Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
It’s not difficult to understand some equine body language. You are likely to understand your horse’s body language when he nickers while you feed him. It is also easy to see the meanings of a cocked hind foot and a pinned ear. However, not all equine communication can be as clear. What does a clamped tail indicate? How does a foal clack his teeth? You must be able to recognize subtle signs of frustration or fear before they escalate into a major problem.Equine body language includes his entire body from ears to hooves and tail.
People rely so heavily on verbal communication. It’s easy to concentrate on horses’ vocalizations when trying figure out what they are saying. Horses communicate with their bodies more than their vocal chords.
Great trainers are able to recognize and respond to the horse’s body language. Although it might appear that these trainers are “mind-reading,” they actually notice and respond to subtle cues from horses, on the ground and in the saddle.
This is not a magical skill. Anybody who spends time with horses can learn how to listen to their unique nonverbal communication. Although it may take time and attention, understanding the language of horses can improve your horsemanship skills. You’ll be better able to read your horse and adjust your training and handling accordingly.
Here are the facts:
What His Ears Speak
If your horse’s ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it often means he’s listening to something behind him.
A novice rider will learn that if a horse’s ears face forward, he is attentive, paying attention, and/or interested in what is in front of him. Conversely, if his ears are close to the neck, he is angry, ready to bite or kick. The ears can communicate more than that.
Leaning to the side. The horse may be asleep or relaxed, and not attuned with what’s happening around him. Do not approach this horse to pat him. He may react by running up to you, whipping or striking out at you. Instead, call his name, make a noise and wait until he turns his face or indicates that he is paying attention.
Tilted back. Horses with pointed ears may not be pinned but are listening to something behind them. This could indicate that he is deciding whether to run or look at the sound. If combined with a swishing tail and other signs of tension, turned-back ears could indicate pinned ears.
Quickly swiveling. Ears that flicker back and forth indicate that the horse has increased anxiety or alertness. The horse may be searching for the source of a scary sound or smell or may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.
His Head Carriage Speaks
It’s easy to spot the position and movement in a horse’s head and it can reveal a lot about his moods and thoughts.
Lowered. A dropped head means your horse is feeling relaxed and happy. His ears often hang to one side. If your horse is standing in his pasture or stall with his head down, it’s likely that he’s resting or asleep. Call him and let him know so that you don’t startle.
Elevated. Your horse is probably focusing on something far away and trying to decide whether he should flee or investigate it. You, as his handler, need to recognize that he’s not paying attention to your commands and may be on the verge of bolting or spook.
Horses who raise their heads while being ridden could be experiencing pain. This is especially true if they also hollow out their backs, pin their ears, or twist their tails. Check your tack carefully for any protruding screws, discomfort or other signs of discomfort. If your horse continues to behave strangely, consult a veterinarian.
Snaking. Stallions often use this aggressive behavior to herd uncooperative mares. This is a sign that the horse is aggressive. It is important to determine why your horse is being aggressive and how you can defuse it. You can help him to refocus his attention, move him away or get away from him.
What His Forelegs Speak
Early on, we are taught to look out for horses’ hind legs. This is where the kicks come. However, the front legs can communicate quite a bit.
Standing straight up. A horse that is afraid will spread his front legs out to the sides. He may only be seconds away from being spooked or run over.
Horses can be stubbed if they are suffering from injuries or other health problems, such as malnutrition or neurological impairment. If a horse is unable or unwilling to move, call a veterinarian.
Pawing. Horses may paw–an arching action with their forelegs that can dig a trench in the soft ground–for many reasons. When a horse is bored or impatient, he may paw when tied. He’s saying that he’s sick of sitting around and that he’s ready for action. Horses that are stressed may paw at the trailer, or at feeding time. The behavior ceases once the source of anxiety has passed.
Although it is less common to see a horse pawed to show anger, it is still a sign you should pay attention to. In these cases, the pawing can be more forceful and often includes pinned ears. This type of pawing can be a sign that a horse is loose and may precede a charge or an attack. If you spot this, move away from the horse and ensure you are not in close proximity to any other horses who might be causing his aggression. If a horse is tied or holding a hand, a forceful, angry pawing could lead to a bite or strike. This scenario can be avoided by moving other horses, correcting him with a sharp “No”, then refocusing his attention by moving him away or assigning him work.
