slobber horse
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

Everywhere you look, people are missing out on three significant "happy horse" signs. I'm not talking about the perky-eared cute faces looking for treats, or the mutual grooming kind of affection horses share with each other. This time, I'm talking about signs you can see while the horse is being ridden.

It is a fact - horses who move well and freely have a better time during the ride. They learn to look forward to their time in the saddle, and they even improve physically and mentally

Although we often talk about the hind legs being the "engine" of good movement, it is the back of the horse that is the key to all things great in riding. Think about it - picture the horse with the swaying, supple back and you will almost always recognize the beauty and harmony depicted in the horse's overall way of going. It doesn't matter the discipline - a good back means good movement and long-term health of the horse.

Read on to find out all about slobber, snorts and sheath sounds, and how they relate to the horse's back.

Slobber

Why do some horses have a white lipstick when they're being ridden?

Some people say that slobber happens when a horse has his neck so short and the reins are so tight that he can't swallow. They argue that the horse would be able to prevent drooling if only he could open and close his mouth. Maybe his head and neck is positioned in a way that he can't swallow. Or the problem is the bit that is in his mouth; the piece of metal makes the horse unable to close the lips and swallow.

The reasons go on and on.

But surely you have seen a (maybe nervous or tense) horse ridden with no contact and/or no bit, yet still a dry mouth for an entire ride.

And quite possibly, you've seen the exact opposite:a horse lunged with no side reins or any contact whatsoever, carrying his head any which way he pleases, developing a line of foam in the corner of the mouth and around the lips.

What of the western horse being ridden in a snaffle bit (or any variation of bitless bridles) with very infrequent contact, dripping drool like the highest level dressage horse?

It's All About the Back 

I've seen and ridden these horses and experienced their variations of slobber. And I've come to one conclusion: that slobber is connected not so much to the mouth, jaw or swallowing - but to the back of the horse. Develop movement from the hind end, get a nice rhythm and back swing, and presto: discover the path to slobber.

If you think about it, the root to all good in riding rests in the back. If you can encourage an elastic, round, swinging back, you know your horse is on his way to riding pleasure. Not only does he benefit from the work, chances are, he might actually be enjoying it.

However, don't stop there. It's not only the horse's back you have to consider - think about your back too. Because your back can be holding your horse's back back (did you follow that?), which results in tension all around. If your back is resistant or unmoving, the same will happen to your horse. He won't be able to carry your weight effectively, nor will he be able to let the energy flow through his topline. So freeing your back up and developing more mobility will also lead you to slobber from your horse's mouth.

Snorts

Happy horse sign number two is the snort.

Physically, the snorts happen when the horse takes a deeper breath. He might reach farther underneath the body, work straighter and therefore more through the abs or put in a sudden moment of effort. For whatever reason, he then has to take a deeper breath and then he lets it all out in a body-shaking snort. Sometimes, the snort is accompanied by a neck arching or reaching forward that might catch you off guard if you're not expecting it.



In any case, the snort is a releasing/ relaxing/ letting go of tension and yes, you might notice the horse's eye soften or his gait become more buoyant. Watch a little longer and you might see him settle in his work, find his rhythm or soften in the mouth. You might also see some accompanying slobber!

Sheath Sounds

Now this one is the clincher. Of course, if you ride a mare, you miss out on the most obvious, tell-tale sign of a tight back. In geldings, the tight back causes a tight sheath area, which then results in air movement - that sound you hear EVERY stride the horse takes.

People often say that the sound is caused by a dirty sheath area. But if you own or care for a gelding regularly, chances are that you can honestly say that the sheath has been cleaned and yet the sound continues. So what gives?

Yes, folks, it's all about the back yet again.

Try this: when you hear the sound, go for a 3-5 stride canter from the trot. Then trot again. Make sure you half-halt the trot as you come out of the canter, so that the horse doesn't just trot faster faster faster. Rather, you want to use the canter to add more impulsion to the trot. Feel for more bounce, more air time between strides. See if you can get a snort. And notice if the back starts to swing in the trot movement. Once that back starts to move, the sheath sound should reduce if not go away altogether. The more relaxed back results in a more relaxed underline (sheath area) of the horse.

