Chances are pretty good you understand what your horse is saying when he nickers as you bring him his feed. The meaning of a pinned ear and cocked hind hoof are also pretty obvious.
But not all equine communication is quite so clear. Do you know what a clamped tail indicates? What a foal is saying when he clacks his teeth? Even more important, can you recognize subtle signs of fear or frustration before they escalate into a blowup?
Because people rely so much on verbal communication, it’s natural to focus on a horse’s vocalizations when trying to figure out what he is saying. But like many animals, horses communicate much more through postures, gestures and expressions than they do with their vocal cords.
The ability to read and respond to this equine body language is what sets great trainers apart from the rest. From a distance, it may look like these experts are “mind reading,” but in reality, they’re noticing and responding to the subtlest of cues from the horse, both on the ground as well as in the saddle.
This isn’t a mystical skill. Anyone who spends time around horses can learn to tune in to their unique forms of nonverbal communication. It may take some time and attention, but a better understanding of the language of horses will improve your horsemanship skills, and you’ll be able to read your horse more clearly and fine-tune your training and handling accordingly. Here’s what you need to know.
What His Ears Say
One of the first lessons a novice rider is taught is that when a horse’s ears are forward he is alert, paying attention and/or interested in what’s in front of him, and when his ears are pinned back close to the neck he is angry and about to bite or kick. But the ears have more to say than just that:
• Turned out to the side. The horse is asleep or relaxed and may not be attuned to what’s going on around him. You don’t want to march up to this horse and pat him because he may be startled and react by running over you, whirling or striking out. Instead, call his name or make some noise, and don’t approach until he turns his head or otherwise indicates that he’s paying attention to you.
• Turned back. If your horse’s ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it often means he’s listening to something behind him---he may be deciding whether to run away or turn around and check out the sound. When combined with a swishing tail or other signs of tension in the body, turned-back ears may be a precursor
to pinned ears.
• Rapidly swiveling. Ears that are flicking back and forth are a sign that the horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness. He may be trying to locate the source of a frightening sound or smell, or he may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.
What His Head Carriage Says
The position and movement of a horse’s head are easy to see and can tell you a lot about his mood and what he’s thinking:
• Lowered. A dropped head is a sign your horse is relaxed and feeling good, and his ears will often hang to the side as well. If he’s standing in his stall or pasture with a lowered head, he’s probably either resting or asleep; call his name and make your approach obvious so you don’t startle him.
• Elevated. Your horse is focused on something in the distance, and he’s probably trying to figure out whether he should flee, investigate or ignore it. As his handler, you need to realize that he is not paying attention to you, and he may be about to spook or bolt; to prevent that from happening, you must regain his focus.
A horse who raises his head while being ridden may be in pain, especially if he also hollows his back, pins his ears or wrings his tail. Carefully examine your tack for protruding screws or other sources of discomfort and check for proper fit. If the behavior persists, have a veterinarian check your horse for back pain.
• Snaking. Lowering the head slightly and waving the neck from side to side is an aggressive act, often used by stallions who are fighting or herding an uncooperative mare. If you see a horse do this, it’s a red alert. You need to ascertain why the horse is aggressive and defuse the situation. This may mean refocusing his attention, moving him out of the area or just getting away from him.
What His Forelegs Say
We’re all trained early on to watch out for a horse’s hind legs because that’s where the kicks come from, but the front legs can also communicate quite a bit:
• Standing splayed. A horse spreads his front legs out to the sides and leans back a little when he is scared---he may be seconds away from a spook or bolt.
Injuries or health issues, such as weakness from malnutrition or neurological impairment, can also cause a horse to stand with his forelegs splayed. Call in a veterinarian if a horse standing splay legged is unwilling or unable to move.
• Pawing. Horses paw---an arcing action with the foreleg that may dig a trench in soft ground---for a number of reasons. The bored or impatient horse paws when tied---he’s saying that he’s tired of standing around and he’s ready to go! Stressed horses may paw in the trailer or at feeding time, and the behavior stops when the source of the anxiety is past.
Pawing to indicate anger is rarer, but it is a signal you need to heed: In these cases, the pawing is more forceful and is often combined with pinned ears. In a loose horse, pawing like this often precedes a charge or some kind of attack. If you see this, get out of his way and make sure you’re not between him and another horse who may be the source of his aggression. In a horse who is tied or in hand, forceful, angry pawing may proceed a bite or strike. In this scenario, move other horses away, correct him with a sharp “No,” then refocus his attention by moving him from the area or putting him to work.
• Stomping. Unlike pawing, stomping is raising and lowering a foot forcefully in place. Horses stomp to indicate irritation. Usually, it’s something minor, such as a fly they’re trying to dislodge. However, stomping may also indicate your horse is frustrated with something you are doing, and if you don’t address it, he may resort to stronger signals.
