Yawning - it's no laughing matter
Yawning can be a sign of relaxation, stress, ulcers, compressed nerves or TMJ dysfunction, among other things.
Interpreting the yawning response can be quite tricky as yawning is all about context.
A horse yawning repeatedly during an overall body work session is likely to be releasing tension and will probably lower its head, sigh deeply, half close its eyes, drop its lower lip and generally relax giving themselves up to the experience.
Drill down a little more though and if the bodyworker is working on the skull region, the horse may be letting go of tension in TMJ and you may see a crossing over of the jaw during the yawn, along with eye-rolling, a trembling lower lip and some licking and chewing. They might snort, sneeze or shake their whole body.
As with all body work releases, we as riders need to ask ourselves what caused the tension in the first place. Are we allowing enough freedom of the gullet, can the horse move its jaw comfortably and swallow during their arena work, is the tension coming from nerve impingement from an ill-fitting saddle, poorly balanced feet, or is a visit from the dentist called for – there’s much to consider when we observe our horses when the body worker is present.
A sore stomach can trigger yawning. Gastric ulcers, liver distress or other gut discomfort can manifest as yawning. Yawning here might be accompanied by a horse flicking its flanks with its tail, nudging its stomach with its nose, or resenting being saddled. The ‘girthy’ horse may be anticipating compression of the phrenic nerve. The question to ask here is - do we cinch that girth too tightly?
We often see riders checking the girth by sliding their hand between the girth and the rib cage, this is incorrect – the way to check whether the girth is securely and comfortably fitted is to put at least two fingers between the sternum and the girth as it is the sternum where most compression is felt. If your horse habitually stamps its foot and touches its girth area when being saddled, we cannot assume it’s being annoyed by a fly.
The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the horse's autonomous nervous system that blocks out pain and is termed the ‘flight response’. The parasympathetic nervous system handles rest and relaxation. A yawning horse may indicate that they’re moving from the flight response to the rest response.
A horse may yawn in response to a moment of stress or anticipation of stress. When we teach our horses something new, we challenge them and we may trigger their flight response. Once we release the pressure, the horse may yawn, indicating movement from sympathetic mode to parasympathetic mode. If they lick and chew, or sigh this may indicate that they get what you’re saying and indicating their calm emotional state.
It’s important to be gentle, consistent and understanding when training our horses so that they can move easily between learning and relaxing. We should always be aiming at a soft eye, a relaxed face, flicking ears, consistent breathing and a sense of well-being with their trusted human.