Why do horses snort?

August 13, 2018

Overall, horses are pretty vocal animals. They neigh, they whinny, they nicker and they snort. Equine experts have spent a long time figuring out what these social animals are trying to convey when they vocalize, but one sound has been a little hard to translate: the snort.

Humans snort when they have stuffy noses, or when they laugh way too hard at the joke you just told them. And some researchers, based on a recent French study, believe that a snorting horse is similarly expressing a positive emotion.

The study involved recording over 500 snorts from nearly 50 horses. The researchers conducting the study found that snorts were most common during calm and relaxing activities, and that the horse usually exhibited other positive signs while snorting, like forward-pointing ears. Overall, snorting horses showed low levels of stress.

Not everyone agrees, though. Other horse behavior experts say that snorting doesn’t mean anything — the horses are just clearing their noses or responding to itchiness and discomfort, just like we humans do.

Still, others say that snorting can be a consequence of negative emotions. Sue McDonnell, equine physiology and behavior specialist, told The New York Times that the increase of adrenaline caused by scary situations dries a horse’s nose. When the adrenaline level goes back down, snorting may be a response to the return of mucus in the nasal cavities. The noise could also be a signal to other horses that a danger has passed, said McDonnell.

In many other places, horse experts and caretakers have put forth their own ideas about horse snorts: It represents excitement, it’s a greeting, it expresses curiosity or hesitation.

What’s the true meaning? We don’t know for sure, at least not yet. The French researchers involved in the latest study intend to continue unraveling the horse snort by looking into how dust levels in stalls affect snorting — theorizing that if dusty stalls don’t increase snort frequency, then maybe the noise isn’t really connected to nasal passage blockage.

Lastly, is there really any benefit to understanding why horses make this one-second-long sound, anyway?

“When we assess stress and welfare in animals, we tend to look at the negative, because it’s easy to measure,” said one researcher. “We need to do more than just provide an animal with what it needs to live — we need to provide them with a life worth living. And if we can measure that, a life worth living is a lot easier to provide.”

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