These days, many people seem to think of horses as vehicles rather than as living beings. The fact is, the difference between a great horse man or woman and a poor one is the ability to communicate with your horse and to understand what your horses saying to you. Horses communicate through a complex combination of facial expressions, vocalizations and body language.
In this article, we review these and provide smart tips on learning how to understand what your horse is trying to tell you. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 Watch Your Horse’s Ears
- 2 Head Position
- 3 Front Leg Movements
- 4 Back Legs
- 5 Lips & Nose
- 6 The Eyes Have It
- 7 Watch His Tail
- 8 Overall Demeanor
- 9 Observation Helps You Become An Expert
- 10 Frequently Asked Questions
Watch Your Horse’s Ears
Most people who know anything about horses know that a horse who has his ears pinned back is angry and may be about to bite. Ears forward signals alertness and curiosity. There are also a number of different positions in between that have their own meanings.
1. Ears to the side
If your horse’s ears are turned to the side and relaxed, it means that he is relaxed or may even be asleep. When you see this, be sure to call your horse’s name before you approach or touch him. If he’s asleep or very relaxed, you may surprise him and he may automatically strike out or run away.
2. Swiveled back
Your horse may swivel his ears toward the back to listen to something that’s behind him or to listen to you. Look to the rest of your horse’s body language to determine what he’s thinking or feeling about the thing that may be behind him.
3. Ears actively swiveling
If your horse’s ears are moving back and forth quickly, it may mean that he is very alert or very anxious. He may be trying to determine where a frightening sound or scent is coming from. When this happens, it’s time to calm your horse.
1. Lowered head
If your horse’s head is dropped, he may be very relaxed and comfortable. You will probably also see his ears drooping a bit. Remember to let him know you’re approaching before you touch him.
2. Heads up!
If your horse is holding his head in an elevated position, he may be focusing on something far away. He might be to trying to determine the source of a distant sound and wondering whether he should ignore it, investigate it or run away.
When this happens, redirect your horse so that you can regain his attention. As long as he is focused elsewhere, you will not be able to work with him.
3. Raised head while riding
Pain may cause your horse to hold his head unnaturally high while you’re riding. If this behavior is accompanied by ears pinned back or wringing of the tail, these are all signs of pain.
Stop and inspect your saddle. If you find nothing wrong, remove the saddle and inspect your blankets and the interior of the saddle for screws, burrs or anything that might be poking your horse and causing pain.
4. Head moving side-to-side
A “snaking” head is an act of aggression. Stallions use this movement when fighting or when asserting themselves over other horses. If you see this behavior, try to quickly determine what the problem is. If you can safely refocus your horse, do so. Otherwise, simply make sure he is secure and move away.
Front Leg Movements
1. Splay-footed stance
If your horse stands with his front legs spread while leaning back a bit, it may mean that he is afraid. This may be a precursor of bolting or shying away.
Standing splay footed can also indicate health problems such as neurological impairment, laminitis or malnutrition. If this becomes a chronic behavior, you should consult your vet.
2. Pawing at the ground
Horses who are impatient or bored may paw the ground. This can mean your horse simply doesn’t want to stand in one place anymore. It may also mean that he is under stress.
Horses who are anxious about being trailered may paw at the floor of the trailer. Horses experiencing food anxiety may paw because they are afraid that another horse is going to steal their food.
Examine the circumstances. If the pawing is the result of fear or anxiety, try to resolve this problem. If it’s the result of boredom or impatience, you may need to walk your horse little bit, lounge him or simply get out and ride more.
Note that very forceful pawing accompanied by ears pinned back may mean that your horse is very angry. If your horse is loose and starts pawing while pinning his ears back, he may be about to attack.
Look around to see what his target may be and either remove the target, remove your horse or get out of the way.
An irritated horse may stamp his feet. This is common if your horse is being bothered by flies, but if he’s doing this while you’re trying to work with him, it may mean he’s frustrated with the task at hand. Examine the situation and try to resolve the issue.
4. Striking out
Horses most often kick with their hind legs, but some horses develop the bad habit of rearing up and striking with their front legs. This can be quite dangerous. If your horse hits you in the head with a front hoof, you could very well end up dead or brain-damaged.
