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Horse Facts/Tips
First Posted Nov 4, 2008
Jul 21, 2010

Horse Body Language

by Debora Johnson

Horse Senses

It is really important to understand how your horse communicates with other horses. If you learn the behavioral cues and become aware of them, training can become easier, handling can become safer, more effective, and pleasurable, riding (whatever your discipline) will be safer. Another important fact to always remember is that your horse is a prey animal--that is, he is hunted for food in the wild and must be ever vigilant. After all, his life is at stake as well as all other horses in the herd. Let's take a look at the many visual cues your horse gives that can help us as humans understand and interact.

Horse Cue Watch

  • Overall Body Line
  • Ears
  • Tail - swishing (lashing) wringing
  • Facial Expressions
  • Feet - striking out, pawing, kicking, cocking leg
  • Body Movements - bucking, rearing
  • Head - up-and-down, side-to-side movement
  • Mouth - licking, teeth bearing, tight lips, cribbing, chewing, biting, nipping
  • Wrinkled nose
  • Sounds - Squealing, neighing, blowing, snorting, muffled neighing

A closer look at each one of these categories will give more insight into your horse's body language, i.e., how he/she relates to herd mates and how he/she relates to you and others.

Overall Body Line

If you are on the ground, look at your horse's overall body line. If the body is nicely rounded it might signal that your horse is excited. You have seen this when a horse is turned out and begins to kick and buck with an arched back, kicking up his heels high. If the body line is a flat sort of outline, it probably means that your horse is relaxed. Often while grooming you can see this in a happy and relaxed horse. You may also be able to see this while your horse is lazily grazing in a pasture. A horse who is standing with his/her weight on three legs with a hind leg resting generally means that your horse is relaxed. Sometimes cocked legs can mean pain. You have to pay attention. An elevated head and arched neck with hears pointed forward generally means that something has caught your horse's attention and he/she is trying to figure out if it is time to run away, shy, or what? Horses will also sort of snake their bodies around objects that they do not understand or have fear, keeping their eyes on it at all times, and ears pointed toward the object. Be encouraging and supportive.

Ears

To watch a horse's ears is to understand much about a horse. Hearing (audition)

Hearing is extremely important to the survival of the horse. They use their hearing to "detect sounds, to determine the location of the sound, and to provide sensory information that allows the horse to recognize the identity of these sounds...This allows the horse to orient itself toward the sounds to be able to determine what is making the noise." If it is a threat the horse can take flight immediately which ensures the survival of the horse. Remember, the horse is a prey animal.

  • Broad range of hearing
  • Excellent hearing in the lowest and highest ranges
  • Ears can rotate 180 degrees
  • With ears flat back (angry) horses have decreased hearing ability.
  • 16 muscles control the horse's ear; 3 muscles to control the human ear.
  • Range of hearing for a horse is 14 Hz to 25 kHz. Range of hearing for a human is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
  • Horses can hear slight sound; low volume.
  • Horses respond to tones.
  • Horses are able to detect earthquake vibrations before the human is aware.

Ears Forward

Generally when a horse has ears pointing forward he/she is alert and happy--an expression that is safe. However, as noted above, a horse's hearing is really excellent. A horse will move his ears in the direction of sounds that could cause your horse to shy. Also, if you are near another horse forward pointing ears could be a danger signal. Kicks, bites, and general fighting could break out. You do not want to be the benefactor of an ill placed kick or bite. Beware! Forward ears can be an expression of high spirits or mischief. If your horse's ears are stiff or tilted it could be a sign of fear. Beware.

Ears Flat Back

Generally this is considered an expression of anger. Beware if the neck stiffens and the whites of the eyes show. That means your horse is really unhappy. Sometimes horses will do this and try to bite or swing around and kick another horse. It is a dominance thing. The behavior should be corrected. If your horse exhibits behavior toward you--BAD NEWS! You must always be the Alpha--no ifs, ands, or buts. It is definitely a threatening expression. Consider it a real warning sign. I would not keep a horse that continually shows this kind of behavior.

Floppy Ears

When a horse has "floppy ears" I consider this to be a really relaxed horse. It is generally considered to be a mellow time or a bored time. In any event, make sure that your horse has your attention when you approach so that you do not catch them by surprise. They could actually be day dreaming like we do sometimes. Be respectful of their peace.

