I know how dangerous drooling can be in a horse. My young 2-year old filly has been an absolute learning curve for me, but blowing bubbles was new!
My filly always seems to come up with new and strange things to do as she explores her world. However, the drooling concerned me, and I instantly stepped into diagnostic mode.
She was drooling from the mouth in long dribbly bits, but she seemed quite happy and content and showed no signs of being ill. After my shocked heart started beating again, I investigated why she would be drooling at the mouth.
Why do horses drool? Horses drool when their mouth produces more saliva than they can swallow at that particular time or if they cannot swallow the saliva. Horses that are ridden will have a wet mouth in reaction to the metal bit on their tongue, while horses that graze on red clover will also begin to drool and even foam at the mouth.
Are there any medical reasons why a horse would drool frequently? Horses also drool when there is a problem in their mouth. A horse that has an injury to its tongue, lips, or palate may salivate in response to pain, inflammation, or infection. Suffering a stroke can also make a horse drool, as will allergies, paralysis, and choking on food.
It can be a lot to take in. I’ll cover each in depth so you can be confident knowing what to do.
Why Was My Horse Drooling?
While my filly continued happily blowing bubbles, I searched for reasons why. After all, she wasn’t choking, so what was going on? After quite a bit of head-scratching, calls to the vet, checking her vital signs, and examining her drool-filled little mouth, I glanced into her trough and BINGO!
Her bright pink Himalayan salt lick had been turned into a donut from excessive licking. My youngster had developed a serious salt craving. While I know that salt is good for horses, I realized that her salty habit of licking at the block after her meal stimulated her tongue and mouth, causing the drool to bubble out and scaring the heck out of me.
Fixing her drool problem was as simple as placing the salt lick in a different corner of her stable. But what about the other scary reasons why horses drool?
10 Reasons Why Horses Drool and What to Do About Each
There are several reasons why horses drool (aside from having an obsession with salt).
1. Red Clover Slobbers
A horse slobbering from eating red clover is perhaps one of the best-known reasons for a horse drooling. It can be quite an unpleasant sight to see a watery foam bubbling out of your horse’s mouth.
Red clover can be contaminated by Rhizoctonia fungus, which releases a chemical called slaframine, triggering the horse’s salivary glands to create more saliva or drool. Often, fields baled for hay may contain red clover and could contaminate the hay with Rhizoctonia and slaframine. A horse that eats this hay may continue to drool excessively.
2. Feed-Related Choke
If your horse suddenly starts to drool or food runs out of its mouth or nose in a slimy mess, you can instantly suspect feed-related choke. Choke is a dangerous condition that occurs if a horse eats too fast. As a result, the feed doesn’t get adequately masticated, and then it gets stuck in the horse’s esophagus.
If you are wondering, a horse can absolutely die from choke, whether on the day it happens or days later if there is recurring choke since the food obstruction hasn’t been cleared.
Whenever I see some drool coming out of my horse’s nose, I know it is serious and requires immediate action. When it is food-drool, the slime will have food particles in it. Food-drool usually occurs immediately after your horse has eaten their concentrate or sweet feed.
Sadly, choke can be fatal due to secondary infections, lacerations to the esophagus, the formation of abscesses, and paralysis of the larynx that may happen due to treatment of the choke condition.
3. Sinus Infection
Horses, like people, can also develop a cold or sinus infection. When you notice yellow or pale white slime coming out of your horse’s nose, the reason is often a cold or sinus infection or an upper airway infection of some kind. In this case, your horse will require antibiotic treatment either in the form of a course of tablets or a long-acting injection.
When left untreated, this condition can become quite serious. Respiratory infections may lead to equine pneumonia or pulmonary damage, leading to permanent and ultimately fatal conditions.
4. Dental Issues
Horses may have undiagnosed dental issues that cause them to drool. Having an abscess in their mouth, sharp and irregular teeth that bite into their tongue and lips, and struggling to chew properly may all contribute to your horse drooling and spitting out food.
The only treatment here is to seek the services of an equine dental technician. Some farriers may also offer hand rasping as a service, though this has limited efficiency as the farrier can’t reach the back teeth or do as much filing as a technician can with power tools.
If your horse has a fractured tooth, a specialist equine dentist will be needed. Extracting a molar is a highly specialized procedure. It is also dangerous as large arteries may be compromised when removing the tooth. When removing a tooth incorrectly, the metal pliers may slip, nick arteries, and lead to severe blood loss and death.
5. Paralysis of the Tongue or Larynx
Some horses suffer neurological damage to their tongue, throat, or larynx. The paralysis is often due to injury either through a kick, biting onto a stone, swallowing a sharp stick, or even genetic influences. Sadly, there is often very little that can be done to save such a horse.
Drooling, in this case, happens as the horse is unable to swallow its own saliva. This also means a horse can’t swallow food, and they slowly starve to death. After confirming a diagnosis of paralysis affecting the esophagus, the most humane action is to euthanize the horse.
