Five Questions About Horses, Answered

It’s easy to assign human traits to the animals that we love. It’s fun to think that the characteristics we appear to share unite us across species. One special horse prompted in me some burning, if odd questions about these wondrous mammals. His name is Truman, a resident rescue and “Mr. Personality” on the farm at Homeward Equine Rescue Organization. After doing some research on these questions, there were a few surprises.

  1. Do Horses Have Baby Teeth?
    We all started out with baby teeth. But, do horses?

By our standards, their teeth are never really “little.” But, like us, they do have young teeth that are shed. They have two sets of teeth, the “baby teeth,” and permanent sets.

Mary Delory, DVM explains that in the first two weeks of its life, a foal will grow baby teeth. During the first year, they grow 12 baby premolars, the flat, grinding teeth in the back of the jaw. The foal grows two sets of baby incisors, the sharp teeth that help them cut fresh grass, for a total of 12 also. All 24 baby teeth are in place by the age of nine months. At this age, most horses will also develop two “wolf teeth” and the first permanent molar set begin to grow behind the baby premolars.


When they are about five years old and fully grown, horses have between 36 and 44 teeth. There are twelve incisors at the front, used mainly for grazing. Incisors are a weapon and a warning: they’re part of a horse’s defense against predators, and they help establish social status within the herd.

Right behind the incisors is the interdental space, where no teeth grow. This is where the bit is placed when horses are ridden. Behind the blank space, horses have twelve mature premolars plus twelve adult molars, also called “jaw teeth or cheek teeth.” These cheek teeth chew food bitten off by incisors and make it small enough to swallow.
Delorey explains how we are able to tell the age of a horse by their teeth. “Horses have long teeth that slowly wear away during their lives. That’s okay for horses, since they have about four inches of tooth crown below the surface of the gums hidden in the bone of the jaws. As the grinding of their coarse diet wears away a little bit of tooth surface, more erupts into the mouth to take its place. On average, a horse’s teeth will wear and a new crown will replace it at a rate of about 0.11-0.16 inches (3-4 mm) per year. That translates to enough tooth to last about 25 years….” if the horse has proper nutrition and care.

Judging from the wear on his (obviously adult) teeth, Truman is 10 years old, and in the prime of life.

  1. Do Horses Have Friends?
    We all know how important it is to have friends. None of us would survive, or thrive without them. But does a horse have friends of his own kind, like we do?

Yes they do. Horses form bonds and play with their own species and with other species. They chase, race, nip at, and test limits with one another in open areas, and vocalize with each other in barn settings. Companionship is essential for their well-being. They are herd animals and feel safe when they live with their own kind. Each horse has a place on the social ladder within their herd, and there are clear leaders and followers in that hierarchy.

According to The Spruce Pets, domesticated horses that are kept with other horses “are less bored and less likely to indulge in destructive habits like stall walking, wood chewing, and other abnormal repetitive behaviors. It’s better physically and emotionally for the horse if he can be part of a herd, even if the horse spends part of its time in a stable.” If you only have one horse, it’s recommended for the owner to look for another horse so they are not alone.

Truman has a bestie named Sophie, a lovely Bay. He gets along great with the resident donkeys and dogs too! His favorite human companion is Penny.

So, what about companions for horses that are not horses? Here are several horses who have formed strong bonds with other species. From April Lee:

  1. Can Horses Burp?
    So far, these questions about horses reveal that they share at least some developmental and emotional similarities with people. But here’s a surprise: horses can’t burp, at least not the way people do. What’s more, they can’t breathe through their mouths like we do.

Unlike cows and other ruminants, who regurgitate food on purpose in order to re-chew it, a horse’s rather long esophagus is considered a “one-way street.” They only have one stomach, and the food only goes down the digestive path, not up. So, on the plus side: horses aren’t built to belch or vomit. They eat a little food all day (graze), which keeps their relatively small stomach (compared to their large body) full and busy. And, their digestive systems are very good at processing the tough, plant fiber that is their food. But, on the negative side: this long, one-way system can cause problems that result in colic, which can be life threatening.

