Many people are surprised to learn that it is normal for horses to foam at the mouth during or after intense exercise. In this post you’ll learn:
- Why horse saliva foams, and why a horse foaming at the mouth is a good thing.
- Some red flags to look for that indicate the foam around a horse’s mouth might be a bad thing.
- Tips for helping your horse salivate more, and make more foam, while riding.
Why Do Horses’ Mouths Foam While Riding?
Maybe you noticed at a horse show, a horse race, or your child’s riding lesson: a horse foaming at the mouth. People nearby, including riders and horse trainers, probably seemed unconcerned and you might have wondered why no one was worried about the horse with foam coming out of it’s mouth. The first time you notice this happening, it can be scary. After all, in the animal kingdom foaming at the mouth is rarely a good sign, and sometimes a sign of serious illness like rabies or a seizure.
But there’s good news! Seasoned horse professionals were unconcerned because a horse foaming at the mouth is normal- and even a positive sign that the horse is happy and working well with its rider.
A horse’s mouth foaming while riding is usually a sign that the horse is relaxed and softly yielding to the rider’s cues given via reins (called, in horse jargon, “accepting the bit” or “on the bit”, which we’ll talk more about in a moment). Foam at the mouth is a good sign that a horse is relaxed and happy.
Other reasons a horse might foam at the mouth: A horse bit made from copper can also prompt heavy salivation, cause your horse to drool excessively, and make them appear to be foaming at the mouth. There are also negative reasons that your horse could be foaming at the mouth, including overexertion or a bit that doesn’t fit their mouth.
Positive Reasons Horses Foam at the Muth
Most Common Cause: They’re “On The Bit”
Most of the time when you see foam around a horse’s mouth, it’s because it’s “on the bit.” This simply means that the horse has yeilded the bit and they aren’t fighting against it. This is good because it means that they will be more receptive to a rider’s cues.
When a horse is relaxed, the horse is more mobile in its jaw and tongue around a bit more. This stimulates a gland, near where the horse’s head meets the neck, which can cause your horse to salivate more, which creates a foamy appearance. In dressage and other equestrian disciplines, this is considered a good thing.
A saliva duct exists in a horse’s throat latch area (just behind the jaw, where the head meets the neck), and when a horse is stressed or carrying its head awkwardly, the duct does not function properly, resulting in a dry mouth.
Ideally, you want your horse to be relaxed enough that they’re moving their mouth around. If your horse is anxious instead of calm, then they won’t be able to execute the complex maneuvers gracefully.
Horses Develop Mouth Foam due to Tongue Depression
Another reason that horses foam at the mouth when they are relaxed and working well with a rider is that when a horse is relaxed and has accepted the bit, its tongue is slightly depressed. With a tongue in this passive position, a horse doesn’t swallowing quite as often as usual.
Swallowing less in no way hurts the horse; however, it does result in more saliva that becomes worked into a foam through the movement of the horse’s mouth. No swallowing saliva results in visible foam coming out of a horse’s mouth, since it‘s not swallowing it as they normally would.
Copper horse Bit promoting mouth foam
Although this is sometimes debated amongst trainers, it’s generally agreed that copper causes horses to salivate more. So, if you’ve just switched to a copper bit and you notice that your horse is drooling more than normal and nothing else has changed, it’s probably due to the new copper bit.
Copper is not intrinsically good or bad; some copper bits (based on their shape and method of functioning) can be painful to horses while other copper horse bits are some of the gentlest bits on the market. As long as their mouth is not irritated, there’s nothing wrong with using a copper bit. (Have a tarnished bit that is so corroded you aren’t sure it’s copper? Check out our horse bit cleaning advice)
Negative Causes of Horses Foaming at the Mouth
Foam due to Overexertion
While the previous two causes of foaming at the mouth are positive signs, this one can be negative. Like many other mammals, as a horse exerts itself intensely, it will sweat more. To prevent overheating, horses also begin to drool more and keep their mouths open in an attempt to prevent overheating.
While it’s good for your horse to get their heart rate up and get a good workout in, riders should avoid overexerting them. Overexerting horses come with an increased risk of injury. It can also lead to dehydration which can be very dangerous for horses.
If you take your horse out for a hard ride and notice that they’re foaming at the mouth more than usual, that’s your sign to slow down and take it slower. The last thing you want is a horse that trips or falls due to overexertion.
Overexertion is one reason you’re more likely to see foam around a horse’s mouth after a race, at the end of a grueling cross country course, or at the end of an intense training session. As long as a horse isn’t pushed beyond the point of exhaustion, foaming due to exertion is okay as long as good care and rest are provided afterwards.
Foam due to An Ill-Fitting Bit
The last reason we’ll be discussing today is an ill-fitting bit. If your horse’s mouth is irritated by their bit, they will begin to produce more saliva as their body tries to flush out the irritant and prevent damage to their mouth by lubricating it. This can result in them appearing to foam at the mouth during or after a riding lesson or training session.
Learn about bits and how to make sure your horse’s bit fits by asking your riding instructor or through this helpful guide from the University of Georgia’s Extension Office.
Red Flags to be Concerned about:
If the Foam around your horse’s mouth is pink
If the foam the horse is producing appears to be pink or red, it’s a sign that there is blood mixed in with the saliva. This could indicate an open sore, injury, dental issue, or cut on the inside of your horse’s mouth.
If you notice pink foam around a horse’s mouth, immediately stop your ride (or stop the rider, if you aren’t the rider), take the bit out, and check both the bit and your horse’s mouth to determine the source of the bleeding.
It’s important to remove the bit as soon as you realize that something is wrong or you could risk worsening the injury. A bit with a metal burr that causes a tiny cut after 5 minutes could produce a large open sore in your horse’s mouth if you continued riding for an hour. Dismounting and checking immediately could prevent weeks of not being able to ride your horse while an injury heals.
Caveat: Could it be Candy?
If you see pink foam and panic, you wouldn’t be the first rider to realize the peppermint you gave your horse a half hour ago is the culprit! If you take the bit out and check their mouth and nothing is wrong, think about what you’ve fed them in the last several hours. Plenty of riders have panicked, thinking that their horse cut their mouth only to remember that they gave them some red-tinted treat shortly before riding, and the dye simply stained their saliva.
Tips to Help your Horse Salivate and Foam more at the mouth
- Hydrate. make sure your horse stays well hydrated, so they can produce saliva.
- Use a Comfortable Bit. use a bit that your horse likes and that their mouth stays quiet while using, creating the soft tougue that promotes salivation.
- Collect your Horse. Horses that are yeilding to the bit and softly flexed through their head and neck will naturally produce more saliva.
- Use a copper bit. Copper may promote the production of saliva, which forms foam, in your horse’s mouth.
- Relax. Horses produce more foam around their mouth when they aren’t anxious. Calming your own horseback riding nerves is one of the best ways to help an anxious horse relax.
Key Takeaways on Horses with Foam at the Mouth
For the most part, your horse’s mouth foaming during dressage is not a cause for concern. It’s simply an indication that your horse’s mouth is relaxed. It can also be because you’re using a copper bit.
Foaming at the mouth is a sign of a relaxed, happy horse and should not be a cause for concern unless it occurs while the horse is not working or has other strange symptoms. However, if your horse is more exerted than usual or you notice that the foam is stained pink or red, you should stop immediately and check your horse for injury. The faster you notice injuries, the quicker they can get healed, and you can get back to riding.