How to speak 'horse'
In this article I will go into detail about the different ways of how horses are communicating. You can check the sounds and body parts one by one and find examples in real life. This way you turn theory into practice and memorize the “words”. However, it is more important to always use this in context with the situation. The age, gender, circumstances, health and mood of a horse also affect his communications, as do its breed, character and social skills. In dealing with humans, the horse also adapts to humans. If the human is anxious, irritated or absent, the horse will always react to it accordingly.
Therefore, reading a horse actually means becoming aware of oneself, the environment and of course the horse. It requires to be able to focus all senses on the horse and the surrounding at the same time. And for horses, this also includes your intuition, your "gut feeling". Horses live and communicate on an energy level - that means they sense the amount of tension in the body and mind and react to it, among themselves and with humans.
You can learn this, too. Once you have internalized the “language” you automatically switch to intuition and energy. This is what is called “horse whispering”.
Here you can find everything on horse language:
Body language - Ears - Nose and lips - Eyes - Head position - Tail - Legs and hooves - Posture
Horses have some vocal communication signals. These are usually used in extreme situations such as danger or mating behaviour.
Some horses use it more than others.
Whinny, neigh A loud, high-pitched sound intended to cover great distances and establish and maintain contact with the herd.
Nickering A quiet, soft whinny, almost a blow out. Often used as a greeting. Mares and stallions also do this to express their interest.
Snorting A soft repeated snort. Horses often do this in new environments and with new objects to explore. Due to the breeze, they absorb fine odor particles or clear the nose airways.
Blowing A hard fast expulsion through the nose. The horse is alarmed and unsure of the situation. It also serves as a warning to other horses of a potential danger.
Squealing And short, high and loud scream. This is a warning to keep distance, both with mares and stallions.
2. Body language
Schooling the eye for the finest language of horses
In a herd, there is actually “a lot of talking”. Horses are almost constantly in communication with each other - this predisposition makes them the most successful prey animals on the planet. Their communication system is older than human language, very fine and advanced. They communicate through their bodies: the muscle tension in each part of the body can send out different signals.
Learning this language takes a lot of training! With the theoretical knowledge of the signals, it is important to look at a lot of horses communicating with each other.
Horses also shows the same signals when dealing with humans and they always try to communicate. Only when the signals are repeatedly ignored and the horse becomes frustrated, it can shut itself down from communication with humans or display extreme behavior, which is then unexpected or even dangerous for humans.
Traumatized and anti-social horses show conflicting signals and behaviour, sometimes also for other horses which causes major problems. Many of these problem behaviors are quickly referred to as "vices" and "naughty", more of this can be found at the bottom of this article.
The ears are the most clear signal for humans and horses. Every beginning rider learns about the ears first. However, it is not the 'first' signal they send when they communicate. It's pretty rough - that means a lot has been said before. If those signals are not noticed and reacted on, they become increasingly hefty. If flat ears in the neck are not enough or the other does not react quickly enough, the horse can turn around and threaten with his hindquarters.
Neutral stand The ears have a natural tension, they are calm and point slightly to both sides with their opening. This horse is therefore in a neutral mood.
Pointed ears The ears are very tense and point straight in the direction of view at an object, animal, human or other trigger that makes the horse curious or worried.
Hanging ears The ears have little tension and 'hang' to both sides, the opening points almost towards the ground. This horse is sleeping, tired, exhausted or sick.
Open ears to the back The ears are turned back with their opening to the back, the tension is normal. This horse is listening to something happening behind him.
Flat ears in the neck The ears are very tense and lie flat back in the neck. This horse gives a clear signal to protect or increase its own space. With this signal distance is created, other horses are sent away, passively or actively to protect themselves or to occupy something. This signal has a scale and can be used very short and fine for small corrections which is not aggression. Horses that flatten their ears on approach to humans clearly indicate their findings and limits on contact with humans. However, this is not normal but stems from intense trauma of pain and (not always just physical) violence. It can also show acute pain, for example during tightening the girth.