Besides grazing on grass and hay, Truman enjoys eating apples, carrots, and Cheerios. His absolute favorite snack: homemade molasses/apple/oat bars. With the exception of the hay, Truman and his human friends can enjoy similar snacks.

For more on how the horse digestive system works, watch this entertaining video from Dengle Horse Feeds, which includes a very patient, live horse:

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  1. Do Horses Really Sleep Standing Up?
    We’ve probably all heard that horses sleep standing up. Sounds pretty uncomfortable, if not impossible, for a person. But for horses, it’s built in!

Yes, they do sleep standing up. Most of the time. But they also sleep lying on the ground for short periods of time. According to Stanton Champion, Writing in The Huffington Post: The idea of horses always sleeping standing up “is somewhat of a myth. Horses can get a lot of sleep while standing up, but they lie down when they require REM sleep. Typically, the amount of REM sleep they require is very small, so they don’t need to lie down often. However, many horses lie down just because they feel comfortable or want to do so.” Rapid Eye Movement sleep in humans is the stage of deep, refreshing sleep, where we dream. Isn’t it nice to think that horses may be dreaming, even if for short periods of time?

The most important reason horses sleep standing up is survival. Champion explains that “standing for most of their sleep cycle…allows them to quickly escape an attack by a predator without having to waste time standing up (which can be a slow process compared to a predator attack). The method by which horses stand while sleeping is called the “stay apparatus,” and it’s a system of ligaments and tendons that keep them upright with relative ease.”
What’s more, horses sleep like cowboys around a campfire. “Horses also like using the buddy system for sleeping, where one horse watches over the others while they’re sleeping,” says Champion. “The role of watch-horse will rotate as each member of the herd gets the sleep they need, including lying down for necessary REM sleep. Many horses adopt this kind of rotation when they’re in their home barn setting, either in a paddock or in a stall next to their regular neighbors.”

  1. How Long Do Horses Live?
    It’s sad that our animal companions don’t live as long as we do. We’re fortunate that horses live longer than many smaller domesticated animals, like dogs or cats. But, how long can we expect a horse to live?

It all depends on their environment and their care. With advancements in medicine, the current life expectancy of domestic horses is 25-35 years. Lifespans vary with the type of breed. The American Quarter Horse lives 20-25 years. 30 years is the average life expectancy of The American Paint Horse and the Appaloosa. Warmbloods, mini-horses, and racehorses live 25-35 years.

Wild horses have a shorter life: about 15-16 years. This is because the environment for wild animals is more unstable. They can become a target for predators, are more prone to diseases, and risk starvation. However, there are extraordinary exceptions to this. The wild horse, Amadeo, also known as “King of the Beach” on the island of Corolla in the North Carolina Outer Banks, just passed away in March 2020 of natural causes at the stunning age of 40. According to The Corolla Wild Horse Fund, Amadeo was surrounded by friends at the end: “He was surrounded in love by his horse friends, Luna the barn kitty, his canine best friend Lucile, and our herd manager and trainer.”

Some other remarkably long-lived horses are:

Orchid, a Thoroughbred/Arabian cross, who lived 50 years (1964-2015)

Shayne, an Irish Draft Horse, lived 51 years (1962-2013)

SugarPuff, a Sheltland/Exmoor Pony cross, lived 56 years (1951- 2007)

The oldest, a horse named Old Billy, a Big Cobb/Shire Stallion cross, lived 62 years (1760-1182)

I hope Truman lives to a ripe, old horse age, in the care of his human supporters and animal friends. Even though it’s been years since he’s lost his baby teeth, he’s still got plenty of boyish energy. Ok, Big Guy, you’re first up for Night Watchman so your buddies can get some sleep. I’ll bring the oat bars when I visit.

                                        Susanna Rosen

Year by Year, Tooth by Tooth
Posted by Mary DeLorey, DVM | Oct 10, 2016 | Article, Dentistry, Digestive System

From The Spruce Pets by

Illustration from The Equine Nutrition Nerd