Are you listening to what your horse is telling you?
Horse Behaviour

Equine signs of pain: can you hear a whisper or does your horse need to shout?

An idea begins to form in your mind: there’s something off with your horse. You can’t say where exactly this hunch is coming from because your horse isn’t thrashing or wriggling in pain.

A quick once over doesn’t turn up anything obviously wrong. But you’re sure that everything isn’t as it should be.

Did you know that emotions are contagious? The mirror neurons in your brain pick up on what’s going on around you and put you in that same state of mind. This happens unconsciously and is a mechanism that helps you get along with other people – we are social creatures, after all.

Maybe what’s happening, is that you’re picking up on your horse’s feelings. Or maybe you noted something even though you can’t consciously put a name to your observation.

Sometimes it will even take you some time to realise, that something you’ve been seeing over the last days, weeks or months has been an indication of an issue, but you haven’t been consciously aware that you’ve been seeing it.

Maybe your horse was looking or feeling tense, blinking her eyes, turning her hindquarters to you or nibbling her leg with her teeth. Maybe she was signalling that a particular piece of tack concerns her or that she finds certain places stressful – or even that doing something new and challenging was frustrating for her.

The communication ladders help you interpret your horse.

Communication Ladder: Fight or Flight (click to enlarge)
Communication Ladder: Recovery after tension & shock (click to enlarge)

Rachaël Draaisma, a Dutch trainer and behavioural consultant, developed communication ladders to help you decipher your horse’s communicative gestures. These ladders will help you see even the slightest tension in your horse and allow you to assess the level of tension in your horse.

“During my study of Calming Signals of Horses, I have analysed 200 films of domesticated horses. I have observed the ear, tail, head and body position,” Draaisma writes on her website. “I have looked at the shape of eyes, nose and mouth. The communicative signals and features that I have seen at least 35 times in various situations I have linked to tension levels and put into a graphic ladder.”

Draaisma observed 40 domesticated horses going about their daily lives, interacting with humans and noting how the horses used the space, where they looked, how their ears moved and how the shape of their nostrils changed.

The horses were filmed while being led, brushed and saddled or as a new horse was introduced to the herd. The horses were of different breeds and between 3-23 years of age.

Draaisma explains that with the aid of these communication ladders, you will be able to more easily recognise various behaviours and features of your horse. You will be able to observe if her tension level stays the same, lowers or rises and when you see the tension level rising, you can step in and guide your horse back to a lower level of tension.

Being aware of her signals, even the subtle ones, will improve your horse’s welfare, socialisation and training.

Remember that the signals on the ladders can have various meanings.

Draaisma explains that a horse can rub her head to her knee because she’s scratching an itch or because she has rising tension and wants to discharge that tension (thus making the leg rubbing a displacement activity).

It’s important to understand, not just the signals and features, but also the context and communicative meaning of the behaviours your horse displays in order to understand what your horse is saying correctly.

In her book, “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”, she explains the meaning of behaviours and shows them in more detail.

Yawning is a sign of relaxation. Or is it?

Draaisma found through her analysis of the footage, that signals form groupings and the signals of each group signal a certain stress level.

Your horse’s tension escalates and de-escalates in stages.

If the calming signals don’t calm your horse, your horse will use replacement behaviours in an attempt to calm herself and others.

If that isn’t enough to calm your horse down, she will begin showings stress signals and strive to increase the distance between herself and the source of tension. The final option is to fight, flee or freeze.

According to Draaisma, she was initially observing a lot of signals all mixed together and was unable to see how they related to each other. From the beginning though, she was well aware that one gesture can signify many things – and this is why it’s important to interpret the signals within the context that you originally observe them.

Rolling after a long workout doesn’t necessarily signify stress, in this context it’s probably just your horse relaxing after having exercised her body. Swishing the tail can also be caused by irritating flies and isn’t always signalling stress or tension.

With the help or calming signals your horse is trying to calm herself or others around her – or both.

Some of the calming signals Draaisma discovered include blinking the eyes, raising and lowering the neck in a see-sawing motion (especially when trotting or galloping), chewing, eating, turning the head, swinging the hindquarters towards you and yawning.