Rotating ears The ears rotate to pick up and examine sounds. You see this especially in new environments and in unrest and uncertainty, with unknown sounds, but also when the horse is at rest when the horse is currently serving as a guard in the herd and thus “scans” the environment.
Nose and lips
The nose and lips have an enormous amount of muscles and can be used in many ways to communicate. It is also an important sense organ for the horse that allows it to investigate and explore very closely. A horse's sense of smell is 50 times better than a human's. They use this skill more often and more advanced than we think.
Neutral stand A relaxed horse releases its lips, in some horses a small opening of the lower lip shows. But that is not always a given. You can recognize a neutral nose and lip by the fact that the lower lip comes slightly above the upper lip. The nostrils are shaped like big almonds.
Big open nostrils, lips pressed onto each other When the nostrils become large and round and the lips are tightly together, the horse is tense and tries to take in a lot of scent to estimate the situation, objects or animals and people. You can also see that during training and under effort to breathe enough air. Horses cannot breathe through the mouth.
Thin nostrils, wrinkles around the mouth If the nostrils become narrow and wrinkles form around the mouth, the horse is extremely tense or experiences pain.
Yawning Yawning is less often an expression of fatigue than we think. Horses mainly yawn to relieve tension and to calm themselves and others. Sometimes you also see “half yawning” which is more of a stretching of the jaw. This calming takes place when the horse was initially confronted with a trigger or stressor.
Licking and chewing Licking and chewing is also a calming signal and often comes after an 'exciting' impression. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's horses' way of handling pressure. But the signal must also be able to really calm the horse, give it time and rest. If that is not the case, the stress for the horse will increase and it will show increasingly more intense signals.
Mouth clapping or "gum" Foals clapping their gums or young horses their teeth repeatedly onto each other. This is shown in social situations when foals or stallions meet older horses. It serves as a calming signal for the other horse and the foal and shows submission.
Flehmen Flehmen serves the absorption of smell. Retracting the lips releases the vomeronasal organ (Jacobsen's organ) that sits in the roof of the mouth. This allows the horse to better examine and estimate the odor molecules.
Touch The nose and lips are also a social organ. They can handle it very gently and lovingly. They use this to form and strengthen bonds in the herd, through touch and grooming each other. They also use this to make contact with humans of course!
Importance of the whiskers
The whiskers and tactile hairs around the lips and nose are thus extremely important for communication and a horse's sensory perception. Unfortunately, the whiskers are still often clipped for competition or cosmetic reasons. Fortunately, this has also been banned by the FEI since this year.
The eyes are the mirror of the soul. And that applies to all mammals, but especially to horses.
The visual communication of horses has been particularly refined due to their evolution. They notice every little detail and change in the environment and their herd members. Their horizontal pupils give them a panoramic view that continuously 'scans' the environment up to 100 times per minute and registers the smallest movements. Loud or hard signals are therefore not necessary and even dangerous if you are a prey animal that lives on large plains.
White around the eyes Sometimes you can see the white around the iris of a horse. It appears on the outside when the horse's eyes widen in fear or panic. But this can also occur in apparently calm horses, if they experience a lot of insecurity, mistrust or pain.
Wrinkles around the eyes At rest, the skin around the eyes is usually smooth with minimal wrinkles. When a horse becomes stressed, the wrinkles above the eye form deep lines at a steep angle. The eyes then take on a more triangular shape.
Blinking Blinking is one of the active social communication signals for horses (and dogs too). They use it to signal to others that the situation is safe and that they are well-intentioned towards them. You can observe this when you put your horse back on the pasture where he then makes contact with the herd again. This blinking differs in speed and amount from normal blinking to protect the eyes.
Half closed eyes Half-closed eyes can be seen in a healthy and happy horse when it sleeps and slumbers. That is only possible if he feels safe. However, in other cases this can also show fatigue, illness, emotional, mental rejection and pain. A horse that hangs its head and closes its eyes in a situation where it is better to be alert or curious, is either sick or mentally absent.
