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."
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."