Tongue Games

My horse sticks out his tongue when he plays with his buddies. Why does he do it?

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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

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Written by:

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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