Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
Horses communicate with each other through vocalizations. Horses rely more heavily on visual cues and other cues to communicate with each other than vocalizations. Without other visual cues or olfactory cues, vocalizations that are not in context may be less useful or informative for the horse receiving them. Vocalizations in horses may not transmit very specific information, but are more likely to provide social cues. We know so little, but there is still much to learn.
Most people who have ever been around horses will agree that nickers are a common term. But here is a definition from “The Equid Ethogram”, by Sue McDonnell, PhD: “A nicker (or) a low-pitched gutturally pulsed vocalization… the character varies with the excitement in the situation.” Although the horse’s mouth is usually closed, you can see the nostrils move. Although nickers are usually short-lived (less than two seconds), you may hear several at once. Even within this short time, the volume can fluctuate between high and low.
A nicker can be described as a friendly greeting or solicitous vocalization. It is a sound that is quiet and can be heard in close contact social situations. For example, it can be heard between two friends, a mare and her foal or stallion and mare.
Horses may also nicker towards a familiar handler, or toward someone doing familiar tasks that reinforce the horse’s welfare (e.g. at feeding time). Juarbe-Diaz, along with others, found that mares who bonded with foals were more likely than those that rejected them (mares who rejected tended to squeal less).
Vocalizations and especially the nicker are not used often to assess health or wellbeing in horses. However, we do hear things like grunts and teeth grinding. To assess overall welfare, I would use vocalizations, when they are present in context.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any research that looked at the physiological or behavioral responses of the receiver of the nicker vocalization. This is a shame because it’s great to hear nicker ?!).. A mare might show estrous behavior towards a stallion by nicking; foals might be attracted to their mares, while another horse might greet one that nickers. These responses may be elicited by not only the nicker, but also visual cues or other vocalizations.
Research seems to be increasing on the effects of louder and whinny calls. More on that later! We know vocalizations can affect the behavior and emotions of many species.