Horse language


Sighing Horses seem to sigh, draw in a deep breath, then let it out slowly and audibly through mouth or nostrils, much more around humans than when interacting with each other. There’s a sigh that seems to express relief (like your “Aaaaah!” when removing a pair of tight boots), which you may hear as grooming or massage releases tension in your horse’s muscles. There’s a relaxation sigh that you watch and listen for when longeing to loosen him up and make sure he’s calm before you get on: the one where he puts his head forward and down and exhales a deep fluttering breath through his nostrils, often more than once, “Yeah, I feel better now.” Some horses also give a sigh suggestive of boredom when ring work is too repetitive; the equine equivalent of the “ho-hum” you might breathe if stuck in line at the supermarket, it’s a hint to try a different gymnastic, find some new patterns to ride on the flat, or go for a trail ride.

As in humans, groaning can be a habit in horses but can also signal pain, so it calls for some detective work, especially if the horse is new to you and you don’t know which noises and in which situations are normal for him.

If he groans or grunts over fences but otherwise seems happy, he’s probably like the tennis player who habitually gives an “oof!” with every serve. But if he groans on landing from his fences and also pins his ears or rolls his eyes, something’s hurting. It could be his back (does he resist saddling and/or girthing, tuck his hindquarters or tail when you mount, hollow his back as you settle into the saddle?), legs or feet (check them daily for heat, and watch for a resting stance that takes some weight off his front feet, a sign of laminitis), or his insides (adhesions from past abdominal surgery are a possibility; if you don’t know his history, check for incision scars on belly or flank).

If he groans only with certain riders, a rider who thuds heavily into the saddle after a jump or at sitting trot might be hurting him. If he habitually groans when manuring but otherwise seems normal and happy, the groan could simply be the involuntary movement of air through his vocal cords as he uses his diaphragm to bear down in defecation, or a response to normal abdominal discomfort/relief. But if he suddenly begins to groan while manuring, and especially if he appears to strain and the manure is dry and firm, suspect the early stages of impaction. Monitor his water consumption; listen with an ear to his flank on both sides for normal gut sounds; take his pulse and heart rate. Check his hydration with a pinch test (a pinched-and-released fold of neck skin should regain its original contour in less than two seconds), and check his gums. If they’re dark pink and/or tacky to the touch, or if any of the other signs above are not normal, call your veterinarian.

Groaning when not under saddle could also be a sign of gastric pain from ulcers: Recent studies suggest that at least sixty percent of performance horses have ulcers; if your horse groans and shows other ulcer symptoms (see May’s “Stomach Trouble” for details), your veterinarian may suggest an endoscopic examination.

Some horses groan when they know work is over; in the absence of the trouble symptoms above, they’re probably just anticipating getting the saddle off, having a roll, manuring, and eating some hay.

Your horse uses his vocal cords but keeps his lips closed for this soft sound. It’s usually (though not always) one of friendly recognition and welcome “Hi! Good, you’re here! Come talk with me!” coupled with an alert expression, raised head, ears pricked in your direction. (The lovely nicker of a mare to her foal is the same kind of affectionate summons.)

If your appearance at particular times usually means food on the way, the nickering may have an edge of happy anticipation. If others get fed first, your horse’s nicker probably becomes more rapid and high-pitched: “Come on, now!” But horses also nicker in a more subdued way, from apprehension, “Uh-oh, this looks bad; what should I do?” if they feel cornered and threatened. This nicker combined with fearful body language–pacing, ears flicking back and forth, eyes rolling–is a signal to remove your horse from the threatening situation or reassure him with gentle grooming or massage and quiet talking.

