Why Do Young Horses Champ Their Mouths?

Discover the possible reasons a foal or young horse might “gum” at an adult horse.
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Why Do Young Horses Champ Their Mouths?
Champing is most commonly described as a behavior suggesting submission or appeasement. | Photo: Photos.com

Q. Why do foals and young horses gum their mouths toward older horses?

A. This is a behavior I’ve always called “champing.” Many call it “snapping,” but it goes by a lot of names. The foal will lower and extend his head and neck and make gestures that look like open-mouth chewing, but the lips are pulled back and its jaw doesn’t completely close. There’s really only a lot of speculation as to why they do it and what might be the intended result, if any. It seems to occur when the foal is in an uncertain situation in relation to another, older horse, when we think the foal might be feeling apprehension. Broadly speaking, it might be a visual cue to others or a displacement behavior that primarily serves to soothe the foal itself.

Champing is most commonly described as a behavior suggesting submission or appeasement. That’s a good intuitive guess, because it’s usually a foal’s response to an older herd mate. Foals sometimes do it toward their own dams, and sometimes it’s directed toward humans, but that’s more common with bottle-raised foals. More often it’s toward a stallion, if there’s one in the group, or any other of the older horses with which the foal lives. Sometimes the foal champs during a sexual behavior encounter between his dam and a stallion

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

One Response

  1. What would it mean when a 15y old dominant mare champs/clacks/snaps, at a possibly pregnant 3y old filly. She’s never done it before and I caught her doing it the other day. Super weird.

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