6. Poisoning and Allergic Reactions
Horses can easily ingest poison, whether from human sources or by eating a toxic plant. Each horse will respond differently to poisoning, and drooling may be one of the signs of toxicity.
If you notice your horse is suddenly drooling and they are standing strangely with tucked up bellies, heads hanging low, and wobbly legs, the chances are big that your horse is suffering a type of anaphylactic shock.
In this case, calling your vet is one of your first actions to take. Next, have someone scan the horse’s paddock to check for known toxic plants, foreign materials that may have contained poison, and any other signs that your horse was sick such as drool collecting on the ground.
While this is happening, you need to keep your horse on their feet as poisoning can cause colic to set in, and you need to prevent them from rolling and twisting their gut.
Some believe that force-feeding your horse an activated charcoal powder by syringe or tubing them is a good way to neutralize the toxins in your horse’s stomach. Charcoal is indeed a good treatment for poisoning. However, it would be best if you considered whether you would be able to correctly force the charcoal and water mix into your horse’s esophagus. Sending fluid down the trachea will lead to fluid in your horse’s lungs, and this can potentially be as fatal as the poison.
I recall one summer when a friend called me in a panic to look at her horse that had suddenly started drooling and seemed generally uncomfortable. The horse had no fever and showed no signs of other discomfort or colic, except it refused food.
Finally, wondering what was wrong in its mouth, we managed to look into the horse’s mouth, where we discovered the cause of the drooling—trauma. The horse had sustained a kick, which had caused the horse’s baby tooth to break off in the gum line.
Since it was a baby tooth, and the cap would have been pushed free in time, we managed to clean the area and monitored it for signs of rot. The gum healed well, and the adult tooth later erupted (pushed from the gum) without any problems.
Similarly, trauma doesn’t always need to be from a kick. Another horse at the yard had a swollen lip, and when we opened the mouth, we found a small abscess. The cause of the abscess was a sharp wood splinter that pierced the horse’s lip. The horse’s drooling stopped after draining the abscess and removing the splinter.
While the U.S. has been free of dog rabies since 2007, horses can contract rabies from animals like bats, rats, and other rodents. As a result of contracting rabies, a horse may also start to salivate and drool from the mouth.
Perhaps you live in an area with multiple animal rabies infections. It is best to ensure no rabies-carrying animals can bite, scratch, or otherwise infect your horses and other livestock.
Even eating bat droppings in the barn can cause another animal to contract rabies and other diseases.
Should you suspect your horse has contracted rabies, get the vet to take a blood sample and isolate the horse from other animals and keep all people away from the horse too. If rabies is confirmed, the chances of recovery are slim for the horse, and it will likely have to be euthanized.
9. Regurgitation Stimulation
While horses can’t vomit since their esophagus is too long for bile and vomit to move up from their stomach sphincter, they can regurgitate while eating. Some horses develop a taste for their sweet feed, and they want to enjoy it a second time. These horses may rub their neck and jaw on surfaces such as their stable door or feed trough.
The pressure on their throat muscles triggers regurgitation, causing the food bolus to push back up and allowing the horse to taste their food again. In a strange variation of windsucking or crib-biting, horses may satiate their need to eat sweet foods by pushing the food they’ve just eaten back up their throat to their neck glands (just behind the throat latch area of the jaw).
Since the food is pushed back into the horse’s mouth and upper throat, they may start to salivate excessively, forming drool that may come out of their mouth or nose. There may or may not be food particles in the saliva, but it will be a shocking amount of drool that will pour out moments after eating.
This regurgitation habit is rare, but it mostly happens among Friesian horses. Friesian horses may also suffer a megaesophagus—where they develop a tear in their throat that forms into a pouch that retains food and stops it from entering the stomach. Regurgitation is mostly a nervous habit or one that starts from boredom.
Scoping the horse will confirm whether it is a regurgitation habit or a megaesophagus. Horses with megaesophagus may suffer a decline in health as their food doesn’t get digested effectively, and it may also trigger repeated cases of choke.
What to Do About A Dangerous Habit?
What do you do when you suspect it is boredom? After all, you wouldn’t want to deny your horse feed in their stable. Well, one of the Friesian owners at the yard I run came up with a creative solution that saved her stallion’s life.
Mounting a short section of electric tape to a strip grazer energizer to the stallion’s stable door allowed for a mild electric shock to teach him not to push on his throat latch obsessively. Far from being cruel, it took only one or two zaps to teach him to keep his head in his stable where it belonged, and the resulting regurgitation stopped.
10. Stroke or Neurological Damage
Horses can also suffer a stroke. Neurological conditions can be due to a traumatic injury such as a kick to the head or due to neurological complications such as narrowed blood vessels in the brain. Illness and viral infections can also lead to stroke or neurological involvement. The West Nile virus can also trigger brain and spinal column incoordination.
The result of these conditions can include a horse drooling constantly. Often, these causes can only be confirmed through blood tests, scans, and by ruling out the other causes of drooling.
