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How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language

Horses do have a voice, but don’t speak human language! Horses are constantly ‘talking’ to you and everyone around them, both people and other horses. Horses are highly social animals, and they are used to living together in herds; therefore, it is important to them to be able to communicate with others in their family. For horses in the wild, their ability to survive depends on this communication, from gaining the protection of the herd to finding food and shelter.

A horse will use their “voice” when they neigh, whinny, nicker, snort, blow and squeal, but the majority of their communication is far more orientated towards their behavior and body language which provides a subtle and sophisticated system of engagement. Horses use body parts individually, as well as together, to communicate different things such as pain, anger, discomfort, excitement, or irritation. Your knowledge of horse body language is the key to working successfully with your horses.

If you want understand what an equine is saying to you, you have to learn to listen with your eyes. A horse’s body language is based on movement first and vocalizations second. It is important to remember that horses are prey animals, so it is their instinct to choose flight in a fight or flight situation. When interpreting their body language, it is important to consider this natural instinct. By paying attention to the subtle movements of your horse’s body parts, you will be able to understand your horse and cater to its needs and insecurities.

Most people learn to read their own horses’ body language because they handle them daily and get to know their habits and foibles, but we all know how much harder it can be to ‘read’ a new horse.

Here are some key traits that are common to most horses and will help you understand expressions and behaviors that you may not have come across before, either with your own horse or a new member of your family.

What Your Horse’s Eyes Say

Eye communication is usually fairly easy to discern in terms of expression or mood. Some horses may ‘exhibit’ a kinder eye than others.  Your horse’s eyes indicate to you what your horse is thinking, as well as where its attention is focused. Your horse’s eyes may be relaxed, tense, darting rapidly, or your horse may be showing the whites of its eyes.  The movements of your horse’s eyes tell you not just what he’s thinking, but also where his attention is focused. A horse with a “soft” eye is generally relaxed.

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 larger problems.

Rapid Darting: When your horse’s eyes are flicking from side to side, this means he/she is scared and looking for a way to escape. If your horse feels trapped, it might react by biting or kicking.  If you find your horse’s eyes rapidly darting, remove him from the situation or calm him down to keep yourself and your horse safe.

Whites of the Eyes Showing: If your horse is showing the whites of its eyes, i.e., opening its eyes widely, it is only mildly alarmed or startled. Keep in mind, however, that in some breeds such as the Appaloosas and Pintos, the whites of the eyes are always visible. Therefore, it is only natural for the whites to show in these breeds and it is not a sign of alarm.

What Your Horse’s Ears Say

Ears play a huge role in the body language of horses. Horses virtually cannot communicate without using their ears. Your horse’s ears can either be forward, pinned, turned out to the side, turned back, or rapidly swiveling. Those ears say a lot!

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.  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. Here is a guide to figure out what each movement may mean:

Positioned Forward: This usually means your horse is relaxed.  If they are sharply pricked forward, however, this means your horse is alert and tuning into something that is either interesting or frightening.

Pinned Flat Against the Back of His Neck: This means your horse is angry and may be aggressive.

Pointed Backward But Not Pinned: This often means he’s listening to something behind him.

Turned Out to the Side: The horse is asleep or relaxed and may not be attuned to what is going on around him. You do not want to walk up to this horse and pat him because he may be startled and react by running over you, whirling or striking out. Instead, call their name or make some noise to alert of your approach.  Do not approach until he turns his head or otherwise indicates that he’s paying attention to you.

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 Your Horse’s Muzzle Says

Horses will chew when they are relaxed, even with an empty mouth. A tight mouth and jaw firmly clamped shut are indicative of tension or fear, often both, and can sometimes be accompanied by a pinched muzzle.

A horse’s nose and lips can communicate a lot about what they are feeling. Your horse’s nose and lips may be slack, curled, flaring, or tightly pinched or pursed. Here’s a guide to determine what each may signal mean:

Drooping Lip or Slack Mouth: If your horse is standing quietly with its lower lip drooping, i.e., slack, it is relaxed and/or possibly is sleeping. Approach your horse with caution so as not to startle it. However, if your horse is awake and its lower lip is still slack, this may be a sign of a neurological problem. If this happens, you should check with your veterinarian.

Chewing: It may look a little humorous to see your horse chewing when you know he is not eating, but this is a good sign when you are training him. It indicates he is relaxed and thinking, and that in turn means he is 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 is an important behavior for him. This is how the foal tells other horses that they are a baby and not to hurt them. Normally, they stop this behavior by the time they’re 2 or 3 years old.

Flared Nostrils: If your horse is flaring its nostrils, it means one of two things: It is either out of breath and trying to draw in more air, or, if it is accompanied with a quivering, then your horse is either nervous or startled. Your horse’s nostrils should only be flaring if its been working. If your horse has not been working, then flaring nostrils could be a sign that something is wrong, and a vet check may be in order.

Tight, Pinched or Pursed Mouth or Muzzle: If your horse’s nose and lips are tightly pinched or pursed (one of the more subtle gestures), then your horse is either worried, stressed, or scared. Try to diffuse the situation by moving your horse away from the area.