Maybe it stops for a few strides. Maybe it isn't quite as loud. Or maybe it goes away altogether. If you "listen" carefully enough, you will begin to recognize a pattern to what causes the sound.

Maybe you can make it go away for only a couple of strides. Pay attention to what caused the sound to go away. Then try to duplicate it. Maybe your horse is too tense for the sound to ever go away. But give it a good try, every ride. Eventually, you might be able to make it go away just using your riding skills. And you'll know that your horse is using his back in a healthier manner.

*****

So there you have it: three sure-fire ways of knowing if your horse is actually loose in his back! 

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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If you enjoyed this article, you might also like these ones: 

How Do You Know Your Horse Is Using His Back? In the long run, our primary motivation for self-improvement in riding is for the sake of the horse’s health. We want horses that live well, staying strong and vigorous long into their old age.

In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!

 3 Questions to Consider Before Riding Bareback and Bridleless: What should be in place before you take off the tack?

Why An Active Stretch is Nothing Like A Neck-Down: The problem with the passive stretch is that it is merely a posture.

Move to Stay Still on Horseback: How do we begin to look like we’re sitting still, doing nothing on the horse’s back?

20 Comments

  1. Very interesting article. Now I’ll know not to get ticked off with my horse when she snorts and pulls on the reins. And hopefully this means that with careful riding I can get my gelding to quit making those awkward noises! 😛

  2. Thank you,confirming everything I was observing! Now..ANYBODY can explain where these sheat sounds are coming from? How do they get produced?????’

  3. I love your posts! So helpful as well. I used to think a horse that snorts (and reefs at the same time hmpf) was discomforted…thanks for setting that straight lol

  4. I do have to ask though, what about the times when you see horse working in a hyperflexed frame, without their backs/hindquarters being engaged, but still have that slobber dripping? (Most commonly seen in the dressage ring I think…)

    bonita of A Riding Habit

  5. I never heard sheath sounds with my gelding until he was ridden by an upper lever correct classical dressage rider. I thought sheath sounds were a sigh of a relaxed round back-quite the opposite of this article..I always celebrated when I heard them….

    1. I have to agree with this on the sheath sounds. I have experienced them with some geldings once they come through.

  6. Ok the sound you describe as sheath sound (like if the sheath could actually produce a sound) it is known as a gelding pouch sound and it is actually produced by the cavity in the abdomen area that holds the testicles when they go up and that houses the testicles before they drop on a joung colt, hence the reason why you won’t ever hear that sound on a colt unless he has not dropped at least one testicle, and it is only produced by engagement of the hind end when the horse steps more under, which actually requires a softer rounder back and it is the product of the lower abdominal muscles comprising that cavity like a below. It is actually a wellcome sound and if you pay attention you will see that when it occurs the horse is actually reaching farther with the hind legs resulting in a better over track, I usually here it in a lot of horses when teaching Piaffe in hand and the head is down and the back is arched round as they step more under with the hind end. Every time I have heard the gelding pouch sound on a horse is when the back is the roundest, softer and swinging and the engagement of the hind end is at its best.

    1. I was just about to respond to the “sheath” sound comment when I saw your reply! Thank you, I was about to be very confused! You addressed the exact scenarios on my mind 🙂

  7. When you say “snorting”, are you talking about in the beginning of a ride when the horse blows their nose or if the are snorting during the workout? My friends horse has a very consistent snort when she is cantering. Very rythmatic

    1. It’s not a clearing of the airway nor the rhythmical breathing in canter. It can happen at the beginning, middle or end of the ride and it usually happens after you feel the horse soften, release, straighten, engage, etc It isn’t random.

  8. I think sheath noise can be a dominance sort of communication. I have only known male horses to do it when they are upset, uncomfortable, or to intimidate other horses and or people. Also have noticed a horse making this noise is not relaxed and might buck. I have watched videos of wild mustang stallions making sheath noises while approaching each other at a trot. That is then followed with a puffed up sort of stature along with arched necks and sniffing. Then stomping and squealing.

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