-If you find that info please share it here! I am always interested to see how and where the research has been done as well as the results.

  13. Michaela on December 22, 2013 at 3:25 am

    My Mare is 14 and she does it.. Its really funny 🙂

    • Cathy on December 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      I find that our mare seems to do this when she is put under some intense pressure by the geldings. I think Stacy has nailed it saying it is a type of submission. Like don’t hurt me I don’t want any trouble.

  14. Paul Amoroso on December 21, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    My Older geldings all do it. 3 of them. 7 . 10 and 11 But they do it Only to the leader of the herd Their Father. They are separated by electrobraid. The chewing to him is a sign of respect. The licking is more of When they are thinking. The chewing is a sign of respect.

  15. Flo on December 21, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    You don’t think this is related to the “lick and chew” that shows submission?

    • Stacy on December 21, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      I don’t think so. The licking and chewing seems to indicate more deep thinking to me, where the baby talk is pure submission. But that is only my opinion:)

    • Flo on December 22, 2013 at 6:29 am

      Submission; Better word– acquiescence

  16. Cathy on December 21, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Our colt did this. But, what I find interesting is that we have a mare who is about 14 yrs and sometimes she will do this. She is also a very bad cribber. The previous owner gave her a good home (us). She had lived in a small stall for a long time. When we first got her she paced in a small square for months in the pasture. She was also mean to the geldings which appeared to be fear based to me. Anyway, her occasional baby talk…….is she emotionally or socially retarded? She has worked out her issues except for the cribbing. And she is now trusting me. But she will do the baby talk.

    • Flo on December 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      I took care of a 3 yr old that came to us as a stall walker. He would constantly circle the stall. We tried everything: hanging plastic jugs, cones, tires. He was a racehorse in training, so had to be stalled at the track. At one point I brought him home to turn out. Found him in the shed walking in circles instead of out eating grass with the other horses. Funny thing was, my paint mare was standing there watching him. She gave me a look that as much as said, “What’s wrong with him, Mom?” Next day I found him outside side by side with her. He was jet black, but had all these white hairs all over the side of his body. I think she went in there and pressed him up against the wall to stop him circling. Then he must have joined up with her.

    • Stacy on December 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      I think that they are a bit like people and do carry baggage from their past. I know around here that Popcorn is the one that ‘trains’ them to NOT do it anymore. Maybe it is something that horses ‘unteach’ other horses if they have the chance. I will have to study this more in large herds raised in more of a ‘wild’ setting.

  17. dolly on December 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I know, it’s so cute in the baby foals when they do the mouth movement really fast. Looks like an acceptance thing to me like they want to be accepted into the herd.

  18. Jennifer Click on December 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I bought my horse, Buffy as a weanling. She was turned out with an older gelding who was used as a baby sitter. She did this around him; he promptly turned bit a chunk out of her chest! Some welcome!

    • Stacy on December 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      LOL! Your gelding and my Popcorn might be related! Popcorn is actually very kind but he won’t tolerate immature behavior either. I think that is why I don’t have older horses around that do this…Popcorn teaches them not to. He also won’t allow pacing the fence, etc. He has very high standards in the pasture! I LOVE HORSES!!!

      • Anna JM on December 27, 2013 at 10:22 pm

        Oh man…I wish I had a Popcorn to turn out with Blue, my little punk of a gelding. I have a sneaking suspicion he wasn’t well socialized when he was young (supported by the fact that he sometimes has problems understanding humans speaking “horse” to him). It makes me sad that he has to be turned out alone because he gets lonely so easily! He’ll go and ask for a horse to give him space, but then won’t respect their warnings for the same. This grumpy gelding in an adjacent stall was kicking at the wall towards Blue, and he just seemed curious about the noise.

        Horses are so funny.

  19. irisvillagegirl on December 21, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Love it that you are talking about this! I acquired a 3 mo. Old filly and her mother this summer. I was able to touch this little one the day she was born. Anyway-she was very frightened of her new surroundings when I brought them home. I thought I would try moving my mouth the way babies do to see what kind of response I would get from her. Strangest thing happened on two separate occasions. After I moved my mouth she rubbed all over me with her body. We have been friends ever since. Have any idea what she was doing Stacy? I can still move my mouth to her and it’s like she senses that I am her friend.

  20. Carla McDonough on December 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I had a 17-18 year old horse that was on the bottom of the Pecking order that would do this.

  21. Chris on December 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Stacy, my 25 yr old saddlebred mare does this, and I’ve always wondered why. Any thoughts?

    • Stacy on December 21, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      As many others are commenting, if they are older and still do it they are generally pretty submissive i.e. bottom of the pecking order kind of horses. I would agree with that thought. Does that fit your horse?

      • Chris on December 21, 2013 at 9:53 pm

        Sometimes, but not always; there are quite a few cases where she is the more dominant mare.

      • Cathy on December 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm

        Our mare is in the middle of the pecking order and bossy over our other two mares. She isn’t an alpha mare. I love watching the interaction between our furry friends.

  22. Terri on December 21, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I have a young stud colt that was doing this when I first got him and I call it the Momma thing@!! Saying don’t hurt me!! Please don’t hurt me!! Others that I have, have done that also…….

  23. Country Girl on December 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    It’s amazing that you would post this now. I have never had a baby before but I have one now and was wondering this actually.

  24. Country Girl on December 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    This is amazing that you would post this. I’ve never had a baby before and I do now and was actually wondering this.

  25. greyhoundhorse on December 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I did see an adult horse do this same mouth thing to the leader of the herd. I was surprised! My guess was that he was asking permission to eat from the pile of hay with the leader. This was shortly after the colt had moved in. My colt is almost three and on occasion he will do it to the others. I think he wants to continue to establish himself as the youngest one there to get special treatment from the leader. I love to watch the dynamics that go on.

    • carol on December 22, 2013 at 9:09 am

      We have one horse who is close to 30 and if he turned out with any dominant horse will still mouth like a baby.

  26. johanna on December 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    thanx for those-
    great demos-
    love your horse behavior videos–so interesting!

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