Stimping. Not like pawing, stomping involves putting one foot in front of the other. Horses may stomp when they are upset. It’s usually a minor irritation, like a fly they are trying to get rid of. Stomping can also be a sign that your horse is unhappy with what you’re doing. If you don’t address the issue, he might resort to more aggressive signals.
Stiking. This is a forceful forward kick that uses a front leg. It can be aggressive or defensive. This is dangerous. You may only get a bruise if you are very fortunate, but a strike could cause a fracture. You can be killed if the horse rears up and strikes your head. Horses rarely strike without warning. This includes stomping or pausing, wide eyes or pinned ears, or elevated heads. It is crucial to pay attention to these signals to help you change or prevent your horse from becoming more aggressive.
What His Hind Legs Speak
A horse that is frustrated or nervous in its hind legs should be avoided.
Cocked. A horse who cocks his leg rests his leading edge on the ground, and then drops his hip. This is a sign that a horse is resting and relaxed. He may occasionally shift his weight by uncocking one leg and cocking another. If your horse is unable to shift his weight quickly from one foot to another, you should call your veterinarian.
If a horse is stressed or defensive, he may cock his hind hoof. He may raise his head and look back at the threat, or he might turn his ears back. You can then steer clear of his back and help him move forward.
Raised. To signal irritation, your horse might lift one of his hind legs off the ground. It could be a minor problem like a horsefly or a horseman behind him who is getting annoyed and is trying to kick.
The more aggressive side of the spectrum will show warning signs that look like a horse with a cocked foot. He might raise his head, pin his ears, or even turn his head in warning. You will want to get him off of whatever is bothering you and to refocus his energy.
What His Muzzle Says
A horse’s nose can tell you a lot more than just his nickers or whinnies.
Slack lips or drooping lips. Horses that are standing still with their lower lip drooping could be asleep or relaxing. To avoid provoking him, approach him cautiously. His lip should be normal once he is awake and active. If his lips are still slack, it could be a sign of a neurological issue or injury. Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility.
Chewing. While it may seem strange to watch your horse chew when he isn’t eating, this is a sign that he’s learning and improving. This is a sign that he is learning and relaxed.
Claiming teeth. Sometimes a foal will raise his neck, move his head forward, curl up his lips, and click his teeth together. Although it may seem comical, this is actually a very important behavior for the foal. It tells other horses “Hey! I’m a baby! This is what you’ll most commonly see in foals and weanlings, but it can also happen with more submissive yearlings. They usually stop around the age of 2 or 3.
Flehmen. Fluhmen. This is another one of those funny behaviors that serves a vital purpose: When a horse senses something, he raises the head, curls his lips, inhales and exhales. This allows him push the scent particles through the structure of his nose, the vomeronasal or (VNO).
Horses can detect chemicals in the air better using the VNO, which is often used to detect pheromones that are emitted from sexually sensitive horses. Stallions are most commonly seen as flehmen when they determine whether a mare has reached reproductive maturity. However, all horses can do this when they sense something strange and want to find out more.
Flared nostrils. Horses may open their nostrils to take in more air during exercise. The flare may last for a while. Sometimes, horses may also flare their nostrils and quiver when they are nervous or startled. This is a quieter communication that can lead to more serious problems if not addressed immediately.
A tight, pinched, or pursed jaw or muzzle. These are subtle signs that can be hard to see. Tension around your mouth is a sign that your horse may be anxious, stressed, or afraid. If you see your horse’s muzzle tightening, it is time to take immediate action.
A gaping mouth with visible teeth. This gesture may indicate different things depending on the context. If the horse pins his ears while being ridden, and you can see white in his eyes, it could be a sign that he is angry or about to bite you or another horse. Move quickly to get out of his way. Horses that gape when being ridden may have pain. To make sure your horse isn’t in pain, check the fit of his bridle or bit. If your horse stops eating or stands straight up with his mouth open, it could be suffering from choke. This is a serious emergency. Remove the unfinished food immediately and contact your veterinarian.
What His Eyes See
Your horse’s eye movements tell you more than what he is thinking. They also indicate where his attention is concentrated.A horse with a “soft” eye is generally relaxed.
Tension. Like tension around the muzzle and tightening around the eyes, this is a subtle sign of stress, fear, or discomfort. This could be a tightening of the corner of your eye or wrinkles on the upper eyelid. You can avoid larger problems by learning to recognize this cue and responding promptly.