Blowing or Snorting
When your horse inhales quickly, then puffs the breath out through his nostrils so they vibrate with a loud purring sound, he’s excited and hoping that something will happen. Maybe he sees you getting his lead rope at turnout time: “Oh good, we’re going out, we’re going out!” Horses actually get themselves (and others) even more worked up just by making this sound; so if yours continues blowing, head raised and tail lifted, as you lead him out, be prepared for sudden moves. Remind him you’re still in charge with quiet halts, or by leading him in a small circle before you open the gate. Otherwise he might try to explode away from you, especially if friends are waiting to play. On the trail, he may begin blowing if you come to a stretch where you normally canter, or if a puff of cold wind gets under his tail. He’s saying, “I want to go!” His blowing will also infect his buddies with excitement, until you and your riding companions have your hands full.

When your horse neighs, he’s already stimulated and (even if he’s normally a sleepy sort) you’ll need to use extra attention when you handle and ride him. This sound can communicate either anxiety or confidence, depending on the tone of the neigh and the body language that goes with it. The neigh of an anxious horse pacing the fence because he’s been turned out alone, or calling from the barn for a stablemate who’s gone to a show, has a tremulous high-pitched quality. The worried neigher may break a sweat and defecate nervously. His ears flick back and forth; his eye roves while his tail lifts, then lowers. He may tuck his tail completely and hunker down to make himself look smaller.

A confident neigh has a more bugling ring, reinforced by forward-pricked ears, a bold look, and a slightly lifted tail; at mealtime, it’s a more demanding communication–”Get your body out here and feed me NOW!” than a nicker. When one horse neighs in a group turned out together, it can be a heads-up: A strange horse is approaching, or an unusual, interesting object is in sight.

We’re definitely a more verbal species than horses, but they’re good listeners when it comes to linking specific meanings and sounds. As carriage drivers know, horses in a team easily learn complex voice commands associated with their own names. And instructors can be hard put to stay ahead of some school horses that recognize–and execute–the next move before a student can act…even when the instructor spells the command!

While horses’ main form of communication is through body language, they do vocalize. We classify many of the different sounds into the categories of neighs (or whinnies), nickers, snorts, squeals, and blows. These can be divided further by meaning – for example, the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker, or the maternal nicker.

A basic “neigh” or “whinny” is what you often hear in the movies (generally a sound effect added in later; Horses do not neigh when they’re running into battle). The neigh is the loudest sound a horse makes, generally with the head held high, the ears forward, and the mouth open. Horses do this to try to locate their herd mates or people— it basically translates to “Hey, I’m here, where are you?” You’ll often hear this sound when a horse is separated from its friends and is trying to locate them, or when a horse is unloaded at a new place (a show ground, for example) and is trying to see who is there. It can be done in a shrill and panicky manner—for example, if a young horse is separated from its mother. (Youtube video of a horse neighing)

What Horses are saying:

The nicker is a softer neigh, generally not as piercing, and done only through the nostrils. It is usually a greeting. This is the sound you’ll hear when you walk into the barn in the morning to feed your horse; they generally greet you with a friendly “hello!”

This is also seen when two horses greet each other, in a friendly manner (horses that are friends are more likely to nicker to each other than two horses that don’t know each other). However, just as people have individual personalities, so do horses. We had one horse that would nicker all the time to any person she saw or met, and to other horses too. (Youtube video of a horse nickering)

Nickers can also be used in courtship situations. Stallions are often very vocal when they are interested in a mare, and will emit low, long nickers. The Bedouins rode Arabian mares into battle, because sneaking up on an enemy was difficult if your horse would nicker to warn them you were coming. (Youtube video of a miniature horse nickering to mare)

Mares have a maternal nicker that they will use with foals. It is generally very soft and low and often used when the mother is worried (for example, if the foal runs off to go investigate something), or comforting the foal. (Video of newborn foal and mare)

Snorting is blowing air through the nostrils to produce a low, long sound. The sound comes from the nostrils vibrating, rather than an actual vocalization from the throat. A snort is done to point out something the horse is scared or wary of. They are saying, “Hey, there is something scary here!” It is not uncommon to ride a horse past a “scary” object (a lawn chair, a hose on the ground) and have them lower their head and snort toward it. Snorting can tell other horses that there is something to watch out for. Because the horse is generally scared, the neck is usually outstretched toward the object or held high, and the body usually tense and ready for flight. However, snorting can also be done in play, when horses pretend to be scared, as in this video– the horse is running around playing and gives a snort.