One Ear Forward and One Ear Back

This usually means that your horse is listening to you. He/she is trying to understand what you are trying to convey. What is it that you want. Try to be definitive in your cues. Your horse is trying to respond to your commands but might not understand quite what you are asking. This is not a threatening exhibit, at all. It shows that your horse is being attentive and trying to comply with your wishes but might be confused.

Tail

The tail movements and carriage can tell much about where your horse is mentally. For example, if your horse's tail is wringing around and around it generally conveys a feeling of anxiety. You will often see this when horses are competing. I see if often in stadium jumping. A high tail carriage often means high spirits and excitement. There is actually a saying "high-tailing" In the gaited horse world, a naturally arched tail is thought to be a sign of good breeding. This may or may not be true. A swishing tail or lashing tail can indicate that your horse is being bothered by insects or annoyed in some way. It is acting like a moving fan or fly swatter. A tail that is clenched tightly down can mean fear. I stand to the side and move my horse's tail up and down so that he will release the tuck and relax. Now he does not mind it at all. I also pull his tail, standing to the side, with an even pull. I do this from his left side and his right side. Use even pressure or your horse will hate it. He will not allow you to pull him off square. If he pulls off square have your vet check for neurological problems. This actually becomes pleasurable to the horse and helps him/her release energy.

Facial Expressions

It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I tend to pay careful attention to my horse's eyes. A kind, soft eye generally means that your horse is mellow, receptive and happy. A bright eye and raised head generally indicates alertness or anticipation of something. Narrowed eyes may indicate a bad mood. A tight or pinched mouth--pursed lips--often means a bad mood or pain. This is a danger signal. Flaring nostrils can mean many things from illness to just taking in the smells. Bearing of teeth is a watch out signal. Danger!

Feet - Striking out, pawing, kicking, cocking leg

Striking out is an aggressive maneuver. Danger. Stallions and mares often do this. I keep my distance. Pawing might indicate boredom. It can also be an assertive stance. Kicking is a definite no-no. Horses should be immediately corrected for all of these behaviors. Cocking a leg can be a warning side for a side (cow) kick, full back kick, or maybe just a resting behaviour. That is one to watch and try to read the overall demeanor of the horse.

Body Movements - Bucking and Rearing

Bucking in the pasture can be a sign of excitement and a release of pent up energy. Bucking under saddle is a no-no. It can mean many things: pain, bad handling, learned behavior, a desire to off the rider. It should be corrected immediately. Rearing is usually an aggressive behavior. It is also a difficult behavior to correct. It is extremely dangerous for the rider. Sometimes a horse will go over backwards while rearing--that could be deadly for the rider.

Head: Up-and-down, Side-to-side Movement
Head Shaking

Watching the horse's head can give some insight into what the horse is all about. Head movements up-and-down can be an aggressive act toward humans and other horses. It can also mean that a horse has light sensitivity or pain of some sort. Side-to-side movements can mean teeth problems or ear mites. It can have other means as well.

Mouth: Licking, Teeth Bearing, Tight Lips, Cribbing, Chewing, Biting, Nipping

A horse that is displaying the licking action is being submissive. The bearing of teeth, biting and nipping are just plain unacceptable behaviors. They should be immediately corrected. They are aggressive in nature. Tight lips can be a horse with an attitude or a horse in pain. Cribbing and chewing may be a vice (extremely difficult to break) or may signal that the horse is in pain.

Wrinkled Nose

A wrinkled nose may indicate annoyance, disgust, a bad odor or a bad taste.


Flechmen Response

Sounds: Squealing, Neighing, Blowing, Snorting, Muffled Neighing

Squealing usually is a warning sign and is heard mostly from mares. I find it particularly annoying. Neighing is generally a sign of "I want my friends," or "Who is that I am hearing from afar?" It can also be a sign of excitement. It is a from of communication by the horse. Blowing and snorting can indicate fear, excitement, anger, aggression, or may be just be the horse clearing his nose. Muffled neighing is usually a sound the horse makes from a pleasure able place. For example, you have arrived and he/she is happy to see you and the treats.

Understand and reading your horse's body language can further your closeness, build trust, enhance communication, help in training both on the ground and in the saddle, be a big safety factor, build positive interaction. It may take your interaction with your horse to a much higher level and visa versa. Always remember that your horse has instincts for survival. It is difficult to over ride what nature has given to horse to ensure his/her survival. However, a close bond of trust and training between horse and rider can keep instinct in check. Be consistent, kind but firm. Build mutual respect between your horse and yourself.


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