In the November '09 Horse & Rider article, "Listen to Your Horse" (Ask Team H&R), Lynn Palm helped our reader understand her horse's body language to improve their relationship. She discussed (with accompanying photos) the horse's four main body-language indicators (from the most obvious to the least): ears, tail, eyes, and the lips and nostrils. Here, Lynn tells us what this horse is saying with his entire body--which he indicates primarily through the position and movement of his neck, muscles, and skin.
(Note: Just in case you missed November's article, here's our reader's question to Team Horse & Rider.)
Question: I recently acquired a 5-year-old Morgan/Quarter Horse cross gelding. I've bonded reasonably well with horses I've had in the past, but I can't seem to make a connection with this guy--we just don't seem to be on the same wavelength. Could I be misinterpreting his body language? What should I be looking for to know what's going on in his head? I'd like to improve our relationship, so we can enjoy riding together.
To assess what your horse is saying with his entire body, you need to observe him from at least 10 feet away.
When he's calm and comfortable with his surroundings, his muscles and skin are smooth and relaxed, his head and neck are down, and he's likely to cock a back leg--a significant indication that he's comfortable enough with his environment to rest or even nap.
Tension is especially evident in a horse's neck. Notice how this horse's neck muscles are rigid and he's unnaturally arching his neck.
He looks leery and on edge, also evidenced by the nervous expressions of his eyes, ears, and nostrils. This tension can precede a bolt or buck, or signify aggression to be acted out with a kick or bite, so be cautious if you're riding or handling him.
A startled horse will often flinch the skin over his neck, shoulders, and back; tighten his back and neck muscles; and may even rear or "prance" out of nervousness.
He could be momentarily alarmed by something, and then return to a normal state of mind. Or, he may be frightened enough that his "flight" mentality has taken over his rational side. In this instance, it's best to dismount for safety's sake.
Final note: Now, you've learned to read the basics of your horse's language. Going forward, listen to what he's telling you, and you'll likely communicate with one another more effectively, which will carry over to your riding and your enjoyment of one another.
Sometimes, all you have to do is listen!