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Body Language, Signals & Vocal Calls

  


Suggest also reading  Communicating with Horses

 

 This is a two part article Part 1 Understanding Body Language/Movement and Communicating with Equine Part 2. 

Learning how to read and understand the body language of horses takes time but it is very important .   When you handle, train and/or ride your horse, observe how his postures and expressions change as he interacts with you as well as other people and animals. Before long, you'll start to understand the more subtle signs that he's getting annoyed or fearful, and then you can start a more proactive "dialog, “responding to his cues and keeping his focus on the work at hand. One day, the intuitive, "mind-reading" rider everyone envies may be you.  Horses communicate largely with visual signals that reflect their emotional, mental and physical state with energy.  Chances are pretty good you understand what your horse is saying when he nickers as you bring him his feed. The meaning of a pinned ear and cocked hind hoof are also pretty obvious.  But not all equine communication is quite so clear. Because people rely so much on verbal communication, it's natural to focus on a horse's vocalizations when trying to figure out what he is saying. But like many animals, horses communicate much more through postures, gestures and expressions than they do with their vocal cords.  The ability to read and respond to this equine body language is what sets great trainers apart from the rest. From a distance, it may look like these experts are "mind reading," but in reality, they're noticing and responding to the subtlest of cues from the horse, both on the ground as well as in the saddle.  This isn't a mystical skill. Anyone who spends time around horses can learn to tune in to their unique forms of nonverbal communication. It may take some time and attention, but a better understanding of the language of horses will improve your horsemanship skills, and you'll be able to read your horse more clearly and fine-tune your training and handling accordingly. Here's what you need to know.  While it is important to correctly read each individual signal the horse sends to you, in order to understand what the horse is telling you and how strong his message is, you need to consider all the signals, from head to tail to feet, together. Just as important is your appropriate response to the message. If you want your horse to both respect and trust you, don’t ignore any of his “messages.” Horses are experts at constantly testing each other to find out where they stand in the herd hierarchy and that includes humans. 

  

What is our Equine Telling Us?

Equine communicate with body language and express themselves with movement.  An equine’s body language betrays its emotional, mental and physical state and most social animals have developed specific signals based on this trait.  Equine watch each other constantly for these signs of attitude.  Generally speaking, the more excited an equine is the more exciting their outline.  Drowsy, relaxed horses doze with one hip aslant, ears drooping, head sagging and tail low.  A highly excited horse presents a series of lively curves, with pricked ears, high head, arched neck, wide eyes, swelling muscles and high tail.  This is especially seen in startle posture, when one horse spots something alarming.  At the sight of this tense, alert outline other horses become alert also.  Sometimes they give a few snorts to away them further and if they alarm proves noteworthy, quickly bunch together and poise ready for flight.  A horse that is giving the alarm reinforces the startle attitude by moving a series of high, jerky steps, calling attention to itself still further.

This document is designed to assist you read your horse while caring for, handling, ground training & riding sessions!  Learning to read horses is a rewarding experience and a valuable skill. It takes time, patience and practice but is well worth the effort. Learning to read equine body language will greatly enhance your abilities as a horse person.  Always end a session with a horse in either an accepting or focused state, but never in anxiety. Many horses (especially green) begin a session in a state of anxiety. The goal here is to alter this state first to an accepting one, and then eventually a focused one. A horse won't learn much of anything in a state of anxiety.  The following are examples of body language to we should learn and understand:


Signs of Body Tension are alarm Signals

Since horses generalize their social feelings to include us, they interpret signs of body tension in people to be alarm signs also.  Tense, frightened people can actually frighten horses and make them want to run away.  Some horses will react and others will take advantage of nervous beginners others particularly experienced horses this will happen less often.  For the majority of horses the sight of stiff, jerky movement during handling, training on the ground or riding is simply a clear signal that there is something frightening nearby.  If we have put ourselves in the position of leader in the relationship, the horse is doubly anxious; if we are fearful and not confident, so should it be.  Combined with the fact that it cannot see the cause of the alarm, it is enough to make it dance about nervously, ready to take flight.  People including novices who have a way with horses tend to move in a particularly relaxed, unhurried, non jerky fashion that is reassuring to a horse and makes it want to stay near them.  Many fierce horses, used to harsh handling, are astonishingly gentle with children, who tend to be relaxed.

