Horses are highly social creatures and communicate with each other quite a bit. If you watch closely you can observe this constant interplay of communication, energy and body language passing between horses and rippling through a herd.
Horses use a wide range of expressions, gesticulations and movements to communicate in daily life. For people, it might not always be easy to decipher this language, but the good news is that we can all learn simply by observing our horses!
Looking at how your own horse communicates with other horses and watching what kind of gestures cause what reactions, is the best way to begin understanding what your horse is saying.
The facial expressions your horse uses.
Your horse communicates by using her ears, eyes, nostrils and mouth to form expressions.
The ears swivel independently of each other when observing the environment, but in communication, they are used concurrently (to do the same thing at the same time).
A resting horse looks relaxed with the ears usually tipped backwards, not listening to anything, in particular, eyes closed halfway or completely and a relaxed mouth. You may also hear some quiet rumbling or sighing from time to time.
When your horse is taking a snooze standing up or just having a rest, she’ll usually cock one back leg and intermittently switch to the other leg to take the weight off.
When you’re approaching a horse taking a short snooze, the polite thing to do is to allow her a moment to come back to the present before responding to you.
When your horse is paying attention to something, she’ll typically prick her ears up, crane her neck and avidly look in the direction of interest.
You can tell a lot about how your horse is feeling by looking at the eyes. A relaxed eyelid and soft muscles around the eye-socket means your horse is feeling safe and relaxed.
The size of her pupils is related to the muscles in the iris, which is controlled by nerves that extend from the brain into the back of the eye.
Your horse’s pupils will dilate in response to low light conditions or when she’s anxious or excited. Any time she needs to see better, the pupils dilate to let in more light and more accurate detail.
How your horse expresses fear.
A horse that seems fearful, is fearful. Your horse is not capable of faking it and she will not show signs of fear unless she is genuinely afraid of something.
Whatever she’s afraid of may seem trivial or silly to you, but to her, it’s very real. Punishing her for being afraid of something will not teach her how to not be afraid of that thing.
Your horse needs to be systematically desensitised to everything that she can encounter in her daily life, such as tack, objects in the stable, cars, flags, dogs, farm equipment etc.
If you handle your horse poorly in a situation where she feels fearful, you can end up making it worse and causing a full-blown pull-back panic.
The signs of fear in your horse are quite easy to spot: her eyes will widen, pupils dilate and the whites of the eyes can become visible. Her nostrils will flare as she tries to inhale deeply, both to pump more oxygen into her bloodstream in preparation of a quick escape as well as to try and catch a scent that can tell her what she’s looking at.
Her mouth will be tense and the corners of her mouth will be pulled down or back. Her ears will swivel around nervously or she may pin them backwards if she’s decided it’s time to take decisive action (be ready for rearing and lashing out with the front hooves).
Her head and tail will be raised as the adrenaline in her body readies her to run. Her muscles will tense and her core will tighten – typically she’ll also defecate to lighten the load.
She’ll refuse to move or move in fits and starts and will strive to move away from whatever is scaring her. Even when she moves she may strive to turn back to face whatever it is that has her attention.
You may also hear her breathing more rapidly and she may snort.
Different gestures your horse uses.
Your horse uses a wide range of gestures to communicate what she wants. Combining expressions with gestures sends a clear message that can be seen from further away (compared to just an expression on its own).
An angry glare paired with pinning the ears back and abruptly raising the head, is a much clearer than just an angry look on it’s own.
Clear gesticulation gives anyone approaching your horse an idea of her mood and intention and can then (ideally) act accordingly.
Mouthing is typical in foals.
Submission is something mostly seen in foals. When strange horses or the stallion of the herd approaches a foal will begin to chomp the air to show submission, this is called mouthing.
Mouthing will often be accompanied with the head held low. Horses will use this gesture in adulthood when feeling overpowered, such as when a higher ranking member of the herd threatens a lower-ranking member and there is no space to move out of the way.
Mouthing is a way to calm a potentially intensifying situation down by saying “I’m not challenging you”. It’s a bit like us putting our hands up with palms out to signify that we have no ill intentions.
When a horse displays this kind of submissive behaviour it won’t try to run away, but will instead stand still and let the other horse sniff all over and wait for acceptance.
Once rank has been established, everything goes back to business as usual.
How your horse uses warning gestures.
