Q. My horse, a 14-year-old gelding, always sticks out his tongue when he plays the head-butting game with his buddies. It seems like he's daring the other horses to grab his tongue, which they never do. Why does he do it? Is it the equine version of chicken? I don't believe it's a submission behavior because he's otherwise quite assertive.

When my horse sticks his tongue out, it's always when the horses are nudging head-to-head, specifically muzzle to cheek or side of face. He never does this if he's inspecting other parts of the horse's body. The other horses never seem interested in doing anything with his tongue and never respond with the same behavior (i.e., sticking tongue out). I know he's doing this deliberately because his tongue sticks straight out of his mouth, as opposed to lolling out the side.

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A. I don't think I have ever seen a horse stick out his tongue in the context of rough and tumble play between herdmates. (And I assume you mean one horse butting his head against the body of another horse, back and forth, as opposed to two horses butting heads the way rams or bulls would head-butt.) But I can explain the tongue behavior.

The tongue is rarely seen during horse-to-horse interactions, usually only appearing when horses are licking something while reaching for or eating leaves when browsing. The tongue is also visible when they yawn, but it's not a "sticking out the tongue" behavior like your horse is doing; it is more of a solitary--rather than interactive--behavior, even when displayed near a herdmate. One exception is during the context of a mare interacting with a newborn foal, licking and nuzzling it. The other is during a stallion's courtship of a female, when he might sometimes lick the mare. Even during mutual grooming of two horses, the tongue is back in the mouth where you would not see it. The grooming is accomplished using little nips of the teeth and lips. During rough and tumble play, when horses might be on the brink of nipping or biting each other, I would expect the tongue to be similarly held back in the mouth out of the way of getting pinched between the teeth. So it would be great to see what your horse does to better answer your question.

Cheek-to-cheek contact usually precedes mutual grooming, which often starts with the nuzzling and then some yawning, and then mutual grooming. I have seen horses in that context, very close to one another, extending their tongues.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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