Rapid darting. Rapid darting is when your horse’s eyes flicker from side to side. This may be a sign of a spook, or a bolt. However, if your horse feels trapped, he might bite or kick to escape. To keep yourself safe, you can either remove him from the situation or calmly calm him.
The whites of the eyes are visible. To interpret this sign correctly you must know your horse’s habits and how they react to it. The sclera, which is the opaque white part of the eyeball around the cornea, can be visible in some horses. This is especially true for Appaloosas or pintos with lots white. The sclera can be exposed in horses that are mildly or only slightly alarmed.
Most horses are usually upset when they get so upset that you can see the whites of his eyes. He may also be angry if his ears are pinned. He may be trembling, shaking or snorting if he is scared. To prevent him from making a defensive, spook or bolt move, you will need to quickly reassure him.
What His Tail Suggests
The tail is more than a fly swatter. It’s one of the most mobile forms of horse communication.
Raised, or “flagged.” A tail that is higher than the level of the back indicates excitement. This behavior is usually associated with Arabian horses, but it can be done by any horse if they are sufficiently energized. Some horses will just do it more easily. Horses that are so excited they’re faking their tails and jumping up and down is a sign that they’re not paying attention to you. He may also be prone to bolting, bucking, or spooking. To regain his attention, you may have to get him moving.
Clamped down. An anxious horse may press his tail down and pull in his hindquarters. It is a great time to calm him down and build his confidence. If your horse clamps his neck while you ride, it could be a sign that he is in pain or discomfort. You need to ensure that he is sound and that his tack is properly fitted. If the behavior continues, consult your veterinarian.
Fast swishing. Slow slapping of the tail is all about fly management. If a horse’s tail jerks quickly from one side to the other or up and down, it could be a sign that he is angry or irritable. This is a sign that your horse is about to kick or buck and should be heeded immediately.
Your saddle fit should be checked if your horse is wagging his tail while you ride. Your veterinarian should examine your horse if he continues to behave like this.
His Whole Body Says
Sometimes, you just need the “big picture” to understand what’s happening with your horse.
Tension. Horses that are rigid in their movements and muscles may be hurting, nervous, or stressed. If he’s scared, you can work him through the problems with some desensitization–this is easier to do if you start before the point where he has to bolt or buck to get your attention. Even if fear doesn’t seem to be the problem, you can have your horse checked for back pain, lameness, or other dental issues.
Trembling.Shaking can be a sign that you are afraid. Horses that are extremely nervous may be frightened to be handled. However, this is most common in horses who have been abused and are very anxious about being handled. One mare was so anxious that her entire body began to tense when she approached us. When we tried to pick up her back legs, her anxiety became so severe that she almost fell. Although I was initially afraid she might be suffering from an illness or injury, it was not apparent that there was anything else. It was fear.
Horses that are so nervous or scared they tremble or run away from danger. Stop whatever you’re doing and allow your horse to calm down for a while. Slowly, introduce the fearful thing to him. You can be calm and quiet with your horse and he will pick up on your attitude. It takes patience and time to work with horses who are nervous or scared. To help your horse overcome his fears, you might consider hiring an experienced trainer.
Touching. A horse may reach out with his muzzle to touch you. He could be trying to nip you or bite you. It could be that he is curious about you and wants to check you out. You could also be nervous and need to reassure him. This is one reason you should get to know your horse well to tell the difference.
One time, I worked with a small filly who was anxious and highly strung. After a few days, she started to feel comfortable with me and would touch my muzzle gently if she was scared. I had to signal her to slow down, reassure and allow her to get used to it. I could have mistakenly thought she was pushingy and “corrected her” to discourage biting. This would have made her even more anxious and may have led to her running from the things that scared her.
Swinging hindquarters. When your horse swings his head from side to side it could be a sign of one of two things. He usually signals that he is about to kick. If he does this, his ears may be back and he might be pulling his tail. His body will become tense. Get him off of whatever he is mad about and get him back to work.
In heat, a mare will swing her rump from side to side in an attempt to attract attention to any stallions. She may also raise her tail and turn it towards one side.
Learning horse body language time. Watch your horse’s expressions and postures as you interact with him. Soon, you will begin to recognize subtle cues that your horse is becoming upset or afraid. Then you can initiate a proactive dialogue, responding to his cues, and keeping him focused on the task at hand. You might one day be the “mind-reading” intuitive rider everyone admires.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!