There is also another type of snort that has no significance because it is done to clear the nostrils of debris. This is generally seen when the horse is eating or in a dusty area— like a sneeze, it is a quick exhalation through the nose, often done with a shake of the head, and none of the tenseness seen in a warning snort. (Video of horse rolling in dusty area, and snorting)

Squeals are high-pitched and often done in annoyance or anger. They are seen when horses are about to fight, or often as a way to say “Get away from me now” as a warning before a horse will kick or bite another horse. For example, if two stallions meet, they may squeal before fighting. It is also seen when a stallion is courting a mare who has no interest—she may squeal at him while threatening to kick. (Video of angry horse squeal)

Horses will blow through their nostrils when meeting other horses for the first time. If they like each other, they may simply sniff and then leave. If they dislike each other, or one is challenging the other’s dominance, they may squeal.

Horses may also groan or grunt, often a sound made when getting up or laying down. It can also be done out of pain, and many painful conditions (such as colic) will make a horse want to lie down or twist about to find relief.

The horse’s main way of communicating, however, is through body language. The ears, face, tail, neck, and even general body position can tell you a lot about the horse. Is he scared and about to bolt? Is she in pain, or just being lazy? Is he only playing, or is he going to attack?

Like all language, an accurate translation relies on taking into account more than just what is “said”—the body language and context are important too. For example, a nicker may mean “hello”—or, if it’s feeding time, it may mean “Hey, feed me first!” before the horse begins to bang on his stall to get your attention.

Foals have a specific behavior not seen in older horses. When a foal greets a larger, older horse, they will open their mouth and chomping movements, with their ears forward. This “foal-greeting” is a way for them to be respectful and avoid getting hurt. It’s like they are saying “Hey, I’m only a baby, nice to meet you.” (This video shows a foal opening/closing mouth in a greeting; he is nervous because of the person near his mother)

When trying to understand horses, the whole body can also tell you what the horse is saying. If a horse is afraid, he will be tense, his head high, ears flickering nervously, nostrils dilated, and he may snort or prance. If a horse is in pain, he will generally stand still, and be disinterested in what’s going on, breathe quickly, swish his tail, or act lethargic.

Horses learn to communicate and behave by socializing with other horses. A foal quickly learns that trying to eat another horse’s food will get him bitten. This is why horses that are kept in isolation often develop behavioral problems or are hard to train. Horses that spend prolonged time with people who don’t correct their bad behaviors become more aggressive and dangerous. Breeding stallions that are kept alone, except when breeding, are often more aggressive and exhibit disrespectful and dangerous behaviors toward other people and horses.

Horses will sometimes “test” their person to see who is dominant. It is not unusual to see foals bite at people to see if they can get away with it. Little nips may be cute from a foal, but from a full-grown horse they can be deadly. A horse that runs into you while you’re leading is not showing aggression, but is showing disrespect. In a herd, entering a dominant horse’s “personal space” can get you bitten or kicked. By walking into you, the horse is showing you he doesn’t respect you, and he may end up stepping on or trampling on you.

If you’re working with horses, it is just as important to “talk” back as it is to translate. A good trainer or rider is sensitive to how a horse is feeling and can tell if a horse is misbehaving because he’s hyper, scared, in pain, misunderstanding the rider, or just being lazy. If a horse moves into your personal space, you make him move back. This is what a dominant horse would do. If a horse is scared, you stroke and comfort him—much like a mare would nuzzle a scared foal.

Being the “lead horse” is vital to a good (and safe) relationship with horses. Understanding what horses are saying can help you begin to communicate back, and as all horse people know, the foundations of riding, training, and showing are built on the ability for horse and human to communicate.


3 Responses to Horse language

  1. Ali says:

    Thanks! This was very helpful!!

  2. Pingback: Flaring horse nostrils! | Zola the Rhodesian Ridgeback Girl

  3. WOW! Who knew? How interesting.

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