Part of the joy of owning a horse is learning how they express themselves through vocal and body language. While we all wish we could be horse whisperers, it’s not always easy to interact with a horse and at times we can misinterpret their behaviour. With enough patience and practice however, you can soon master equine communication and develop a stronger bond with your horse.
Here are some tips you should know about your horse’s body language:
Horses have excellent hearing and are able to rotate their ears 180 degrees to stay constantly alert of their surroundings.
Generally speaking, when the ears are perked up and forward or backward it means they are paying attention to what’s in front/behind them. However, when the ears are sharply pinned back against their neck, it can signal aggression or that they’re about to bite/kick.
When your horse is relaxed or asleep, their ears will most likely be turned out to the side and not focused on surrounding noises. Conversely, rapid swivelling of the ears can signal that they’re highly stimulated or potentially feeling anxious about something.
Head and neck positions
The position and movement of your horse’s head should indicate their state of arousal. If their head is drooping or lowered, they’re very likely resting, relaxed and comfortable with their surroundings.
If their head is elevated, they could be excited, alert or focusing on something in the distance and assessing the situation to see how they should react.
Horses do use their tails to swat away flies, but they also use their tails to communicate too. A horse tail that’s raised above the level of their back is a sign of excitement or highly alert. In this case, you may need to help them regain focus. If the tail is pressed tightly down against their buttocks, they could be nervous or stressed and if this happens during riding, they could be in pain. This is a good time to check how your horse is feeling, or reassure them and bring them back to a state of calmness.
Neighs, nickers, squeals and snorts
These are the 4 main categories of horse vocalisations:
A neigh or whinny is a social call, used by horses to find one another. It can also be an expression of loneliness, so try to acknowledge their presence and/or give them something else to focus on if you do hear this.
A nicker is a soft, low whinny which is used by mares to encourage their foals to return, should they wander too far away. It’s also commonly heard before feeding time, when your horse is expecting a food delivery.
Squeals, which much like human squeals are a long, high-pitched cry, are most often heard from mares but can also happen when two horses are meeting for the first time to signal threat/aggression. If you hear this take place between two horses, make sure to get any people out of the way and to supervise their interaction.
Snorts can be an abrupt sound used as an alarm, if your horse has detected a threat like a foreign animal or strange scent. If your horse is snorting, they may be getting ready to act out so it’s important that you assess and find out why or what they might be snorting at.
Splayed forelegs can be a sign of injury or fear depending on the situation. If your horse is splay legged and unwilling to move, it’s best to consult your veterinarian for advice.
If your horse is bored, they may paw - or dig - at the ground with their legs. If they’re irrirated they’ll likely stomp their foreleg down, as if to say “go away!” to a pesky fly or express frustration with something that you’re doing.
When resting or relaxed, your horse may “cock” one hind leg by slightly flexing it with their hoof not fully on the ground. However, if your horse is constantly shifting their weight or if you notice that they’re constantly resting one of their legs, this could be a sign of discomfort or lameness. In this case it’s best to do a check of their legs for any swelling or sensitivities, and check with your veterinarian on what to do next.
Hind legs can also act as a warning of irritation or aggression. If your horse is threatening to kick their hind leg, be sure no one is standing close by or behind them. You should see precursory behaviour to kicking though, such as an elevated head or ears pinned all the way back. If you can see what they’re irritated at, try to move them away from the source and refocus their energy somewhere else.
Learning your horse’s body language will take time and observation. The most important thing to note is that if your horse is showing signs of distress, fear or irritation, you can respond positively by switching their focus, giving them a job or soothing their nerves by speaking in a hushed voice and staying calm. With consistent direction over time, you will be able to improve communication and build a better partnership with your horse.