 

Vocal Calls

Horses make several different calls:

·         The Neigh - This is a contact/recognition call;  Where are you?  Anybody there?  Or Hi!  As there are great differences in individual voices, horses can recognize their companions by their neigh, which are thus important in keeping groups together; a separate member neighs hopefully and can tell from the reply whether it come from one of its group or from a stranger.  The mere sound of a familiar neigh can set off a long exchange in separated friends.

·         Nickers - These are shorter and lower and used at closer range; come closer, friend. 

·         Squeals - These squeals are signs of excitement and arouse the other horse at the same time as warning it to take care and not be too familiar, so they show resentment also.

·         Snorts - Excitable domestic horses of both sexes snort at remarkable objects especially when there is a conflict between the desire to investigate and the fear of strangeness; they also snort when they are feeling high and are playing at being alarmed.  Arabians and Saddlebreds can be particularly snorty. 

·         Screams and Roars - Fortunately are not often heard, as they are the cry of a horse in an extreme emotional state – usually rage and fear, during fighting.

·         Grunts - Are given during extreme effort, as in fighting, jumping and struggling to get up after a fall; they are also given in pain and distress, as in a foaling mare or in colic.

·         Groans - Some horses groan a great deal when getting up, yawning or being mounted.  This seems to signify that a great effort is being made, as we might by groaning at such times and is not socially directed.


Head Carriage

The position and movement of a horse's head are easy to see and can tell you a lot about her/his mood and what s/he's thinking:

 

·         Lowered.  A dropped head is a sign your horse is relaxed and feeling good and his ears will often hang to the side as well. If he's standing in his stall or pasture with a lowered head, he's probably either resting or asleep; call his name and make your approach obvious so you don't startle him.

·         Elevated.  Your horse is focused on something in the distance, and he's probably trying to figure out whether he should flee, investigate or ignore it. As his handler, you need to realize that he is not paying attention to you, and he may be about to spook or bolt; to prevent that from happening, you must regain his focus.  A horse that raises his head while being ridden may be in pain, especially if he also hollows his back pins his ears or wrings his tail. Carefully examine your tack for protruding screws or other sources of discomfort and check for proper fit. If the behaviour persists, have a veterinarian check your horse for back pain.

·         Snaking.  Lowering the head slightly and waving the neck from side to side is an aggressive act, often used by stallions that are fighting or herding an uncooperative mare. If you see a horse do this, it's a red alert. You need to ascertain why the horse is aggressive and defuse the situation. This may mean refocusing his attention, moving him out of the area or just getting away from him.


Body outlines - frame/ excited/relaxed

·         Shoulder barge – not respectful, intimidation & threatening

·         Body check – not respectful & dominant

·         High-headed & tail stands up - an excited horse

·         Low-headed, body sagged & tail slumped low – relaxed, drowsy, bored or submissive.

·         Horse’s mid section with his ribs pushing away from you – respectful & polite

·         Horse’s barrel (middle part) bent into you – not respectful

·         Horse dropping his shoulder into your space [normally lunging on lead] - being pushy     

·         Rump presentation normally with ears laid back – defensive display, threat it says stop annoying me or I will kick you


Eyes Say and Ears

The movements of your horse's eyes tell you not just what he's thinking but also where his attention is focused:

·         Tension. As with tension around the muzzle, tightening of the muscles around the eyes is a subtle, early sign of stress, fear or discomfort. You may see this as a wrinkled upper?eyelid or tightness at the corner of?the eye. If you learn to notice this cue and respond promptly, you can avoid bigger problems.

·         Rapid darting. When your horse's eyes are flicking from side to side, he's probably scared and looking for a way to escape. This sign may precede a spook or bolt, but if your horse feels trapped he may react by biting or kicking in an attempt to get away. Remove him from the situation or calm him down to keep yourself safe.

