What’s My Horse Trying to Tell Me?
The horse is an amazingly social animal. In large part, that’s why the bond between a horse and their owner is so incredible – they certainly know each other well and at times it seems as though they can read each other’s thoughts. While every horse is unique in how he communicates through body language and voicing’s, there are some universal signals that can give you a pretty good idea of a horse’s needs, feelings and emotion at any given time.
A horse that is completely comfortable and at ease will seem, well, relaxed. His head will hang at the lower 50% of his range of motion, closer to the ground. His eyelids might be droopy and his ears will not be “at attention” but rather relaxed and could even be pointing out to his sides. After a long day at pasture, some horses will have a droopy lower lip or he might appear to be softly chewing.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a horse that feels threatened or is becoming aggressive, the tell-tail sign is the pinning back of the ears. You’ll often see this behavior in the alpha horse if a new addition is brought into the herd. You could also see a bearing of teach or aggressive hoof beating into the ground. This is a horse that is getting ready to turn on the offensive to another horse or a human. These are signs that say “I don’t like the situation I’m in and I am getting ready to respond to it”.
If a horse is afraid, she will tend to point her ears in the direction of the threat, often times with the head held high in the air, heightening her sense of hearing. Her eyes will be wide and appear to be nearly all whites and her neck will be tense. If the danger is sensed but not seen, you might see a flaring of the nostrils as well.
If something in the area changes, but is not necessarily a threat – perhaps a person enters the pasture or barn or a familiar horse begins to come running in their direction – you’ll see the horse become alert. The head is held high, the ears are pointed straight ahead and the stance is square. The horse is not afraid, but just reading the situation to see if anything is developing that should require a response.
The range of a horse’s voice is limited, but it is nonetheless very communicative and the owner will quickly learn the distinctions between their horse and the rest of the herd, being able to pick out their horse’s voice amongst the many voices in the barn even when out of sight.
The sound of a horse whinnying can be a powerful and regal to downright “fingernails on the chalkboard” annoying. But no matter the sound, it is designed to carry a distance, so it is almost always LOUD! It’s your horse saying, “HEY YOU, I am here and you need to know that!” It can also be a call to another horse to get a response – a kind of “Is that you?... are you there? When we return from a horse show with our trailered horse, the other 5 will start whinnying as loud as they can as soon as they see the trailer rolling up. “Are you in that trailer? We’re here for you! Get over here!”
The greatest sound a horse makes, in my opinion, is the nicker. A deep rumbly sound made with the mouth closed that emanates from the nasal passages, the nicker is the horses equivalent to the cat’s purr. It’s the morning feed sound, the “do you have treats?” sound, it is the sound a mare makes to their foals. It is a gentle, wonderful sound.
If you were as large as a horse, you wouldn’t sigh, you’d blow. They have big lungs so they’re moving a lot of air when they sigh, and they’ll do this for the same reasons we do. They’re getting impatient or they’re being made to do something they’re really not in the mood to do. Also, if the horse is working, they might take in a big breath for a bigger shot of oxygen and then blow it out – just like we do. They might also blow toward a new, curious item that they’re checking out like a new blanket.
Turn up blowing and you get snorting – a fast, sharp blow. This is usually done in disapproval and can be a prelude to aggression.
Squealing is often related to an assertion of authority or seniority – a way to establish or re-establish who’s in charge. Stallions squeal at mares, they’ll squeal at each other and in season mares will often squeal when being checked out by a gelding, as if to say BACK OFF LOSER!
Each horse is different and will use these communicative devices with subtle variations. But, as you get to know your horse, you’ll learn to know exactly what your horse is telling you. And that is simply magical!
©Green Mountain Horse and Tack