• Striking. A strike is a forceful, forward kick with a front leg that can be either aggressive or defensive. This is a dangerous action. If you’re very lucky you’ll walk away with only a bruise, but a strike can break a bone. If the horse rears and strikes your head, he can kill you easily. Fortunately, horses rarely strike without warning, such as stomping or pawing, wide eyes, an elevated head or pinned ears. That’s why it is important to listen to those signals so that you can change your horse’s focus or prepare for worsening behavior.
What His Hind Legs Say
The hind legs of a nervous or frustrated horse are a danger zone to be heeded:
• Cocked. When a horse cocks his leg, he rests the leading edge of the hoof on the ground and drops his hip. When combined with a lowered head or ears hanging to the side, this is the sign of a horse who is relaxed and resting. You may see him occasionally shift his weight, uncocking that back leg and cocking the other one. However, if your horse shifts his weight rapidly from one foot to the other, he’s probably in pain and cannot get comfortable; you need to call your veterinarian.
A horse may also cock a hind hoof when he is irritated or defensive and considering kicking. In that case, he may also elevate his head and turn his ears back, and he may be looking back over his shoulder to keep an eye on the perceived threat. The best thing you can do then is steer clear of his back end and move him forward and away from whatever is bothering him.
• Raised. Your horse may lift a hind leg off the ground to signal irritation. The cause may be something as minor as a horsefly, or it could be that he’s annoyed with a horse or person behind him and is threatening to kick.
At the more aggressive end of the spectrum, many of the warning signs will be similar to a horse with a cocked leg: He may elevate his head, pin his ears and possibly even snake his head back and forth in warning. Your goal will be to move him away from whatever is bothering him and refocus his energy by putting him to work.
What His Muzzle Says
Even beyond nickers and whinnies, a horse’s nose and mouth can tell you several things about what he’s feeling:
• Drooping lip or slack mouth. A horse standing quietly with his lower lip drooping may be relaxing or even asleep. If you approach him, do so cautiously and call his name to avoid startling him. Once he’s awake and moving around, his lip should return to normal. However, if the slackness in his mouth persists while he’s alert, he may have an injury or a neurological problem. Ask your veterinarian to investigate.
• Chewing. It may look a little funny to see your horse chewing when you know he’s not eating, but this is a good sign when you are training him. It indicates he’s relaxed and thinking, and that in turn means he’s learning.
• Clacking teeth. A foal will sometimes raise his neck, push his head forward, curl his lips and click his teeth together. It can look comical to us, but it’s an important behavior for him: This is how the foal tells other horses, “Hey! I’m a baby! Please don’t hurt me!” You’ll see this most often in foals and weanlings and occasionally among more submissive yearlings. Normally, they stop by the time they’re 2 or 3 years old.
• Flehmen. Flehmen is another of those behaviors that looks humorous but serves an important function: When a horse smells something he’s unsure of, he raises his head, curls his upper lip, breathes in and blows air back out. This allows him to push the scent particles through a structure in his nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO).
The VNO enables horses to better detect chemicals in the air, often pheromones emitted by sexually receptive horses. You most often see stallions flehmen when they’re determining whether a mare is in heat and ready to breed, but all horses will do this when they smell something unusual and they’re trying to get more information.
• Flared nostrils. A horse will stretch his nostrils wide to draw in more air as he exercises, and the flare may continue for a short time afterward. At other times, a horse’s nostrils may flare and even quiver when he is startled or nervous---this is one of those quieter communications that can develop into something more serious if you don’t take heed right away.
• Tight, pinched or pursed mouth or muzzle. This is a subtle sign and can be easy to miss. Tension around the mouth tells you your horse is worried, stressed or scared. When you notice his muzzle tighten, take action to either remove your horse from the situation or help him work through the stress or fear so he won’t have to resort to “louder” messages like biting or running away.
• Gaping mouth with visible teeth. This gesture can signal different things, depending on the context. If the horse also pins his ears and you can see white around his eyes, he’s angry and probably seconds away from biting you or another horse---move out of his way immediately to avoid being hurt. If a horse’s mouth gapes while he is being ridden, he may be in pain. Check the fit of your bridle and bit, and schedule a dental examination to make sure his teeth aren’t hurting him. Last, if your horse stops eating and stands with his neck stretched out and his mouth gaping, he may be experiencing choke, an obstruction in his esophagus. This is an emergency; remove the uneaten food and call your veterinarian immediately.
What His Eyes Say
The movements of your horse’s eyes tell you not just what he’s thinking but also where his attention is focused:
• Tension. As with tension around the muzzle, tightening of the muscles around the eyes is a subtle, early sign of stress, fear or discomfort. You may see this as a wrinkled upper eyelid or tightness at the corner of the eye. If you learn to notice this cue and respond promptly, you can avoid bigger problems.
