Bored, Tired, or What? Why do Horses Yawn?

Yawn by ~TruAndGenuine on deviantART

One of the boarders at my barn was concerned because her horse yawns a lot. It’s not something I’d ever given much thought to. She confided in a friend that she was worried that it was a sign of colic.

My friend then googled the term and told me that there were a plethora of meanings. That intrigued me, so I did a little research on my own. Thanks, Carolyn for the idea!

It turns out that yawning in horses has puzzled several people as there are many postings on the topic. Physiologically (in both horses and humans), yawning is associated with a variety of neurochemical substances that are secreted in the brain in association with changes in state of arousal.

  • Both people and horses tend to yawn when there is a change in the state of arousal. Unsurprisingly, this frequently happens when waking up from a period of drowsiness, but it also can happen after a sudden fright or after something pleasurable.
  • Since horses also yawn after massages or chiropractic treatments, some people believe that it indicates a release from tension or stress.
  • Yawning can also occur after the horse has been holding its breath, often from being stressed physically or mentally. The yawn is an attempt to refill its lungs. Monty Roberts concurs that “the act of yawning is to take in oxygen. One element of tiring is starving the brain of oxygen. During exertion and tension we assign oxygen to muscles needed for work. Horses in their quest for survival will enter periods of extreme concern and rob the brain severely. They’ll push themselves for a long time and then when they become satisfied that they are not going to die, they’ll relax and yawn because their system is taking over to re-oxygenate the brain.
  • Someone read that its a way that horses clear dust from their airways.
  • Several people reported that their horses yawn in between taking their halters off and putting their bridles on, speculating that the horse likes to stretch its jaw before the restriction of the caveson.
  • Some people believe it’s just a habit.

Yawning can also be a sign of medical problems, although it’s less frequent.

  • It can be a sign of abdominal pain or colic, or to relieve the pain from ulcers
  • Yawning can also be a neurological symptom of liver disease (as ammonia builds up in the blood it crosses the barrier to the brain which results in neurological symptoms one of which is yawning).

Who would have thought that yawning could mean so many things! The good news is that most of the time, it is harmless.

14 thoughts on “Bored, Tired, or What? Why do Horses Yawn?

  1. Hi!
    I have an Icelandic stallion that yawns alot! I mean the vet doesn’t know what’s wrong with him or if this is anything to be worried about. I found him yawning before putting the saddle and the bridle up or after eating or being in the pasture it doesn’t really matter where he is. Otherwise he has some problems with his breathing because of the dust but I don’t think there is a connection with yawning. He is also a kind of horse that gets really stressed fast and then he sweats alot and stuff. I mean I’m really worried because I know this cannot be just innocent yawning because he’s doing this alooot.
    If you find out more about horses yawning please tell me 🙂
    Greetings from Slovenia

  2. Julija, maybe your horse is just simply unique. Today I caught my horse yawning, and wondered why he was doing it. But this morning, I took him for a rather long trail ride, and he did exert himself beyond normal exercise.
    As for your horse though, it is slightly unusual. But it could simply be him trying to refill his lungs. You said there is a lot of dust around? It is possible he is cleaning out his airways.

    Hope I helped some,

  3. I have a two year old paint that has just started yawning for no reason in my eyes at all. he yawns when i brush, clean his feet,feed,turn him out,put his halter on him,and on we go. but he just started doing it like three months ago. i am not worried about it he seems to be just fine but acts like he is bored with the whole thing.

  4. I’m an equine massage therapist. My training tells me that a yawn is an indicator of release; that a block or lock has been released. Whether they have been holding their breath or holding something else in; in my opinion, they are letting “IT” Go! Same with EXHALING, it is a release in my eyes. That’s my opinion. LOL….

  5. My Icelandic stallion yawns a lot too, but it seems like it is in a relaxed state. He conserves energy until he is ready to perform. He does not seem in any discomfort, just relaxed so I don’t think it is anything to worry about. I don’t think it is boredom because he yawns after a ride as well.

  6. I have a Spanish mare who is in season. She has been yawning her head off all week. She has just been moved to a new yard and has been turned out with a new paddock friend…another mare. They get on well most of the time and seem very happy in their new lives. She just seems to be getting settled in.

  7. i have a mare that lives out at the moment, she yawns quite a bit sometimes, even when i haven’t done much with her that day. should i be worried?

    1. No, I wouldn’t worry. Most of the time a yawn is just a yawn — and is often just a sign of release, rather than of stress or tension.

  8. My 18 year old fjord mare has been yawning a lot since her mother died suddenly last week. I associate it with stress/mourning. She has spent her entire life with her dam, and I am certain that she is extremely sad, and possibly confused. Has anyone else experienced this with your horse?

    1. I have been told when a horse is stressed it is subject to ulcers. Yawning is a sign. You might have your vet scope her to see or just put her on Ulcer guard to see if that helps. I would have your vet scope before using anything.

      Good luck

  9. My thoroughbred and the others at my barn tend to yawn more while food is presented. Or at feeding time while they are waiting for theirs.

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