Why Do Horses Show Their Teeth?

Horses are magnificent creatures known for their unique ways of communication. Among their intriguing behaviors, showing their teeth stands out as a fascinating form of expression. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the reasons why horses show their teeth, shedding light on the various messages conveyed through this equine behavior.

Natural Behavior and Social Communication

Horses are highly social animals, and their communication extends beyond vocalizations and body language. Displaying their teeth is an essential part of their nonverbal communication repertoire. In the wild and within domestic herds, horses use their teeth to convey various messages, establishing hierarchies, and expressing emotions.

The Role of Teeth Display in Equine Social Interactions

In horse herds, teeth display plays a crucial role in maintaining order and defining social hierarchies. Dominant horses may show their teeth to assert their position, while submissive horses may use teeth display as a sign of respect and submission. Understanding this aspect of equine communication helps decipher the dynamics within a horse group.

Signs of Contentment and Comfort

Contrary to aggressive displays, horses also show their teeth as a sign of contentment and relaxation. The classic “horse smile” is often seen when horses are comfortable and at ease. Observing this positive facial expression helps horse owners gauge the overall well-being and happiness of their equine companions.

Baring Teeth as a Sign of Discomfort or Pain

While teeth display can indicate contentment, it can also be a sign of discomfort or pain. Horses may bare their teeth in response to physical discomfort, such as ill-fitting tack or dental issues. Recognizing these signs is essential for ensuring the horse’s comfort and addressing potential health concerns promptly.

Communication During Play and Playful Aggression

In the context of play, horses may show their teeth as part of their playful behavior. The “flehmen response” is a classic example where a horse curls its upper lip and bares its teeth to investigate intriguing scents. Additionally, horses engaged in playful aggression, such as mock-fighting, may display their teeth as part of the interaction.

Observing Teeth Display in Riding and Training

Horses can exhibit teeth display during riding and training sessions. Riders and trainers should pay attention to these expressions, as they may provide valuable insights into the horse’s comfort level and overall response to the training process. Addressing any signs of discomfort ensures a positive and respectful training experience.

Dental Health and Its Impact on Teeth Display

The condition of a horse’s teeth and overall dental health can influence teeth display. Dental issues, such as sharp points or dental malocclusions, can cause discomfort and lead to teeth grinding or excessive teeth display. Regular dental check-ups by veterinarians and equine dentists are crucial for maintaining optimal dental health.

Horse-Human Interaction and Teeth Display

Horses also show their teeth as part of their interaction with humans. Positive facial expressions, such as the horse’s relaxed and soft-eyed “smile,” indicate a trusting and comfortable relationship with their handlers. Understanding these expressions fosters better communication and bonding between horses and humans.

Real-Life Examples and Expert Insights

Throughout history and in modern-day equine practices, many real-life examples of teeth display can be observed. Insights from experienced horse handlers and trainers help to interpret the subtleties of equine communication and enhance our understanding of this captivating behavior.

Dispelling Misunderstandings About Horses Showing Their Teeth

As with any animal behavior, myths and misconceptions may surround the display of teeth in horses. It is essential to debunk these misunderstandings to foster accurate interpretations and better appreciate the rich complexity of equine communication.

Why Do Horses Show Their Teeth at Humans?

Horses may show their teeth at humans as a form of communication. When a horse bares its teeth in the presence of a human, it can convey various messages. In some cases, it may be a sign of submission or respect, indicating that the horse acknowledges the human’s authority. On the other hand, teeth display can also be a response to discomfort, fear, or unease. Horses are highly perceptive animals, and their teeth display can express their emotions and reactions to human interactions.

Why Do Horses Lift Their Lip?

The behavior of horses lifting their lip is known as the “flehmen response.” When horses encounter interesting scents or pheromones, they may curl their upper lip and expose their teeth and gums. This action allows the horse to transfer the scent to a special organ in the roof of its mouth called the vomeronasal organ. The flehmen response helps horses better analyze and process various scents, especially those related to potential mates or other horses’ bodily secretions.

Do Horses Smile When Happy?

While horses do not smile in the same way humans do, they have their way of expressing happiness and contentment. One common positive facial expression observed in horses is the softening of their eyes, relaxed ears, and a soft, tranquil facial expression. This expression is often referred to as the “horse smile.” While it may not involve baring teeth like a human smile, the horse’s soft and relaxed facial features indicate a state of well-being and comfort.

Why Do Horses Lip You?

When a horse “lips” or gently nibbles at a person, it can be a sign of curiosity or affection. Horses use their lips and sensitive mouths to explore and investigate objects in their environment, including humans. Lipping is often seen as a gentle and non-aggressive behavior, reflecting the horse’s interest in connecting with the person. However, it is essential to set boundaries and discourage any behavior that becomes overly intrusive or dominant.


In conclusion, horses show their teeth as a multifaceted form of communication. From social hierarchies to emotional expressions, teeth display holds a myriad of meanings in the equine world. As responsible horse owners and handlers, observing and understanding this behavior helps ensure the well-being and positive interactions with these magnificent creatures. By unlocking the secrets behind why horses show their teeth, we deepen our bond with these majestic animals and enrich our journey with them.