Chart: Reasons for Horse Slobber
|Cause of Horse Drool||Solution|
|Red Clover Slobbers||Switch the hay to one without red clover|
|Feed Related Choke||Help clear the passage way|
|Sinus Infection||Usually treated with antibiotics|
|Dental Issues||Have your Ferrier come out|
|Paralysis of the Tongue or Larynx||Euthanize is usually the only option|
|Poisoning or Allergies||Get vet help and keep your horse on its feet|
|Trauma injury||Locate and treat the injury|
|Rabies||Verify with a blood sample, isolate, and treat according to vet recommendations|
|Regurgitation Stimulation||Vets can diagnose|
|Stroke or Neurological Damage||Brain scans and other tests can help identify the cause.|
How to Check Your Horse’s Mouth Without Getting Bitten
If your horse drools from the mouth, it may be necessary for you to check their mouth for signs of trauma, discoloration of the tongue, and swelling of the soft tissues. Doing so safely is essential as a horse can quite easily bite off a finger if they manage to get your hand between their teeth.
To safely open and inspect your horse’s mouth, follow these steps:
- Halter your horse, ask a friend to hold your horse securely, and stand by their shoulder. Be careful of head shaking as this can seriously injure you if your horse hits you with their head.
- Place your thumb by the corner of your horse’s lips on the near side of their head. This is the same position that you would use if you were easing the bit into their mouth.
- When your horse opens their mouth, slip your thumb, index, and middle finger into your horse’s mouth in the area between the horse’s molars and their incisors where there are no teeth.
- Gently but firmly take a hold of your horse’s tongue with your hand, being careful not to let them pull their tongue back.
- Turn your wrist slightly so your hand becomes a fist while gripping their tongue as this makes your hand more difficult for the horse to bite down on.
- You will now be able to look into your horse’s mouth and examine their teeth, sides of their mouth, and tongue for signs of sharp teeth, abscesses, lacerations, trauma, and discoloration.
Tips for a Successful Examination
Don’t try to hold your horse’s mouth open for an extended period. Horses get tired from keeping their jaws open, and you will struggle too. Instead, take a second look if needed. Be sure to keep your fist and fingers away from your horse’s molars as these are often as sharp as knives, and if your horse gets a chance, they will bite you out of self-defense.
To examine the horse’s lips and incisors, rub their lips on the outside. Next, slide the lips up and down, placing your fingers between the horse’s gums and lips. This area is a position that horses often find stimulating, so rub their gums gently, and they will enjoy the examination and let you have a good look.
What About Horses That Drool While Being Ridden?
Horses that drool from being ridden are a hot topic in the horse world. English riders believe that horses are softening and giving when they drool or foam around the bit while being ridden. Sadly, this is often not the case.
A horse that is being ridden may produce drool that drips or flakes off its lips. Drooling is often due to the following reasons (and none of them are good):
1. Sweet Iron Bits Overstimulate the Salivary Glands
Some bits have a particular metal that is known as sweet iron. These bits are supposed to help a horse relax and accept the bit. Often, it triggers excessive saliva in the mouth, and a horse can’t always swallow as effectively when they have a bit in their mouth.
2. Tight Nosebands and Flash Bands Restrict Breathing
In English riding, horses’ bridles have nosebands and flash bands that tighten across the horse’s face. These are designed to teach the horse to lower its head, not snatch at the bit, and not graze when being ridden.
Sadly, these restrictions also limit the horse’s ability to relax the muscles in their jaw, and it influences their breathing, leading to excessive salivation or drooling.
When a horse is being ridden in soft and accepting contact, the front of its face will be on what is known as the vertical. This is a line drawn from the horse’s forehead to the ground at a 90-degree angle to the ground. A horse’s face should be ahead of the line, never behind it.
Once a horse’s face moves behind the vertical line due to being ridden in a hard contact or evading the bit, their throat latch area is forced shut at an unnatural angle. As a result, the horse cannot swallow, and their breathing is also influenced.
Horses that are ridden in this position often suffer since they are essentially choking on their own saliva or drool. Signs of this may include:
- Tight cheek muscles.
- Resistance to the work.
- Large frothy foam flakes on their body and lips.
Even when not working hard, the horse’s nostrils will be flared as it tries to breathe despite its throat being partially closed.
Whatever the reason your horse is drooling, you need to take it seriously. I investigated the cause for my filly drooling, and while her reason for excessive salivation was comical and harmless, it is always essential to take drooling seriously.
Rule out the different causes for your horse’s drooling. Look for signs of choke, colic, tremors, and poisoning, as these will require an emergency call to your vet. If you see signs of trauma, assess the extent by safely examining your horse’s mouth. If severe, you may need to call your vet too.
When riding, check that your tack fits correctly, keep your horse’s face before the vertical to prevent hyperflexion, and ride with kindness and care. Your horse is your partner, and when you have a happy horse, you have a happy partnership.
My filly still enjoys her salt lick, and I enjoy giggling at her bubbles. Drooling is a cause for concern, though I am fortunate that my filly’s drooling was nothing more than a real taste for yummy Himalayan salt.
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