Mythbuster Monday: Horses Smile When They Like Something

On Mythbuster Monday, we tackle a variety of equestrian myths to either bust or confirm. Today’s discussion: Do horses smile when they are happy or excited about something?

It’s Mythbuster Monday, where Horse Nation dives into different equestrian myths and provides research-based evidence to either bust or confirm those myths. Today’s topic: Do horses smile? Is their smiling because they are happy to see you? Is this how horses show excitement about something? Read further to find out!

Myth:  Horses smile when they like something

Myth or Fact: Myth


What we refer to as a horse “smiling” is actually called the Flehmen response. This is a behavior where the horse curls its upper lip and closes the nostrils while exposing their front teeth. The horse will hold this position for several seconds and may do it multiple times.

This response it thought to be a horse smiling or laughing. Some mares do it with their newborn foals, while others do it when someone walks into the barn. Many people will teach their horse how to do this on command and the trick is called smile or laugh. But, horses do not naturally perform this behavior because they are happy or excited.


This article by Horse Side Vet Guide goes into more detail about the Flehmen response. When a horse “smiles,” it is actually a horse’s way to detect pheromones. Stallions use the response to detect mares in heat. When the stud recognizes the scent of the pheromones the mare is radiating, he holds them in his nostrils for several seconds to further process them.

For healthy horses, they use this as a way to process new tastes and smells. In other instances, some horses will use this as a sign of colic.


Another article by veterinarian Sharon Crowell-Davis states that the horse “laugh” is a way for horses to relay information to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is the area in the horses brain that processes smell. It is connected directly to the nostrils.

The response is exhibited by both sexes of horses, but tends to be more common in males, especially stallions.

However, mares who have just foaled exhibit the response due to smelling amniotic fluid, fetal membranes and their newborn foal. Unfortunately, the mares aren’t smiling because they’re happy with their new foal, they’re processing all the foreign smells.


In Deirdre Biles’s article, she explains horses’ smiles as having a practical purpose. A horse will inhale a scent and then curl his lip up to close the nasal passages to let the scent linger to process it. Horses exhibit this response with unfamiliar, pungent smells such as smoke from fire or fresh paint.


Chelsie Fraser writes in her article that horses use the Flehmen’s response as a way to identify individuals. While many think their horse’s are smiling because their owner’s have come to greet them, they are actually processing your individual scent.

The horse will inhale your scent and flip up his lip to capture the scent in his nostrils to process. This stimulates the horse’s scent glands allowing him to identify you by your individual smell.


After diving into the research, it appears that when horses curl their front lip up, exposing their teeth, they are not actually smiling. This is how they process new scents and identify individuals. Stallions tend to do it the most, but it is not uncommon to see with geldings, mares and foals.

Do you have an equine myth you’d like us to tackle? If so, send it our way! Email your suggestions to [email protected]. Put Mythbuster Monday in your subject line.