Threats are something that you’ll see your horse use quite often. They may look quite aggressive but usually aren’t.
Horses are extremely social animals that love the company of their own kind and will avoid physical fighting for as long as possible. They are very precise in their warnings and threats and will only hit their target when they really mean it.
A warning is always first in the form of a facial expression. If the warning is missed, ignored or challenged, the energy and body language is intensified.
In the picture above, the horse on the right is showing teeth as a warning – essentially threatening to bite if the other horse doesn’t move away and give more space.
The horse on the right has pinned the ears back, flared the nostrils and tensed the muscles around the mouth.
People can often get into threatening situations with horses that feel like “close calls” – when a bite or a kick seems to barely miss. These are almost always the kind of situations where the horse meant to threaten rather than make physical contact.
Most of the time, horses don’t make physical contact with each other either when they’re threatening. They may get very close and from afar it can look like they make contact.
Often, it’s also our shortcomings in observing horses that can make us feel like we have to break up fights that seem like they start out of nowhere.
If we take the time to observe how horses communicate with each other, we can often begin to see the many layers of escalating threats that precede actual physical contact.
In a situation where a submissive horse or lower ranking herd member doesn’t have space to move out of the way, the aggressor or more dominant horse will typically not bite or kick the trapped horse and will instead make their point without or with light physical contact.
Aggressive physical contact is a last resort for horses. When neither expressions nor gestures get the point across, they will make contact and bite, kick or shove.
This is something that can often be observed when horses are squabbling over something (like one single bucket of grain) or working to establish rank in the herd.
It’s very common for stallions who live freely with mares to have a collection of scars across their chests from being kicked by the mares.
This can seem very violent if you’re not used to it but is just normal horse behaviour. To make a horse safe for people to be around, she needs to be systematically and intentionally trained in how to behave around humans and riders and handlers need to understand how to behave around horses.
We have no hope of controlling a horse with physical force and will only get hurt it we try. Learning better handling and training your horse is the only way you will be safe.
How your horse uses vocalisation.
Your horse uses a wide range of vocalisations to communicate. Below, I’ve listed the most common ones.
Nickering is a soft call that is usually heard as a version of “hello”.
Members of a herd nicker to each other, mares nicker to their foals, stallions to mares and horses with a close bond nicker to their owners.
Getting excited can also make your horse nicker, such as when she knows that food is imminent or when she’s begging for treats.
The sound of a nicker carries from a few metres up to over ten metres, depending on the noise level in the environment and who the horse is directing the nicker at.
A neigh or a whinny is a louder call than a nicker.
It can often occur when horses are separated from their herd or a close companion.
Horses will neigh when trying to contact a horse that is further away or out of sight. When neighing the mouth is first closed and then open, but without the teeth showing (below).
Squealing is a high-pitched, loud noise.
Horses mostly use squealing when interacting with each other. It often means tempers are running high or that something is so rousing it needs to be expressed this way (such as meeting for the first time).
It’s usually meant to serve as a warning and can be combined with a stamp or warning kick from either the front or back leg.
Mares make active use of squealing, especially if the situation is tense and horses are approaching the mare when she wants to keep her distance.
In equestrian circles, this is commonly referred to as a tantrum.
A snort is a sudden explosive sound through the nose.
Horses will snort by blowing air hard out of the nostrils and this can mean that they’re excited, have been surprised or are feeling nervous.
A surprised snort can escalate into a kind of scream to warn the rest of the herd if there is (perceived) imminent danger.
Softly snorting while shaking the head or even the whole body is how horses relax and clear their airways.
Horses will often snort like this after rolling in the dirt or lying down. An anxious horse can also use this for self-soothing.
A soft, low rumbling snort can also be to clear the airways in order to catch the scent of something better.
Other things your horse can do:
- Horses can also grunt to express excitement or displeasure.
- Snoring usually occurs when horses are lying down to sleep. Lying down, especially on the side, exerts pressure on the airways and contracts the space the air has to flow through, resulting in a snore.
- Horses also yawn – this is not to be confused with an aggressive gesture where the teeth are shown on purpose. Just like people, horses will yawn when they’re tired or very relaxed.
By thinking about the world as your horse experiences it, you can gain more insight into how your horse shares information with both you and other horses.
The more you observe your horse, the better you’ll understand all the nuances of communication that might otherwise be lost to you.