White lips in the ridden horse has always been seen as a sign that the horse is working well and has submitted to their rider. However, recently I’ve seen a couple of articles which has found that stressed horses lick their lips and produce white froth, and it is not linked to submissive behaviours.
Here is an interesting article. Do a quick Google search for other articles and debates on the subject.
As ever, our norms and beliefs are challenged as our knowledge increases.
I’ve done a bit of observational research with the horses I work with. Just observing whether they have white lips in consideration to how they have worked.
My thoughts began at Christmas, when I stopped and thought about the fact that Phoenix had a fairly dry mouth when I schooled her. There was a bit of moisture, but very little white. In terms of how she was going, I felt she was 80% committed to me; she did everything I asked but was not quite coming through from behind. Almost, but not quite. I was five pieces away from completing the 1000 piece jigsaw.
Then in March, when she was very tense whilst being ridden she foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog. However I didn’t feel she had been particularly submissive during our session. She’d been good in the sense that we’d contained her flight instinct and she had started to relax, but she was still very anxious. And I could see this in her body language – her eyes looked worried, she had her head up, muscles tensed, and generally a very alert stance. To me, this was far more suggestive of the theory that a stressed horse foams white at the mouth.
Over the last couple of months Phoenix has become happier in herself, with a softer, more relaxed stance. When working she’s improved dramatically in that she allows me to position her, accepts the aids, and is more relaxed in her work. She’s coming through from behind better and using her back more, as well as happy to walk on a long rein at the end to cool off. When I dismount, her head stays low, her eyes soft, and a little bit of white lipstick. She’s worked with me, submitted to my requests, and tried her hardest.
I’ve been watching other horses, whether I ride them or teach their rider, and I’ve noticed that there is definitely individual differences between horses. Some horses will have very white lips whilst the rest of their body language suggests they are relaxed and happy; others will only have moist mouths when working well for their rider.
Horses who aren’t asked to work to a contact or with a softer frame always had dry mouths. When more of a contact is taken up with these horses and they’re asked to soften into a frame they all get moist mouths because they’ve been chewing the bit and using their mouth, tongue and jaw muscles. By the time these horses are working from behind and using themselves correctly they usually have a little bit of white lipstick. The rest of their body language is accepting, relaxed, and submissive.
Some horses, who have a drier mouth than others and do appear to be working well, seem to be the ones who are a little fixed in their frame. Not from anything in particular that the rider has done, but they accept the contact and keep their mouths and necks as still as possible, which means they don’t create much saliva. This is perhaps just the way they have been trained or ridden, or it is potentially a stiffness in a muscle area which stops them using themselves to the best of their ability so they are holding themselves in a way which doesn’t enable them to mouth the bit.
The horses I see, often just working in the school around me if I’m honest, who have a lot of white around their mouths, and flecks along their neck, look anxious and tense. I don’t know these horses and their characters, but I think it’s interesting to see that even though the horse is obeying their rider’s aids and in theory doing everything correctly, their body language is tense and they foam at the mouth. They’re submissive on paper, but not happy about the submission – like the unrest in a population before a revolt.
So what exactly are we looking for? As I said before, I think there’s a huge variation between individuals, so it’s worth having a quick look each time you ride so you get to know what’s normal for your horse. I think that you want to see some moisture on the lips, which suggests movement of the jaw which can only be done if the horse is accepting the hand (a horse not accepting the hand at all will not produce any moisture, whilst a horse who is anxiously accepting the contact will excessively chomp at the bit and produce too much foam) and working from behind. Whether it’s just a darkening of the lips or white foam is dependent on that particular horse. But also study the rest of the horse’s body language – do they look happy and accepting at the end of a ride? A horse with very alert, or flighty, body language has not worked well for you, regardless of how much white foam is pouring from their mouth. I think it’s a useful clue, and a good way of gauging how much your horse gave to a session, but only when taking the rest of their body language into account. And with everything in life, we want to see white foam in moderation.