Watch your horse carefully. If he shows signs of agitation such as wide eyes, flaring nostrils, elevated head and pinned ears, get out of the way and contact a professional trainer to work on these problems.
1. One leg cocked
Your horse may stand on one hind leg and cock the other one if he’s resting. If you see your horse standing with one cocked kind leg, head hanging and ears relaxed, you know that he is simply calm and comfortable. As always, be sure to let him know you’re coming before you touch him.
If your horse is moving quickly from one hind leg to the other, this is a sign of pain. Contact your vet to determine what’s wrong.
If your horse is irritated or feels threatened, he may cock one hind hoof up as an indication that he’s about to kick. If he is also exhibiting irritated or angry behavior, look around to see what he’s angry about and try to remove the source of irritation. Be safe and keep out of the way.
Lips & Nose
Watch your horse’s muzzle for other signs of his state of mind.
1. Slack or drooping lips and mouth
When your horse is relaxed, his lower lip may droop. This is yet another sign that he may be asleep and you’ll need to use caution when you approach. If his lips are slack even when he’s alert, it may indicate neurological problems or injuries. Call your vet and schedule an exam.
2. Chewing during training
Sometimes horses chew when you’re working with them or when they’re learning something new. This is just an indication that your horse is curious, relaxed and thinking about the information he’s taking in during the training.
3. Teeth clacking
This behavior is common in foals. It is a sign of submission and a reminder that the foal is small and helpless and should not be an object of attack.
4. Raised lip
Horses raise their upper lips when they smell something unusual. This funny looking action is called the flehmen response. It allows the horse to pull scent particles through a nasal structure known as the vomeronasal organ (VNO), which is also known as Jacobson’s organ.
5. Nostrils flaring
Horses who are nervous, startled, anxious, angry or simply exercising heavily may flare their nostrils. You’ll need to use context to determine why your horse’s nostrils are flaring.
6. Tense mouth
If your horse’s muzzle and lips appear to be pursed or pinched, it may indicate that he is frightened, under stress or worried. This is a very subtle sign, and when you learn to recognize it will enable you to remove your horse from potentially dangerous situations before they escalate.
7. Open mouth
A horse who is exhibiting signs of anger and has his mouth open is very likely preparing to bite. Move to safety as quickly as you can and try to determine what the problem is. Resolve it as quickly as possible.
If your horse is holding his mouth open while you’re riding, it’s a sign of pain. Check your bit and bridle and make sure they’re adjusted correctly and fitted properly. If the problem persists, call your vet to examine your horse’s teeth and float them if necessary.
A choking horse may also have a gaping mouth. If your horse is eating and then suddenly stops and stands with his mouth open, it may mean that there’s an obstruction in his throat. Clear the airway if possible and call your vet.
The Eyes Have It
Just as with humans, a horse’s eyes are the windows to his soul.
1. Tense muscles
A horse who is uncomfortable, frightened or stressed may exhibit tenseness around his eyes. Watch for this subtle sign so that you can take action to resolve difficult problems before they begin.
2. Darting eyes
If your horse’s eyes are moving from side-to-side rapidly, it means that he’s frightened and seeking an exit. If your horse is able to run away, he probably will. If he’s cornered, he may bite, strike or kick. Do what you can to calm the situation quickly and move yourself to safety.
3. Exposed sclera
If the whites of your horse’s eyes are showing, it can mean startle, alarm or fright. There is some variability in this, though. Some breeds of horses always have visible sclera. For example, bald-faced horses, pintos and Appaloosas very often have visible sclera at all times.
In a horse who is frightened or upset, you’ll naturally want to do what you can to identify and resolve the cause of the problem.
Watch His Tail
1. Flag tail
An excited horse will carry his tail higher than his back. Arabian horses typically do this when they are cantering and running, but any horse may if he’s very excited.
A horse who is this excitable may also be very distracted. Watch out for bolting, bucking or simply gallivanting around if your horses running with a flag tail.
2. Clamped tail
If your horse is under a great deal of stress or very nervous, he may press his tail downward and tuck under his hindquarters. If this is the case, you should do what you can to calm the situation and reassure him.
A clamped tail while riding may be an indication of pain or discomfort. Check your horse’s hooves to make sure there’s not a rock embedded or some other problem.