·         Whites of the eyes showing. To interpret this sign correctly, you need to know your horse and what's normal for him. In some horses, the sclera (the opaque white portion of the eyeball surrounding the cornea) is always visible, especially in Appaloosas and pintos with lots of white on their faces. In some horses, the sclera is exposed when they are only startled or mildly alarmed.  Usually, however, by the time a horse has gotten worked up to the point that you can see the whites around his eyes, he's extremely upset. If his ears are also pinned he's angry. If he's trembling or snorting, he's scared. Either way, you'll need to take quick action to reassure or distract him to prevent a spook, bolt or defensive move.

·         Closed – in pain or exhausted

·         half closed – relaxed and submissive

·         Opened wide – Fear, anxiety or Apprehensive

·         Eyes white, bulged and turned backward – angry 

·         White in the eye & looking behind – notices something of special interest    

·         Looking away - not focused, not paying attention.  

·         looking ahead or at you for next cue – paying attention & focussed on you

·         Turned out to the side - The horse is asleep or relaxed and may not be attuned to what's going on around him. You don't want to march up to this horse and pat him because he may be startled and react by running over you, whirling or striking out. Instead, call his name or make some noise, and don't approach until he turns his head or otherwise indicates that he's paying attention to you.

·         Turned back. If your horse's ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it often means he's listening to something behind him---he may be deciding whether to run away or turn around and check out the sound. When combined with a swishing tail or other signs of tension in the body, turned-back ears may be a precursor to pinned ears.

·         Rapidly swivelling. Ears that are flicking back and forth are a sign that the horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness. He may be trying to locate the source of a frightening sound or smell, or he may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.


Forelegs

We're all trained early on to watch out for a horse's hind legs because that's where the kicks come from, but the front legs can also communicate quite a bit: 

 

·         Standing splayed. A horse spreads his front legs out to the sides and leans back a little when he is scared---he may be seconds away from a spook or bolt.  Injuries or health issues, such as weakness from malnutrition or neurological impairment, can also cause a horse to stand with his forelegs splayed. Call in a veterinarian if a horse standing splay legged is unwilling or unable to move.

·         Pawing Horses---an arcing action with the foreleg that may dig a trench in soft ground---for a number of reasons. The bored or impatient horse paws when tied---he's saying that he's tired of standing around and he's ready to go! Stressed horses may paw in the trailer or at feeding time, and the behaviour stops when the source of the anxiety is past.

·         Pawing to indicate anger is rarer, but it is a signal you need to heed: In these cases, the pawing is more forceful and is often combined with pinned ears. In a loose horse, pawing like this often precedes a charge or some kind of attack. If you see this, get out of his way and make sure you're not between him and another horse that may be the source of his aggression. In a horse who is tied or in hand, forceful, angry pawing may precede a bite or strike. In this scenario, move other horses away, correct him with a sharp "No," then refocus his attention by moving him from the area or putting him to work.

·         Stomping. Unlike pawing, stomping is raising and lowering a foot forcefully in place. Horses stomp to indicate irritation. Usually, it's something minor, such as a fly they're trying to dislodge. However, stomping may also indicate your horse is frustrated with something you are doing, and if you don't address it, he may resort to stronger signals.

·         Striking.  A strike is a forceful, forward kick with a front leg that can be either aggressive or defensive. This is a dangerous action. If you're very lucky you'll walk away with only a bruise, but a strike can break a bone. If the horse rears and strikes your head, he can kill you easily. Fortunately, horses rarely strike without warning, such as stomping or pawing, wide eyes, an elevated head or pinned ears. That's why it is important to listen to those signals so that you can change your horse's focus or prepare for worsening behaviour.


 Hind Leg

The hind legs of a nervous or frustrated horse are a danger zone to be heeded:

·         Cocked. When a horse cocks his leg, he rests the leading edge of the hoof on the ground and drops his hip. When combined with a lowered head or ears hanging to the side, this is the sign of a horse that is relaxed and resting. You may see him occasionally shift his weight, uncocking that back leg and cocking the other one. However, if your horse shifts his weight rapidly from one foot to the other, he's probably in pain and cannot get comfortable; you need to call your veterinarian.