The general appearance of the face
Just like us, the facial expression says a lot about the horse's feelings and condition. They are very fine signals that we can learn to see and that not only in extreme situations, but also in daily contact or even brushing. The combination of ears, eyes, nose and mouth is very important here. And one signal alone only tells half the story. For example, a horse may appear very calm, but his face may be marked with pain or fear. Therefore, do not underestimate it if you see or feel something in the expression!
Can you recognize pain in a horse's face? As vulnerable prey animal, horses show no weakness openly. So it takes some knowledge to recognize this in a horse.
The head position complements the fine cues we observed in the face and completes the story along with the overall impression.
Turning away Horses use turning the head, i.e. left or right, for social communication, usually along with blinking the eyes. Turning away is a form of politeness and shows goodwill. Just like us humans, looking straight in the eye (usually seen with us on the street and with strangers) is experienced as unpleasant or even threatening.
Low A low head can be seen while grazing, drinking and examining the ground, such as shortly before rolling. This position is therefore only taken at relaxed and safe moments and signals the horse exactly this: relaxation. However, a horse that stands with a very low head on the pasture or in the box without showing activity is sick rather than tired.
High A high head gives the horse a better view and angle to look behind and around. A high head signals: attention, fear and potential danger. Usually you see white and wrinkles around the eyes, wide nostrils and a tense mouth.
Shaking and nodding A horse shakes and nods its head when, for example, it is full of energy and allowed to run free. This can just be playfulness and joy. With stallions you also see this together with high front hooves as impressive behaviour. However, while riding it is a signal of discomfort and pain, the horse does not agree and becomes irritated. When a horse shakes or nods excessively and almost compulsively this has a psychological or physiological cause such as neuronal malfunction or disease.
The tail is the direct extension of the spine and also consists of vertebrae. It is an active body part and can tell you a lot.
Neutral stand A neutral tail hangs calmly between the legs and gently moves back and forth to repel flies.
Clamped A horse can also clamp its tail between his buttocks. This protects the genitals from vets or bad weather ;) but also with fear and pain, the tail is so tense that it is stiff between the but cheeks.
Raised You see a raised tail when pooping, with mares in heat, with stallions that impress or when there is great tension and excitement. Some breeds and geldings show it more than other breeds and mares.
Sweeping Waving to repel flies is different from sweeping because of pain, frustration and stress. Sweeping the tail and shaking or nodding the neck are often seen together if the horse does not agree with something, for example if he is put in his place in the herd or is not allowed to go to the water. But also while riding you can often see this combination when aids are used that the horse does not understand or that are too harsh.
Legs and hooves
The legs show the balance of the horse not only in training. You can also see how your horse is doing and whether you may have missed previous signals. The health status can also be read quickly on the hooves and legs. But this is an extensive theme of review that will not fit in this article.
Horses carry most of their weight on the front legs, here is their natural center of gravity.
Spread front legs If the horse spreads its forelegs, lean back and push the hooves literally into the ground, you've already missed something: in front of him is an alarming trigger that clearly makes it to take flight. A situation that can quickly get out of hand and cause enormous stress.
Pawing A difficult behavior for many that you can often observe at the grooming spot. In the wild, horses scratch the ground for water, minerals and roots. For us it mainly means impatience and frustration.
Stomping Stomping as above is a signal of frustration and impatience if the horse cannot get out of a situation. However, repeated punches without prompting and human influence, indicates itching or pain.
Striking When a horse strikes out with his front leg, this is like yelling and really rude which is a final signal the horse gives. Here, it has been clearly gone beyond his limits and he feels so unsafe that he wants to protect his space. You mainly see striking with the front legs in stallions. Pawing, stomping and kicking against walls in the stable is often reffered to vices, see below.
