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Horse Expressions And What They Mean

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.

Watch Your Horse’s Ears

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.

Watch for:

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.

Head Position

Horse Head Position

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

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.

3. Stamping

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.

Back Legs

Back Legs

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

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

horse eyes

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

horse 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.

Overall Demeanor

horse demeanor

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.

2. Shaking

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.

3. Contact

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.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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