Equine Expressions: Understanding Your Horse's Body Language

Understanding equine body language is critical to successful horse-human interactions. Find out what it all means.
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Understanding equine body language is critical to successful horse-human interactions. Find out what it all means.

Oh, those ears--the way they flit back and forth! And that swishing tail! A horse can speak volumes using body language. But what exactly does all that mean? And how important is it that we know?

Understanding equine body language is critical to successful horse-human interactions.

Just ask Dr. Camie Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University Horse Management Program and lead instructor for My Horse University's online Horse Behavior and Welfare Course, which is based out of Michigan State University. "Many horse accidents are a result of not reading the horse's body language," she explains. "We are working with a very large animal that still thinks primarily like a creature of prey, hence, being observant to their body language is possibly more important than when working with any other animal."

Equines actually communicate using all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.

"Horses have evolved to live in cohesive groups (herds or bands) and their ability to interpret the postures and movements of their group members is important for their survival," explains Professor Natalie Waran, senior vice president of the International Society for Equitation Science council and head of the School of Natural Sciences at Unitec New Zealand. "Body language in humans may not be that sophisticated due to the fact that we tend to use sounds to communicate; but horses appear to rely a great deal on using their tail, ears, mouths [and] postures, and these may or may not be linked with specific sounds or calls."

Ears, Eyes & Face
The first thing you're likely to notice about a horse's expression is the position or movement of its ears. Regardless of their shape or size, they are almost always in motion and work independently, functioning much like equine radar.

Ears positioned forward generally indicate that the horse is relaxed, but if sharply pricked forward, take note! Your horse is alert and tuning into something that's either interesting or frightening. As most horse owners know, there's a difference between ears that are positioned towards the rear and those that are sharply pinned backwards. In the former case, the horse is likely either relaxed or listening to something behind him. In the latter case, it's a sign of aggression that could be followed by a lunge, bite or kick. Watch out!

When trying to comprehend equine body language, one must also consider the eyes, nostrils, mouth, facial tension and attitude of the head and neck. These components often work together and are best interpreted in context, a talent one usually acquires with experience around horses in general and around your individual horse in particular.

"The horse has large eyes and is supersensitive to movement, as you would expect of a prey animal," Waran says. "This is put to good use in observing body language, and humans are less aware of this non-verbal communication, due to being more vocal!"

There is one group of signals that is universal and easily recognized: the pricked ears, flared nostrils, wide eyes (often showing white) and elevated head and neck of a horse who is alert and ready to flee.

Other signals, like "snapping," may be less familiar to the average horse owner. "'Snapping' is the behavior in which the immature horse opens and closes its mouth in a frightening circumstance," explains Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. "For example, colts will do it when they approach the stallion. Mares in heat sometimes exhibit the same movement. All donkey mares do and it is called 'yawing' in that species. Snapping is an appeasement gesture: 'Please don't hurt me; I am just a baby horse.'"

Head, Neck & Tail
Speaking of head and neck position, remember that whatever artificial carriages performance classes may call for, a higher head and neck position in a horse generally indicates a state of arousal, while a lower position generally reflects a more relaxed state of mind.

At the opposite end of a horse's body is another communication tool that is sometimes overlooked. Yes, equines use their tails to brush away pesky flies, but did you know that these handy body parts transmit language, too? Mind you, a horse's natural tail carriage may vary by breed--the classic example being the high-tailed Arabian. However, there are some tail signals that are common to all breeds, and which a horse owner would be wise to heed.

For example, have you ever heard the expression "tail clamped between the legs"? If a horse has its tail pressed tightly against his buttocks, chances are it is nervous or fearful. By contrast, a tail that is carried unusually high usually indicates a hyper-alert state. Anyone who's ever ridden a horse that is reluctant to work has probably witnessed the trademark "wringing" or fierce swishing of the tail, a sign of irritation or frustration. That is not to be confused, however, with the gentle, rhythmic swishing that sometimes accompanies a change in balance, like a lead change, for example.

Legs, Posture & Voice
Reading a horse's body language can also help the savvy owner identify subtle signs of lameness or discomfort. Alternate resting of the hind legs is common and should not ordinarily be a cause for concern. However, resting of the front legs is not normal, and if your horse is pointing a front foot or only touching the ground with a front toe, it's time to investigate the cause.

The key, of course, is learning which postures are "normal" for your horse--and which are not.

In addition, horses communicate with each other through a range of vocal signals that are recognizable to humans who are familiar with them. Here again, context is important.

The four primary categories of equine vocalization are:

1. "Neighs and whinnies," which a horse uses to announce, "I'm here!" and to acknowledge the presence of another horse.