Rest position Because the weight is on the forehand, horses relieve their hind legs by resting their hooves on the tip. The hip then rotates a bit and catches the weight on the other side. A horse at rest is therefore also calm and relaxed.
Lifting one hoof Turning the hindquarters and lifting one hindleg up is the warning for a kick and a big signal for getting out of the way. If the horse lifts a leg as a result of an independent trigger such as stress and has difficulty bringing it down again, this is a neurological disorder (equine shivers).
You can read a lot about a horses training condition and genetic predisposition on the basis of its posture. This is a big topic that I can't fit here anymore. But also how the horse is doing and what is said in relation to its position can be seen from the posture of a horse.
If the horse is generally stiff and tense, this is the sign that there is a lot going on, physically or mentally and this is probably chronic. A stiff horse needs a lot of attention, time, rest or recovery. A vet or chiropractor if necessary.
A healthy horse will want to move and show softness and bending especially if he is allowed to run and play freely.
What is the postion in the herd?
A horse introduced to a herd shows calming and submissive signals while the other horses (are allowed to) put him in his place. This is a back and forth game and you can clearly see how and whether there is healthy communication. A horse that always stands far from the herd and with the hindquarters turned, is literally distancing itself from the rest. There's always more going on there.
Horses that are friends often look in the same direction and alternately put themselves in the foal position (head at shoulder height). When these horses greet each other, it is also nose to nose or nose to shoulder. Horses groom each other by the withers and tail to maintain friendships.
When a herd is underway, the leading mare often precedes and the leading gelding follows (which a roles that can be change depending on the situations).
This rules also applied to human-horse relationships.
Vices are behaviors that repeat compulsively and can be quite irritating and even dangerous to horses and humans. They mainly occur in the box and stables and their cause is therefore the same.
However, they are not vices but expressions of extreme discomfort, boredom, abuse or neglect. If a horse develops vices, its natural needs are not met in long-term and its mental state deteriorates.
Misbehavior under the saddle or in handling are also not an expression of a "naughty" horse, but a horse that knows no better than to communicate its urgent needs in this way. Mostly because his previous fine signals were not seen or ignored.
Most common vices
Weaving and nodding Weaving is when the head moves back and forth repeatedly, sometimes also with the front legs or the whole body. This behavior can be observed by all mammals in captivity and is due to a much too small space where they are confined for too long.
Cribbing Cribbing, a form of swallowing air is also due to neglect, extreme boredom and discomfort. The horse will hang its front teeth in a beam and take a deep breath in its belly. As a result, a lot of air ends up in the stomach and in the long term causes serious physical problems. Usually this also happens in a compulsive rhythm.
Kicking and circling in the box Horses that repeatedly kick against the box walls can damage the box or themselves. This, too, is an expression of boredom and dissatisfaction with being locked up and can become compulsive. Walking through the box, repeatedly and in the same circles is, like weaving, an urgent indication of extreme boredom. Often owners do not see this behavior because they are only there for a short time and take the horse out of the box. The only clue is tossed straw and messy poop in the box.
Grinding teeth, biting and holding the bit are "misbheaviors" you perceive while riding. It is a clear indication that the bit is experienced as unpleasant or painful. Holding the bit and pulling the reins, for example, or just opening the mouth is a way to escape the pressure because it simply hurts.
Bucking, bolting, rearing up, freezing or “laziness” are also signals to humans that something is not right. Usually this is, as well as the bit, discomfort or pain from saddle, rider, physical condition or emotional stress.
Behavior to be said is 'naughty' and 'wrong' is too blunt and does the horses a terrible injustice. Horses are incapable of doing things to us on purpose. They only do what they think they need to do.
If your horse is being naughty, take a good look at the signs you may have missed beforehand and ask yourself if it might not be reasonable for your horse to behave that way. After all, we have brought the horses into our world and impose things on them and ask for things that are far from their natural behavior and needs.
We owe it to them to learn their language in order to understand them.
Only then can you judge.