Horse Tales: Learning a Horse’s Language

Horses are large and powerful animals, and even the most calm, gentle, well-trained mount can react with lightning speed and cause injury to an unsuspecting person who is unfamiliar with what a horse might be trying to communicate. Recently I was reminded that many of the things we as horse keepers experience over the years, and perhaps take for granted, are important lessons for those who are first-time horse owners or who are just starting out in the horse world.

Those who are not involved with horses would be surprised to realize how complex equine language is. As humans rely so much on verbal communication, which is somewhat limited in horses, some believe that horses are “dumb” animals without much on their minds or in their emotions. Such beliefs couldn’t be further from the truth! While many do understand the warning signals sent out by a horse that pins its ears, whirls around to bite or raises its foot to kick, it involves quite a bit of time observing horses to fully understand and appreciate how rich and subtle their language can be.

Most of us learned early on that you should not approach a horse from the rear without giving notice – a verbal greeting or sign – as one of the horse’s blind spots is directly behind them. A person or object that approaches from behind might appear to suddenly “jump” out once they come into view, which could result in a well-placed kick or bite, especially if the horse is tense or unhappy. But how do you know if the horse is tense or unhappy?

You can tell if a horse is nervous or tense if you observe its body – look for rigid or stiff muscles in the neck or back. Some horses may even tremble from nervousness or fear. Check the ears – if they are flattened, or pinned, the horse is definitely angry and sending a warning. If this is combined with tense muscles or a swishing tail, they’re telling you to back off! If the horse’s ears are moving back and forth, it may be on alert or nervous, knowing that someone or something is there that it cannot see and is trying to identify. It may point its ears backwards to try to listen – this would be a good time to speak if you haven’t already.

A horse’s eyes will also communicate thoughts and feelings; as with the ears, rapid movements back and forth can indicate tension. Tightening of the muscles around the eyes, and widening to show the whites of its eyes, are certain giveaways of a nervous or angry horse, similar to swishing tail or pinned ears, and indicate that the horse is ready to react.

Watch the horse’s legs and feet for warning signs. If you notice that the front legs are spread farther apart and the horse is leaning slightly backward, this may indicate that the horse is preparing to bolt or rear. Pawing with the front legs shows impatience and possible stress, such as while standing in a trailer or waiting to be fed; in this instance, the pawing usually ceases afterward. However, a horse that is forcefully pawing may indicate it is ready to strike, bite or otherwise act with aggression.

A horse that is annoyed or stressed may cock one hind leg or even raise it off the ground to send a warning. If coupled with other signs from its eyes, ears or body, it may be preparing to kick.

Horse Tales: Learning a Horse’s Language

A horse that swishes or wrings its tail and puts its ears back may be indicating annoyance or displeasure, as this horse that is being hosed with cold water is communicating. Photo by Judy Van Put

The head and tail can also indicate if a horse is stressed or unhappy; if raised up or tense, it could be a sign that the horse is ready to spook at something it’s focusing on. But lowering the head and moving it from side to side can show the horse’s state of aggression; wringing and flicking the tail from side to side is also an indicator of anger or aggression. Any and all of the above warning signs are ways that a horse can clearly communicate unhappiness, anger and/or tension without even making a sound.

Horses communicate frequently, and not only to express displeasure. Following are common “signs” to watch for and learn to interpret:

A horse that is calm and relaxed will stand with its head in a lowered position, whether in a stall or out in a paddock or field. (You should alert the horse of your presence so as not to startle it.) A calm horse will have a “soft” and rounded eye. Its ears may be turned out to the side or even downward. Its lower lip may be drooping or slack, as is its tail. A resting and relaxed horse may have one hind leg cocked with the edge of the hoof on the ground.

There are a number of signs to watch for that indicate if a horse is in pain. If it raises its head while you’re riding, it could be feeling pain. One of the most obvious signs involves the legs, especially if a horse is limping. Other more subtle indicators of pain are indicated by rapidly shifting weight from side to side or hollowing the back. A gait that is slightly “off” when you’re leading or riding, having difficulty in changing leads or refusing to change leads can also be indicators of pain that may not show up in other ways. Wringing the tail or putting the ears back may also indicate pain or discomfort, or possibly irritation from something under the saddle pad or even the fit of the saddle or bridle.

Your horse can also communicate in a positive manner – such as a whinny, nicker or other sound when it sees you or is about to be fed. Some horses are more verbal than others. Our mare Morgan is one of the most verbal horses we’ve ever had and will “answer” me with a hearty whinny almost every time I call her name – which makes it easy to find her when I’m walking up to the summer pasture or to determine whether she’s returned to the barn after being out to pasture all day. We also play a game in which I reward her with a little treat (such as a piece of cracker or carrot) just before I let her out into the paddock or pasture when she gives a little “oomph,” the sound she’s learned to make when we play our game, which gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

If you see a horse chewing and licking its lips when you’re training or working with it, it means the horse is understanding what you’re asking and is recognizing you as its “leader” in that circumstance. Once you notice chewing and licking, it will be more likely to follow you and learn more quickly.

It’s important to spend time observing your horse as well as other horses as often as possible in order to learn their language. Your time will be well-spent, as once you learn to interpret what horses are communicating, you’ll improve your relationship with your horse and your riding and training skills as well.

by Judy Van Put

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