Being able to recognise your horses behaviour is very important not only for their health and general well being but also for your own safety. Horses use a combination of body language signs and also their voice to whinny and use noise through their nostrils to communicate and display their feelings. Understanding this behaviour will help you to recognise if your horse is happy, angry, dozy, asleep, in pain, or frightened.
- Ears Forward
This is an alert and attentive sign, often showing happiness.
- Ears To The Side
This can show that the horse is relaxed. If the horse is being ridden and their ears are to the side then it shows that the horse is concentrating and relaxed. If the horse is stood still with its neck mid to low in height and with eyes half closed, resting a hind foot with the ears to the side then it shows that the horse is just tired, relaxed and resting.
- One Ear Back
This is a sign that the horse is listening.
- Ears Mobile
Horse is alert and can hear something of interest, the ears will move around often accompanied by a high neck carriage, bright eyes.
- Ears Flat Back
This is a sign of anger and is often accompanied with swishing tail and kicking out by either one or both hind legs.
- Ears Forward
- Eyes Open And Bright
Is a sign of an alert horse who is taking in their surroundings.
- Eyes Half Shut
Is a sign that the horse is tired or dozing. Extra signs of this would be ears to the side with head mid to low and resting a hind leg and with a droopy bottom lip.
- Eyes Shut
Is a sign hat your horse is asleep.
- One Eye Shut
This usually indicates that the horse has a medical issue with the closed eye, so look to see if the eye is weeping or has any discharge and seek veterinary advice.
- Eyes Open And Bright
- If the horse has bitten either you or another horse and it has been accompanied with the horse having its ears flat back, a back leg kicking out at you and/or a swishing tail, then it is a sign of aggression.
- Horses also bite each other and you if they are grooming each other for pleasure and social interaction, if this is the case then the horse will have their ears either forward or to the side with a relaxed tail and happy expression.
- Upper Lip Curl
When horses curl up their upper lip it is known as the ‘flehmen technique’, and horses do this when they are aware of a scent in the air; for example a stallion will do this when he is aware of a mares hormone scent when she is in season.
- Upper Lip Curl
The horses chin and lower lip will often go droopy when they are very sleepy, content or relaxed. Other signs include resting a hind leg, ears to the side and head carriage mid to low in height.
Horses will make a snorting noise with their nostrils when they are unsure or frightened of something.
- Head And Neck Carriage
- Head High is often a healthy sign of an alert and curious horse and is often accompanied with alert ears, bright eyes and an alert focused expression.
- Head Low can either be a sign of submission, depression or simply tiredness.
- Neck turning to the side and looking at their flanks can be a sign of discomfort, this can be either due to a fly on the horses side or a more serious upset such as colic in which case other symptoms will also be visible.
- Back Raised
Raised and tight is a sign of discomfort, for example due to a saddle or sore in that area.
- Back Raised
- Tail raised high in the air is usually accompanied with a high neck carriage, a bright happy and alert expression. Horses are often seen with high tails when playing in the field.
- Tail clamped flat down is a sign of discomfort for example if a fly is under the dock of the horse. o Tail swishing is an aggressive warning sign and can also used as a sign of discomfort. Other accompanying symptoms to look out for are ears flat back and kicking out with one or both back legs.
- Back Legs
- One leg kicking out is an aggressive warning sign.
- Both legs kicking out shows aggression.
- Pawing the ground can be a sign of impatience, hunger and can also be a symptom of colic which will have other symptoms visible. o
- Stamping the ground is a sign of impatience and can also be due to discomfort caused by for example a cut or flies on the leg.
- Resting one foreleg is a sign of discomfort in that limb.
One of the most interesting and most difficult aspects of horsemanship is learning to understand our horses and relate to them on horse terms. It always fascinates me that people consider themselves superior to animals and yet expect animals to learn our language rather than the other way around. Horses and dogs both learn to respond to complicated human demands but people often misinterpret basic horse and dog communication.
As prey animals, horses have a very strong sense of self-preservation. Their instincts are to run quickly from any threat and to stay within the security of the herd. With good training and positive experiences behind him and a confident rider sitting on top, a mature horse will follow directions instead of instinct to a large extent. But we have to realize that the flight and herd instincts are just below the surface. It’s our responsibility to build the trust that keeps instinct in check and the horse manageable.
Trust between people or between people and animals is built on a history of positive interaction. In order to trust someone, we have to believe they will respond consistently and appropriately in a given situation and that they will follow through with what they say. The same goes for horses. To build trust, we must respond appropriately and consistently to their behaviour or anticipated behaviour and once started on a course of action, follow through.
Equine body language:
The most obvious signal is overall body outline. It’s easy to tell the difference between the high, rounded outline of an excited horse and the flat outline of a relaxed one.
Ears are good indicators. They point in the direction of the horse’s attention. Both ears pricked forward may look pretty, but when you’re riding, you want at least one ear on you. Ears pinned back indicate anger or fear. (Fear and anger are closely related in people too.) Ears moving back and forth often indicate uncertainty. Some beginners misinterpret any backward pointing of the ears as anger, but it’s the horse with ears flat back who’s liable to kick.
The tail is also very expressive. ‘High-tailing’ is a well-known sign of excitement, but did you realize horses flatten their tails between their legs like dogs when frightened? A horse who scoots away from something with his tail tucked under is truly scared. Tail lashing is a sign of irritation and annoyance. A kinked tail is a sign of submissive fear and often precedes a buck.
More subtle for us are facial signals. In her book The Horse’s Mind, Lucy Rees has a diagram of mouth and nose signals. A long nose and tight mouth show anxiety and fear. Horses will also show ‘worry wrinkles’ above the eyes. Watch a horse being taught something new. At first, his mouth will be tight. Then in the moment he understands, you’ll often see the mouth relax and chew.
A wrinkled nose indicates annoyance and disgust. A horse threatening to bite has an open mouth and perhaps bared teeth. (Not the same as ‘mouthing’ in foals which is a submissive gesture.) A long nose with a slightly open mouth shows the horse wants to mutual groom, a gesture you may have seen while currying your horse. It becomes the characteristic long nose, drawn-back lower lip and extended neck when you find ‘the spot’.