2. Soft, throaty sounds called "nickers,"which are often used by a mare to encourage her foal--or by any horse anticipating feed time!

3. "Squeals," which can be part of a threat display. Think, for instance, of what often happens when two new horses are introduced to each other: They sniff noses and then the squealing (and possibly the striking out) might start.

4. "Snorts," which horses sometimes use to sound an alarm, such as when a strange animal suddenly comes too close.

Snorting seems to be common among some ungulates (hooved mammals) like deer and horses. As Waran explains, "These sounds will travel through distance, and herds can get instant information about emotion (e.g., fear, etc.) so that they can respond appropriately and quickly in order to survive any attack. Alarm calls are frequently used by group-living animals."

However, Dr. Cindy McCall, professor and extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at Alabama's Auburn University, is not certain whether this sound has the same meaning among the different species, or whether it has evolved into different meanings. "Certainly within the same species, there may be different degrees of the same vocalization," she says. "For example, there is a true alarm snort in the horse (or does it just mean ALERT?), a rolling, repeated blowing snort (play or excitement) and a loud snort during play (which sounds pretty identical to the true alarm snort)."

One thing's for sure: "Horses are most likely to vocalize when separated from their band, and cows and sheep will do the same," says Houpt. "A happy horse is a quiet horse. Foals and mares are very vocal, but neigh less and less when separated as the foals gets older. Mares and foals may nicker at one another."

Olfactory Signals
Though it may be harder for us humans to comprehend, horses also communicate through their sense of smell, using it to distinguish friends from enemies and to recognize sexual opportunities, among other things.

This is where pheromones--those chemical secretions that influence the physiology or behavior of other animals--come into play. These powerful substances can do everything from calm (as in maternal appeasing pheromones) to excite (as in sexual pheromones). "In terms of smell, horses, like dogs, have incredible smelling power and are sensitive to pheromones conveying information about individuals and their state," Waran says.

McCall agrees that pheromones and even ordinary scents (marking with manure or urine, a mare's attraction to amniotic fluid, etc.) are probably important in equine communication. "After all, they possess a vomeronasal organ, and both sexes perform flehmen," she says, referring to the comical curling of the upper lip that facilitates the transfer of pheromones into this olfactory organ.

Horses vs. Other Animals
Is equine communication more or less developed than that of other animal species? "That is a hard question to answer," says Houpt. "Birds, for example, have very complex songs but may not have any more messages than horses. Cats seem to have more vocal communications than horses, and we have influenced cats to vocalize more.

"Perception is also important, because horses cannot hear as high frequency sounds as cats," she continues. "Horses are not used as scent detectors as dogs are, so may not communicate as much with odor, but both species almost always investigate the excrement of another member of their species, so presumably are communicating.

"We do know that they do not communicate with us as dogs do. They don't look in our eyes and then at an object [that] they can't reach, like dogs. They are poor at following a pointing gesture--only half of horses can do it."

More to Learn
As Heleski notes, "Some horses are easier to read than others." But are certain breeds or age groups more expressive than others? "No one has quantified breed differences," says Houpt. "I would assume that more reactive breeds such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds are more likely to show changes in ear (up = alert, pinned = aggression; sideways = submission); tail (straight up = exuberance; lashing = pain or aggression; tucked = fear); eye (whites showing = fear) and general body posture than the more phlegmatic draft breeds. Young horses, especially colts, play and may show many postures associated with aggression or sexual behavior, but not in serious contexts."

What about geldings vs. stallions? "Certainly, when we geld a horse or spay a mare, we reduce some of their expressiveness in terms of sexual behavior," notes McCall. "But other than that, I would guess that gender and age, once sexually mature, has little influence on communication."

To learn more about this fascinating subject, Heleski encourages her students to watch horses as much as they can. "As they develop an intuitive sense of equine body language with horses reacting with one another, students become noticeably better at interpreting body language that will ultimately affect their personal safety around horses," she notes.

"There is still a great deal about [equine] body language that we have not researched," she adds. "There are probably all sorts of subtle muscle movements in the face, eyes, nostrils, etc., that influence how many of us 'read' horses ... yet trying to put words to what we've seen for the novice horse person can be difficult. Certainly ear position only tells a small portion of the story.

"Very often, measures of body language are looked at in various research contexts, but it is still difficult to say with absolute certainty what the horse is feeling," she concludes.

My Horse University is a national online program for horse enthusiasts based at Michigan State University, one of the top U.S. universities in equine science and management. This program offers equine education courses and resources to help you achieve your horse-management goals.