I just rented the movie Secretariat. Hollywood horses are perfect. The stallions look shiny and studdy. They challenge the world with piercing whinnies. The mares are soft, motherly, and nicker a lot. In westerns the pack of horses that make up the posse gallop loudly, especially when they cross the wooden bridge. Those film horses never seem to make some of the other noises that real horses do. Real live horses make all kinds of unusual sounds, most of which are curious, but not a problem. Others can be a clue to something that isn’t right.
Most of the noises come from the head. Any obstruction of the airway may cause a horse to make some different sounds when trying to breathe. Generally they are louder when the animal is being worked because the air is being exchanged at a much faster rate. The head noises are exaggerated by the fact that horses have such hollow heads. A number of sinuses honeycomb the skull and act as echo chambers that magnify the sounds. One noise they exaggerate is teeth grinding. Some horses grind their teeth when they are annoyed and others just because they like the sound. It is sometimes a clue to pain in the GI tract, and may be an early sign of stomach ulcers.
Horses have a very long soft palate. It is so long that it hangs down and actually rests on the back of the tongue. Unlike us, you cannot open a horse’s mouth and see the back of the throat because of that soft palate. This means that horses cannot mouth breathe. If a horse has a head cold which produces mucus, he will wheeze and rattle as the air goes through the mucus. You and I, with a good head cold are apt to breathe through the mouth. This anatomy also means that if the palate is torn, displaced upward, or swollen, it may make a fluttering noise when the air passes over it at the back of the throat. Sometimes the palate can be surgically trimmed when it becomes a problem.
An occasional horse may get into the habit of pulling his tongue far back into the mouth while being worked. This pushes the palate upwards into the airflow, producing a deep sound. Once a horse discovers this sound, he may keep making it as it is probably somewhat entertaining. This can cause a decrease in air flow, so this is mostly a race horse problem. Toward the end of a race horses need all the air they can get. On the track there are a number of tongue devices designed to keep the tongue in position. Every manufacturer of tongue ties claims that his product is the most comfortable and effective. If a trainer forgets to remove the tie after competition, the blood supply can be shut off with resultant tongue damage.
Long necked horses are subject to a condition called “roaring”, named after the noise that they make when being worked hard. It is a deep whistling tone that sounds something like air being blown across the top of a bottle. Listen for it when the horse breathes in. The sound is coming from the air sweeping around a portion of the larynx that is paralyzed and is protruding into the air steam. Muscles that are supposed to keep the larynx open aren’t working because of nerve damage. As the air goes around the paralyzed portion, that roaring sound is produced. There is a surgery called “tie back” that involves pulling the paralyzed portion out of the way and tacking it down on the side, away from the airway. The surgery is usually effective.
The main part of a horse’s diet is fiber, and when fiber is broken down, methane gas is produced. Some horses are very noisy in expelling the excess gas, and while it might be somewhat embarrassing to the owner, it is not a problem. If the situation is extreme, it can often be modified by changing the amount or type of grain or hay fed. Simethicone (GasX) is also helpful. Depending on the strength, between 5 and 15 of the human pills are what most horse people seem to be using. There do not seem to be any side effects.
Did you ever hear a sheath rumble? This is a noise peculiar to some geldings. It is a kind of hollow noise called a caused by air moving in the sheath when the horse is trotting. It is more common in geldings because the penis is smaller and often doesn’t fill the sheath, so there is more room for the air to move around and make the rumble. It is totally normal, and not a problem. Cleaning the sheath doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Funny noises are just another thing that makes horses so different and always interesting.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM