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Why Does My Horse Play With His Tongue?

My 4-year-old gelding plays with his tongue every night in his stall at feeding time when he’s waiting on his hay (see video below or at bit.ly/2tMXPrc). Why would a horse do this? Is it because new teeth are growing in, or is he just bored?

—Jennifer, via email

A.Great video clip! This behavior goes by a few names, but lollying is probably the most common. I couldn’t appreciate if there was any sucking, as well. There are actually many variations of tongue and lip movements in various combinations and specific forms. All are pretty peculiar and very interesting. As far as I know, no one knows for sure why some horses do it.

These oral behaviors appear to be more common among orphan foals, particularly bucket-fed foals. Also, oral behaviors often develop soon after weaning in early weaned foals. So one theory is that the behavior may fill the need for sucking. These tongue behaviors, like cribbing, may also increase salivation, which can help buffer stomach acids.

Many early weaned foals and orphan foals have gastric ulcers. It is quite common for adult horses with cribbing and other aberrant oral behaviors to have gastric ulcers, as well. When the gastric ulcers are treated and eliminated, the abnormal behavior often subsides. It usually doesn’t go away altogether but, rather, decreases. In your horse’s case, because the behavior occurs when he is waiting for his hay, it may, like cribbing, serve to increase saliva to buffer the stomach acids that are flowing in anticipation of feeding. So I would recommend having your veterinarian perform gastroscopy and treat him for gastric ulcers, if necessary. I have not heard of these unusual oral behaviors associated with teeth coming in.

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