The yawning horse: Is a yawn a possible equine welfare indicator?

“..a horse that frequently yawns may be exhibiting behavior related to welfare, researchers say.”

By Fran Burga

Why do horses yawn? It’s still a mystery, or perhaps there are multiple mysteries to be investigated. We all observe horses yawning, but does it seem like some yawn more than others? And are there times when a horse yawns more often?

Science is whittling away at the yawning mysteries and this week we have some new research to contemplate, as a study has been published compared the yawning behavior of wild (Przewalski) horses compared to domestic horses living in similar conditions.

A horse’s yawn, by the way, was defined by Sue McConnell, PhD in 2003 as “Deep long inhalation with mouth widely open and jaws either directly opposed or moved from side to side”. Yawning is related to some gastrointestinal conditions, and has been proposed as communicating between horses, and reaction to stress. Could a high level of yawning mean that a horse’s welfare is compromised?

The newest research, published this week under an Open Access license (so you can read and download it without charge), builds on previously published equine behavior research, such as a study by Fureix and colleagues in France. Fureix studied horses living in stalls and recorded stereotypic behavior, such as cribbing and weaving, and the frequency of yawning.

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