• Rapid darting. When your horse’s eyes are flicking from side to side, he’s probably scared and looking for a way to escape. This sign may precede a spook or bolt, but if your horse feels trapped he may react by biting or kicking in an attempt to get away. Remove him from the situation or calm him down to keep yourself safe.
• Whites of the eyes showing. To interpret this sign correctly, you need to know your horse and what’s normal for him. In some horses, the sclera (the opaque white portion of the eyeball surrounding the cornea) is always visible, especially in Appaloosas and pintos with lots of white on their faces. In some horses, the sclera is exposed when they are only startled or mildly alarmed.
Usually, however, by the time a horse has gotten worked up to the point that you can see the whites around his eyes, he’s extremely upset. If his ears are also pinned, he’s angry. If he’s trembling or snorting, he’s scared. Either way, you’ll need to take quick action to reassure or distract him to prevent a spook, bolt or defensive move.
What His Tail Says
More than just a fly swatter, the tail is one of the more mobile methods of equine communication:
• Raised or “flagged.” A tail carried above the level of the back is a sign of excitement. This behavior is often associated with Arabians, but any horse will do it if he’s energized enough---some will just get keyed up more readily. A horse who is so excited that he’s flagging his tail isn’t paying much attention to you, and he’s probably prone to spooking, bucking or bolting. You may need to put him to work to regain his focus.
• Clamped down. A nervous or stressed horse will press his tail down, and he may tuck in his hindquarters. This is a good time to reassure him and try to build his confidence. If your horse clamps his tail when you are riding, he may be in discomfort or pain; you need to make sure he’s sound and his tack fits well. Call your veterinarian if the behavior persists for no obvious reason.
• Rapid swishing. Slow slapping of a tail is all about fly control. But when a horse’s tail is jerking quickly from side to side or up and down, he is irritated or angry. This is often a pretty clear warning sign that he’s about to kick or buck, and you need to heed it immediately.
If your horse swishes his tail often while you are riding, check your tack to make sure everything fits properly and no sharp or protruding edges are hurting him. If he continues with the behavior, have your veterinarian examine him to look for pain or lameness.
What His Whole Body Says
Sometimes you need “the big picture” to get the full story of what’s going on with your horse:
• Tension. When your horse’s muscles are rigid and his movements are stiff, he’s either hurting, nervous or stressed. If he’s scared, you can work him through the problems with some desensitization---this is easier to do if you start before the point where he has to bolt or buck to get your attention. If you don’t think fear is the problem, have your horse examined for back pain, lameness or dental problems.
• Trembling. Shaking is almost always a sign of fear. Extremely nervous horses may tremble when exposed to something new, but I see it most often in rescued horses who were abused in the past and are very frightened of being handled. We had one mare whose entire body tensed whenever we moved toward her, and when we first tried picking up her back legs, the anxiety turned into trembling so severe she nearly fell down. At first I was afraid that something was physically wrong with her, but she showed no other signs of illness or injury. It was simply fear.
A horse who is so scared or nervous that he trembles is on the verge of either running away or fighting to protect himself. If you see this, stop whatever you are doing and give your horse a few minutes to calm down. When he’s relaxed, slowly reintroduce the thing that scared him. Be quiet and calm with him, and he’ll pick up on your attitude. Working with a horse who is this scared or nervous takes a lot of time and patience. You might want to enlist an experienced trainer to help him work through his issues.
• Touching you. If a horse reaches out to touch you with his muzzle, he could be trying to nip or bite you. Or it may be that he’s curious and checking you out. Another possibility is that he’s nervous and needs a little reassurance. This is one of those times when you need to know your horse to distinguish the difference.
I once worked with a little filly who was nervous and high strung. After a day or two, when she felt comfortable with me, she began to reach out and gently touch me with her muzzle if something scared her. That was my signal to slow down, reassure her and let her get used to the new thing. If I hadn’t known her well enough, I might have thought she was being pushy and “corrected” her to discourage biting---which would have made her more nervous and might have caused her to escalate to bolting from things that scared her.
• Swinging hindquarters. When your horse swings his rump from side to side, it can mean one of two things. Usually, he’s warning that he’s about to kick. In that case, his ears will probably be back, he may be wringing his tail, and his body will be tense. Move him away from whatever he’s mad at and put him to work.
A mare in heat will also swing her rump slightly from side to side, trying to get the attention of any stallions that might be around. She’ll also likely raise her tail and turn it to one side, and she may urinate a little.
Learning the body language of horses takes time. As you work with your horse, observe how his postures and expressions change as he interacts with you as well as other people and animals. Before long, you’ll start to understand the more subtle signs that he’s getting annoyed or fearful, and then you can start a more proactive “dialog,” responding to his cues and keeping his focus on the work at hand. One day, the intuitive, “mind-reading” rider everyone envies may be you.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #424.