Gaping Mouth With Visible Teeth: This gesture can mean different things, depending on the context. If the horse also pins his ears and you can see white around his eyes, he is angry and may be seconds away from biting you or another horse. In this situation, it is best to 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 are not 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 Your Horse’s Head Carriage Says

You can tell a lot about your horse’s mood by observing their head carriage. Your horse’s head carriage may be lowered, elevated, or snaking. Here is a guide to figure out what each position means:

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. His ears will often hang to the side when its head is in this position. Also, if your horse is in the stall, a lowered head position might indicate that your horse is sleeping. Be careful not to startle your horse.

Elevated: Your horse is focused on something in the distance, and he is probably trying to figure out whether he should flee, investigate or ignore it. To prevent your horse from bolting, try to regain its focus on you by saying its name. A horse that raises his head while being ridden may be in pain, especially if he also hollows his back, pins his ears or wrings his tail.

Snaking: Lowering the head slightly and waving the neck from side to side is an aggressive act, often used by stallions that are fighting or herding an uncooperative mare. This is a red alert. Try to diffuse the situation by refocusing its attention, leaving the area, or moving away.

What Your Horse’s Forelegs Say

Your horse’s forelegs can be splayed, pawing, stomping, or striking. Here is a guide to understanding your horse’s forelegs:

Splayed: If their forelegs are spread out to the sides and your horse is leaning back, then your horse is scared and may be seconds away from bolting. Splayed legs can also be a sign of malnutrition or a neurological impairment, especially if the horse is unwilling or cannot move. If that is the case, call a veterinarian.

Pawing: An arcing foreleg that is digging a trench in soft ground may be a sign of boredom and a signal that your horse is either tired of standing or ready to go. Stressed horses may paw if they are in a trailer or before feeding time. Horses may also paw of they are angry, although it is not common.

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. 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: This is a forceful and aggressive forward kick and is a sure sign of anger or aggression. It is usually preceded by stomping or pawing, wide eyes and an elevated head with pinned ears. This is a dangerous action.  If struck, and you are very lucky, you will walk away with only a bruise, but a strike can be quite serious and even break a bone or worse. Fortunately, horses rarely strike without warning, such as stomping or pawing, wide eyes, an elevated head or pinned ears.

What Your Horse’s Hind Legs Say

It is quite usual for a horse to ‘rest’ a hind limb by dropping a hip when he is dozing or relaxed. Other body language will endorse the stance, low neck position, drooping head.  The hind legs of a nervous or frustrated horse are a danger zone to be heeded. A horse’s hind legs can be either cocked or raised. Learn how to determine the different signals by following this guide:

Cocked: Cocked legs may either signal resting, pain, or irritation. Your horse is relaxing if it rests the leading edge of the hoof on the ground and drops its hip. Your horse is in pain if it shifts its weight from one side to another rapidly. If your horse is frustrated and/or defensive, it will cock its hind leg, elevate its head, and cock or pin its ears back.

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.

What Your Horse’s Tail Says

Similar to other mammals, like cats and dogs, horses use their tails in multiple ways, not just to remove irritating flies. Some horses do naturally move their tails a lot when they are under saddle.  A tail permanently held to one side can indicate Sacro-iliac or back problems and needs further investigation

Here’s a guide to know what each signal means:

Raised or “Flagged”: A raised or flagged tail means your horse is excited. This is a tail that is held above the level of the back. A horse with a flagged tail isn’t usually paying much attention to you, and is prone to being startled. Regain your horse’s attention by calling its name and putting it to work.

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 and you need to make confirm he’s sound and his tack fits well. Call your veterinarian if the behavior persists for no obvious reason.

Rapid Swishing: If your horse is gently swishing its tail, this is just a sign of fly control. However, if your horse is quickly jerking its tail from side to side or up and down, this is a sign of anger and frustration and a precursor to bucking or kicking.  If your horse is frequently swishing its tail while you are riding, this can be a sign of discomfort; make sure the tack is properly fitted and no sharp or protruding edges are hurting your horse.

What Your Horse’s Whole Body Says

By reading your horse’s body tension, you will be able to tell if your horse is relaxed, stressed, nervous, or scared. Sometimes you need “the big picture” to get the full story of what’s going on with your horse.  Here’s a guide to understanding these behaviors:

Tension: If your horse’s muscles are rigid and its movements are stiff, it is nervous, hurting or stressed. Assess the situation to figure out what is causing your horse to be tense, and remove your horse from the situation.

Trembling: If your horse is trembling, i.e., its whole body is shaking, this is a sign of fear. A horse that 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 relaxed, slowly reintroduce the thing that scared your horse. Be quiet and calm with him, and he will pick up on your attitude. Working with a horse that is this scared or nervous takes a lot of time and patience. You might want to enlist an experienced trainer to help work through the issues.

Touching you: If a horse reaches out to touch you with his muzzle, he could be trying to nip or bite you. It also 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.

Learning horse body language takes time and patience. 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 will start to understand the more subtle signs that he’s getting annoyed or fearful, and then you can start a more proactive communication, responding to his cues and keeping his focus on the work at hand.

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