Monday, November 26, 2007

So What about that Foal Curling Up Its Lip - Submission?

In the comments on Submission to Leadership in Arabian Horses a question was raised by dressagemom was reminded of behavior she had seen in a foal.

Once again, it opened up a discussion about submission. With most believing the action of a horse lifting it head, curling its upper lip, exposing its teeth in the process is a sign of submission of some kind. Notablogger referred to it as "baby mouth" and stated she had seen youngsters as old as two engage in this behavior. Others who had seen it as well, also stated that they had only observed it in young horses, mostly foals.

While I have always been told it has something to do with submission as well, that's never quite made sense to me. I see it in breeding as well as foals, broodmares, all horses in my herd. I've seen broodmares smell the urine of other mares in heat. I've seen horses do it at new food. I've seen yearlings stop running in the field and do it.

It is a common sight to see Legs when I am teasing a mare in heat, turn his lip upside down that way raising his head to the sky. While it's not a pretty picture, he is definitely thinking. You can see his wheels turning.

I have been unable to detect a pattern between doing it with mares that are ready to breed and ones that are not ready. He doesn't do it every time I tease but he does it to mares in both categories. If he just did it with a mare that was not ready to breed that would make sense as a sign of submission. He could be accepting the fact the mare is not ready. However, I have seen him do it with a mare that we bred that day after he did it. Then she went out of heat the next and settled a foal. The only submitting that was going on was on the mare's part, I can assure you.

I happen to know this phenomenon is called the flehmen response. Don't ask me why I remembered that, because I'm terrible with names but this one stuck in my head. So I went to the search engines to see what I could find.

They like us were all over the place. I found several different explanations, some even about submission but most seemed to suggest that the response is totally about smell.

equine flehmen response

horse smell

The role of the Flehmen Response in the behavioral repertoire of the stallion.

All have some sort of indication that smell is the basis for this response.

One link I found even suggested that the curling of the lip allows the horse to push the scent up into the nostril for a better, well, whiff! Flehmen Response in Horses I can say that this makes the most sense to me. From what I can observe with Legs, he is making a decision right after he has executed the Flehmen Response. Sometimes he clearly tells me we should be breeding this mare. Other times, he walks away.

The most interesting part to me was that people seemed to be all over the place. Some believed like those here, that it happens only in foals. Others believed it happens only in the breeding process. While others believed it was really particular to males.

Just like many of the other things about what goes on in a horse's head, I think that there are lots of opinions but not really any firm conclusions. For me, I'm going to stick with it has to do with helping the horse to smell a specific thing more effectively. That seems to be the only one that fits the numerous episodes that I have seen.

The picture above is Scandalous Dare. I didn't have a picture of the response itself, but this horse as a foal showed me it more times than any other foal I've had, so when I think about it in baby horses, I laughingly think of Dare.

Visit Blog Village and vote daily for this blog Here They are now measuring the rankings by votes out, so if you find my blog on the site, please click that link too to improve my rankings. TY


  1. Yea I was always told the flehmen response or curling of the lip was so they could pass the smell across special glands. I have seen it when I give my horses funny foods- turnips, when I havething stinky on my hands they smell and when they interact in the paddock.

    I have also seen this response in cows, sheep, cats, and dogs. Apparently most animals use it. It doesn't make sense as a sumbission gesture in cats as they dont have true hierachies.

    The most obvious sign of submission I have seen in my young horses has been when they open their mouths and sort of gum their teeth together. It's like licking and chewing a bit but you never see the tongue. They look like thay would by making a naung nuang nuang noise. That doesn't make sense but I'm sure those who have had foals have seen it.

    But yea I have never heard of the flehmen response being assoicated with submission.

  2. Actually, it's both. When foals do it, it's a sign of submission- the curled lip and chomping, doing the please don't hurt me I'm just a baby thing. But at the same time they are also 'smelling' the horse they're submitting too, imprinting their scent into thier memory.

    I've seen stallions and mares do it and to me it seems that they are mostly smelling, though occasionally it's clearly a submisive guesture as well. I think that mostly will depend on the situation.

    I have seen this curled lip combined with the baby chomping when I introduce a new horse to the herd. They'll do the usual squealing and posturing for the over the fence meet and greets, but I see the flemming and chomping when I first let them go in the pasture with the herd. The new member will do this.

    I think it can be both smelling and submitting.

  3. I have definately seen older horses flehmen, but the chomping baby mouth is something I've never seen in an older horse. I didn't realize that foals would flehmen too. I bet that's really cute!

  4. Not having read the articles that MiKael has kindly offered, I will probably jump into this discussion with feet kicking and look like a total idiot. In my humble, and perhaps misinformed, opinion the Flehmen response is totally different from the baby submission response. Flehmen is as beckz says, a way to get a better whiff of whatever the horse is trying to smell. In the Flehmen response, the horse raises their head, stretches their neck up, tips their nose up, and stretches their upper lip up exposing their teeth (like when they're trying to get that carrot that you're holding just out of reach...only more stiffly) and slightly opens their mouth. This can be accompanied by twisting of the head from side to side, and definite sniffing (breathing in). I've seen males and females do thi: stallions to determine the breedng readiness or availability of mares, mares to see if their herd-mates are open/bred (perhaps), and both to try to figure out what that smell on their person's hands, or what the vet did to their friend or where that friend has been for the past week.

    Baby mouth, or clacking, is a way to show submission. In clacking, the submissive horse(foal) stretches their neck forward, with their head more lowered (nose pointed straight out), opens their mouth, pulls back the corners of their lips, bunches their tongue up behind their lower teeth, and "clacks" their jaws together, and yes, if they made any sound, it would most certainly be 'nuang nuang nuang'. Sometimes I've heard the teeth tapping together, hence 'clacking'. Perhaps they are taking in odors as well, but most assuredly they are saying "I'm a baby, please don't hurt me".

  5. The action I was meaning wasnt the lip curling, I have seen our studs and mares doing that in response to smells many times, what I was meaning, as it seems were some other readers was the stretching out of the neck pulling the mouth corners back and doing that little chewing thing that they do to older horses. It is too cute.

    Interesting reading about the flehmen response is interesting, explains why they do it LOL. I will post two pics on my blog tonight, one of each of these acts.



  6. I am going to ask a totally off topic question, and Mikael, we could do this through email, but I wondered if your studs are nippy?

    (my email is if you want to contact me that way).


  7. OOOoh nippy studs and stud colts. I look forward to your input on this MiKael. I know it is VERY common (Taxes is one of them) with stud colts and that is hormonal and a game most of the time). My older stud that I had gelded recently used to do this all the time too even when he was mature.