Body Language of Horses

Body Language of Horses Horse Behavior

Body Language of Horses

The WHY, WHAT & HOW of the body language of horses. People and horses use body language to communicate. Some of us are just better “listeners” than others. Learning to read body language is a matter of developing our skills of observation.

Body language is a non verbal way of communication between two beings. It happens all the time between people whether or not we are aware of what we are saying with our body or what someone is saying to us.

The WHY…. of body language of horses.

Horses communicate

Because horses have a very limited verbal communication, if you count the sounds they make as verbal communication, they have honed their ability to perceive and understanding body language between themselves.

Once humans step into the picture, and are accepted as part of the horse’s social structure, our body signals become important enough for them to discern and learn to understand. They are very good at this because they do not have a verbal language to fall back on. It is also due to the fact that horses are much more in tune with their senses than humans are. They …listen more attentively….focus more instinctively…and react more spontaneously.

Simply put, anatomically they have better hearing and a wider range of vision. Their sense of feel , although not received through finger tips is distributed throughout their entire body and as large as they are….that’s a lot of feel!

The What…. of body language of horses.

WHAT horses communicate through body-language is something that is even more difficult for us to grasp sometimes. This is because as humans we possess this peculiar, if not presumptive, tendency to anthropomorphize animals and objects.

In my experience as a riding instructor, I have come to believe that this is one of the most detrimental behaviors people can practice around horses. It is because people attribute human characteristics to horses that the concept of “communicating with horses” is so misunderstood.

It is also why some horse-people, taking advantage of this , can charge buckets of money to teach people the …mysteries of horse whispering…or the secrets,of horse communication…etc etc. And people pay it!.

What horses communicate is directly related to what they sense or feel. By “feel” I mean what they physically feel. What they communicate amongst each other, as a herd, in order to survive and maintain their social structure are those things directly related to their survival.

  • Fear
  • hunger
  • panic caused by impending danger
  • loneliness
  • loss of family as in a mother to a foal
  • physical pain
  • tranquility or contentment a sense of “all is well”
  • anger to the extent that something is threatening their survival which again relates to fear
  • playfulness
  • dominance one over the other which is necessary to establish a pecking order…survival of the fittest

Beyond this I can say through experience that horses have a strong sense of justice or fair play. An eye for an eye is ok but an eye for a whisker is NOT. Unlike humans horses are forgiving, unresentful, unbiased and unabashed.

The HOW…. of body language of horses.

So now HOW do horse communicate amongst themselves that they are hungry, or miss the companionship of their stable mate, or are in pain? Some parts of the horse’s anatomy are more geared towards this type of communication. Mainly

HOW do horse communicate
  • eyes
  • the ears
  • the nostrils
  • the tail
  • the neck
  • and the overall stance of the body

Much the same way that human body language uses mainly the arms, fingers, eyebrows, eyes, mouth and body stance. The best way to learn this is through observation. What does a horse do with the different parts of his body , when and why? We could make a list of the different components of body language that signify this or that.

It reminds me of the time I went for a trail ride with an lady that I put on one of my most experienced and trusted horses, a cute 14 hand Quarter horse cross. The lady had been told that horses put their ears back when they were angry. Armed with this juicy tidbit of horse “understanding” the lady was ready to head out on the trail. During the ride Maggie (the mare), content to be out of her corral and into the open countryside, was listening intently to the sounds of spring, her ears flickering this way and that and back to her rider …whom she obediently did not want to ignore. The lady spent the entire trip asking me why the horse was so angry at her and what she was doing wrong to irritate her. I kept reassuring her that Maggie was indeed NOT angry at all. “But watch her”, she said to me “watch how her ears go back!”

So the moral of the story is that the language of the horse, this body-language, needs to be learned through observation and experience. Nevertheless I will try to point out a few things to watch for.

Body Language Tips

Here’s a handy Body Language Tips photo gallery. It can help you get started on some one on one, in depth observation, of your horse. These body language pictures can help you on your way to learning what to look for and what to look at.

2 frendsThese two friends have soft ears, relaxed eyes and stance and are casually sharing a clump of grass.
I'm all earsFor body language tips start with the ears. They have so much movement and are like antennas that are constantly picking up signals.
Angry HorseThis horse is demonstrating angry behavior. He is feeling threatened and has no place to run to. He is cautioning his opponent to “back off”. Ears are pinned, nostrils flared and eyes are wide and strained.
Angry horse tailThe swishing tail is a body languge tip telling you that the horse is either annoyed, angry at something threatening…or maybe he is just swatting a fly.
Bored horse“I have been standing here for a while and I am getting bored. I am listening for footsteps of someone coming to get me.”
Curious horse“I am checking something out. My ears are pointing directly at it, my eyes are focused. I have not yet made a decision on whether I am ok with it or not.”
Unhappy HorseNotice the dropped lip, pinched nostrils, squinched eyes and ears flopped down and back.. This horse is bored and a bit bothered.
Mixed signalsNotice that the horse’s ears are recieving signals from two directions and the look says he doesn’t care for at least one of them.
Horse with kind eyesThis horse’s eyes reveal the world about him. He is a kind, intellingent, generous, horse.
Loving LifeLoosely tied to a shade tree in a field of rich grass this mare is loving life.
Colts at playThese two colts are playing and running and kicking up their heels and their ears, although slightly pinned, are not threatening.
Running TailRunning loose and having fun this horse has energy to spare and his high tail shows that he is feeling good!
Sick HorseThis mare is not happy and probably in physical discomfort of some kind. But how kindly and patiently she deals with it.
SubmissiveHappy, relaxed horse attentive (left ear) to his “person friend” and waiting to see what comes next for the day.
Relaxed tail of a happy horseThis is a relaxed tail of a happy horse that sways with the horses movement.
Playful TailNo need to worry. This horse is being playful.
Tense TailGoing through his routine workout , the horse is showing signs of tension from the position of his tail held out and rigid.
Unsure horseThis horse does not understand what is being asked of him but is trying to listen and figure it out. This could go either way in a minute.
Soft gentle eyesContent about her surroundings and life in general, this mare’s soft eyes are definitely windows to her soul.
Rate author
( 1 assessment, average 5 from 5 )
The Ultimate Guide for Horse Lovers
Add a comment