Yawning is often considered as a sign of the horse relaxing. However, Draaisma warns that yawning may also be a sign of increasing tension rather than decreasing tension. The key is to pay attention to what happens before and after the yawning to understand the context of the signal.

As the horse’s state of stress and tension grows, the signals get larger and louder.

Replacement behaviours include pawing the ground, sniffing the ground, your horse nipping herself and rubbing her head against her leg. The most common stress indicators include widened eyes, raising the head, clenched lips, rushing, increased defecating and stretching the upper lip.

It’s important to learn the specific signals that your horse uses in which specific situations because every horse is an individual.

You can use the communication ladders Draaisma created for everything that you do with your horse.

The communication ladders allow you to assess your horse’s level of tension in everyday situations when she’s being handled, brushed, ridden, trained or when you’re observing the dynamics within her herd.

As you begin to recognise the signs of tension in your horse, you’ll be able to observe if the tension is growing or lessening. You’ll be able to give your horse time to deal with her tension and adapt your own behaviour so as to teach your horse how to be in control of herself more effectively.

Can humans mimic equine calming signals?

Draaisma believes that you can help your horse calm down and stay calm by using the same signals your horse uses. Through her work training humans and animals as well as analysing the footage, she noticed that the most useful signals are stepping in between, circling around, turning your side or back and stopping.

Your body is challenging to read for your horse. Your ears are hidden, your eyes are pointed directly forward and as a biped you appear more like a pencil to your horse. But your learns to read your gestures and expressions by observing you.

If your horse is nervous about an object, you can place yourself between the object causing tension and your horse. You can also teach your horse that she can move to put you between herself and whatever is making her nervous.

When you employ calming signals, you need to make sure that you’re genuinely calm and relaxed. After a tense situation you should also continue to behave in a manner that fosters calmness and relaxation.

Help your horse to think for herself.

It’s Draaisma’s wish that her work will help people to see their horses in a different light. The better you can read your horse the more clearly you can communicate with her.

Becoming fluent at reading your horse will improve your relationship with her, make your training more effective and increase the well-being of your horse.

Draaisma also calls for empowering your horse more. Your horse is the target of a lot of activity and is trained to follow instructions but very rarely gets to decide things herself.

You can give your horse more choice in how her everyday life looks by letting her decide which way to go when starting your hack (or which way to go when you meet a fork in the road), when she wants to take a break in her training session or when she wants to finish altogether as well as letting her decide for herself if, when and how she approaches something that makes her feel nervous.

Draaisma thinks that there is tremendous potential in mental training for horses and you can engage your horse to think more for herself. By providing her more activities and giving her more choices her skills of deduction will develop, she will take more initiative and be more motivated to explore new things.

This will result in your horse being less frightened and less aggressive as well as alleviate her chronic stress, among other things.

You can enrich the life of your horse by letting her get acquainted with the tractor or let her explore the equipment that’s been stored behind the shed. You can put new objects in her paddock or in the arena and let your horse explore at her own pace.

The best kind of things are objects that make some kind of sound when you touch them. It’s important that your horse can make the sound happen herself because a sound she is in control of is much less frightening than a sound someone or something else makes.

You can also entice your horse’s sense of smell by creating tracking games for her. The simplest way to do this is to put some treats down in various locations within an area and let your horse find them. You can also teach her to distinguish between smells and get her to follow a scent trail you lay down.

You can flavour her water and challenge her problem solving by covering her feed bucket with a towel or filling a large container with empty plastic bottles that she has to move in order to eat the treats underneath.

In her book, “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”, Draaisma gives instructions on how to begin scent work with your horse and further examples of enrichment ideas.

More research is required.

Draaisma’s communication ladders are a continuation of the work by dog behaviourist Turid Rugaas, who started analysing the calming signals of dogs in the 1990s. Draaisma was inspired to do her own research with horses when she was studying to be a dog behaviourist under Rugaas.

Though Draaisma’s research is critical, it’s not scientific. Her research hasn’t been subjected to peer review and it doesn’t adhere to the strict guidelines of conducting or reporting of scientific research.

There hasn’t been any scientific research conducted like that of Draaisma – yet. Her hope is that her work would inspire researchers to delve deeper into the calming signals of horses. Draaisma herself is going to continue analysing equine calming signals in order to produce ever more specific and varied information to horse owners.


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