Your knowledge of horse body language is the key to working successfully with horses. Horses are constantly ‘talking’ to you and everyone around them, both people and other horses.
I don’t expect that horses will be learning to speak the English language anytime soon, so if we’re to have any meaningful communication with them at all, it is up to us to learn their language.
If you want understand what an equine is saying to you…you've got to learn to listen with your eyes. A horse’s body language is based on movement first and vocalizations second.
Horse body language that seems aggressive or dangerous (to people) is essential for horse-to-horse communication. The trick is in learning how to read horses and then placing yourself in a position of power, trust and respect.
A single body signal can have several different meanings. Because of this, you’ve got take into account the context in which it is used and what the rest of the body is saying to get the full meaning.
Ears play a huge role in the body language of horses. Horses virtually can’t say anything without using their ears.
They say, “Eyes are the window to the soul”. With horses it’s the ears that are the window to the soul!
One ear cocked back:
Both ears cocked back:
Ears pinned back:
Ears pinned flat to the skull:
Ears relaxed to the side:
Ears twitching quickly back and forth:
Usually a horse will have their nostrils relaxed. They will flare their nostrils when they are hard at work and using a lot of oxygen, but when they flare their nostrils while at rest…it means something altogether different.
Nostrils flared and wide open:
Horses are surprisingly expressive with their mouths. Not only do they use their sensitive muzzles to investigate things, they also do a lot of communicating with their mouths.
Muzzle relaxed or droopy:
Biting is an important form of communication for horses. Like all body signals, how and when it is used changes the meaning.
A light nip:
Biting in the air or at an object:
The look in a horse’s eye is a very good indicator of his mood. It will also help you to interpret other body signals. Generally speaking a horse will have a bright open eye.
Eye(s) half closed:
Showing the whites of the eyes:
Kicks are not just for protection. Just like biting, kicking is absolutely vital for communication between horses establishing and maintaining the pecking order.
Mock, fake and missed kicks (including no-contact cow kicks):
A light kick (by horse standards)
A Full on kick or strike:
Pawing the Ground:
This horse kick says "back off!"
Horses use their heads and their tails to send signals to one another. These are two signals that can easily be seen from long distances.
Tail swishing violently (not the shoo-fly tail)
A Lowered head:
A raised head:
Head extended from an outstretched neck:
Swinging the head with pinned ears or squeals:
As you can guess horses have a lot to say with the way they position their bodies as well.
Turning their back:
A Tense body:
Horses do have a fairly wide range of vocalizations as well. The sounds that horses make add emphasis to their body signals and act as long distance communications.
Squeals and grunts:
Horses clearly have no problem understanding each other whatsoever. They usually sort out their differences in short order, albeit sometimes violently.
For us humans, being the small weaklings (by comparison) that we are, it is vital that we understand exactly what our horses are telling us, so we can take the appropriate measures.
Not only for our safety, but for every aspect of successful communication; training, riding and managing our horses.
The key is to watch all parts of the body. Note how they are used together and how they are used in context.
Horses are honest. They do not lie. They may be smart and they may try to fool you, but they will always tell it like it is. Even sneaky old cantankerous broncs will inadvertently give themselves away with their body language…if you’re well versed enough to read it!
So keep your eyes open and pay attention, especially to groups of horses out in the pasture. It's amazing how much you can learn simply by watching them interact with one another. And it’s fun too!
P.S. The horse on the far left is the boss. The one in the middle is second in line and the one on the right is at the bottom. Notice the dominant horse has caused the other two to move and back off their positions.
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