Make sure that his tack is properly fitted and that there are no burrs or other protrusions that may be irritating your horse. If the behavior continues, consult your veterinarian.
3. Swishing tail
If your horse is swishing his tail back and forth in a regular rhythm, it means that he is simply swatting at flies. If he’s jerking it up and down or side-to-side quickly, it’s a sign of anger or irritation. Watch out, because this may mean that your horse is preparing to buck, kick or run.
Swishing tail can also be a sign that something about your saddle is bothering your horse. Be sure to examine your tack and make sure that it’s in good condition and properly fitted.
There are signs that you can see from across the pasture. As you’re approaching your horse, look at his whole body to assess his general state of being. Watch for:
1. Tense muscles
If your horse looks stiff or seems tense all over, it could be a sign of stress, anxiety or pain.
Very nervous or frightened horses may tremble and shake when encountering something new. Horses who have been abused in the past may be anxious even when handled gently. Shaking and trembling that is not explained by emotional causes may have physical causes. Call your vet if this is the case.
Many horses are very touchy-feely, and some will even lick you. A horse that is continuously touching you with its muzzle may simply be trying to let you know that it’s frightened or happy to see you; however, this is a bad habit.
Don’t punish your horse for this, but do substitute a different behavior. if your horses touching you constantly turn his head away from you and pet or stroke his neck while talking reassuringly.
4. Rump shifting
A horse who is thinking of kicking may shift his hindquarters from one side to another. Redirect and distract your horse and move him away from whatever it is that’s bothering him.
Observation Helps You Become An Expert
It is possible to learn to communicate with your horse in an almost psychic manner when you take the time to know your horse well and to allow your horse to know you.
Always watch your horse carefully and observe the meanings of his individual expressions and movements. Watch how he interacts with his pasture mates and with you to gain insight into the meanings of his facial and body language.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is no easy answer to this question. Just as with people, horses are individuals. To know how a horse is feeling, you must be observant, sensitive and empathetic. Understanding how a horse feels means reading his or her whole body and understanding the context and situation. As you approach a horse, look at its posture and stance. Is the horse looking around with interest and perked ears indicating high spirits and possibly good mood? Is it standing quietly with one hind foot tipped indicating relaxation. Is the horse hanging its head with lips relaxed and eyes at half mast indicating sleep? Even these seemingly straightforward interpretations may vary from setting to setting. A horse who looks relaxed in a quiet, safe setting may be signaling shutdown and withdrawal with the very same body language in an unfamiliar and/or dangerous setting. It takes time, practice and an open mind to learn how to tell how a horse is feeling.
The horse may be bowing its head in order to see or scent something more closely. On the other hand, if it’s a head nodding or tossing movement, he or she may be excited or energetic. Head tossing may also be a sign of flies pestering the horse’s ears, or it may mean the horse has an ear infection or something in his or her ears. To interpret this movement, you must take context into account, and it helps if you know the horse.
A horse who doesn’t trust you will test you by moving away from you as you try to touch or brush him or her. The horse may refuse to cooperate with grooming, tacking up and mounting, making the job more difficult for you. Once you manage to get into the saddle, a horse who distrusts you and believes you are incompetent will very often turn to give you a skeptical look before setting out. If a horse has taken a measure of you and found you wanting, you will have a very difficult time getting the upper hand. This is why it is so important to take your time learning about horsemanship and become honestly confident in each skill you learn before getting your own horse. Once you have your own horse, take your time getting to know him or her and build a solid trusting relationship. Once you’ve done this, you won’t have to deal with game playing and doubt on the part of your horse.
A horse who trusts you won’t shy away from you or avoid being caught. He or she will cooperate with being haltered and will stand quietly for grooming and tacking up. Your horse will look to you for guidance when you are on the ground with lead in hand. A horse who trusts your competence will wait for your signals when you are in the saddle. A horse who trusts you will defer to your judgment.
Some do, some don’t. You can tell, just as you can with a person. If you hug your horse around the neck and he or she leans into you a bit and relaxes, that’s enjoyment and reciprocation. If your horse stands stiffly or pulls back a bit, that’s aversion. Don’t force it any more than you would with a person. Just as you want your horse (and people) to respect you and your boundaries, you should respect your horse’s boundaries on this. Hugging isn’t necessary to good horsemanship.