·          A horse may also cock a hind hoof when he is irritated or defensive and considering kicking. In that case, he may also elevate his head and turn his ears back, and he may be looking back over his shoulder to keep an eye on the perceived threat. The best thing you can do then is steer clear of his back end and move him forward and away from whatever is bothering him.

·         Raised. Your horse may lift a hind leg off the ground to signal irritation. The cause may be something as minor as a horsefly, or it could be that he's annoyed with a horse or person behind him and is threatening to kick.  At the more aggressive end of the spectrum, many of the warning signs will be similar to a horse with a cocked leg: He may elevate his head, pin his ears and possibly even snake his head back and forth in warning. Your goal will be to move him away from whatever is bothering him and refocus his energy by putting him to work.


Hip/hind – respect/polite:

·         Hind cocked and turned towards you – very disrespectful & may kick

·         Hind away from you – polite & respectful

·         Turns away from the rail & faces you - very respectful

·         Turns into the rail presents hind – not respectful


Head – leadership, aggression, focus

·         Head up concerned/tense

·         Head down – relaxed

·         Flips his nose up - challenging leadership, not respectful and doesn’t accept you as being the one pushing him.

·         Twirling head - aggression.

·         Shakes his neck laterally - positive sign/release of muscular stress, like shaking of a writer’s cramp.

·         A yawn, which is a release of anxiety

·         Moves Head to the side when you try to rub between the eyes – not focused & avoiding [switch to rubbing neck on both sides]

·         Nudging with top of nose & mouth closed –pay attention to me or what about me

·         Head toss, shake sideways & jerk up/down – irritated, frustrated & annoyed by flies or human

·         Thrusting & Lunge – Aggressive related to biting

·         Lowers head when you put your fist out for horse to smell & accepts rubbing


Head - Focused & Trusting

  • Quick twist of head & retreats – something is distasteful

·         Head Snaking with a side to side wobble with a stretched neck – dominance

·         Head wringing whole neck is twisted this way & that – relieving the boredom of isolation

·         Head circling making you dizzy to watch – environment is oversimplified & needs enrichment

·         Head - Bowing; leadership, trust, respect

·         Bows to you, but his head immediately comes back up high-headed - the respect for your push comes from fear.

·         Head goes down and stays down, with his eyes open staring wide, his mouth closed tight, and his ears stiff - most likely been pushed too hard.

·         Bows to you with his head going down to the ground low, staying down, eyes blinking, licking, and ears moving - accepts your leadership out of trust and respect


Ears – mood changes


·         Pricked forward is curious and paying attention.

·         Ears moving back and forth often indicate uncertainty.

·         Floppy ears are a sign of sleepiness or feeling sick.

·         Ears pinned back (not flat back on his head) indicate anger or fear, which are closely related.

·         Twitching & Flicking – may be on the verge of bolting in terror

·         Ears Pinned flat against its head – anger, aggression & dominance

·         Drooped out sideways, flopping up & down – drugged

·         Completely rigid, stay that way & behaves oddly – on stimulants

·         Airplane Ears openings face downwards – tired, lethargic

·         Loosely upward openings pointing forward & outwards – Neutral

·         Ears pricked, stiffly erect facing in one direction – worried, startled, vigilant, alert, interested in or seen during greeting

·         Drooped & stuck out sideways but openings backwards toward the rider – submissive & fearful of the rider

·         Drooped ears hanging down loosely on either side of head – dozy, in pain, inferiority, you are the boss so leave me alone


Notes:

If you are handling a horse that you don’t know very well and he puts his ears back, you need to be careful. He could be angry or frightened about something and may kick or bite. Ears back can also be a warning that another horse is getting too close to him and he doesn’t like it or something else is coming from behind.

Putting his ears back is a sign of resistance. If you are riding and notice your horse is putting his ears back it could mean several things. He may be doing something he doesn’t want to do or something he finds difficult. He could also be uncomfortable due to a badly fitting saddle, bridle or bit, hard rider hands pulling on the bit, or a rider with an unbalanced, bouncy seat. He could also have some pain in his back or maybe his teeth are bothering him. Pinned ears should not be confused with ears pointed in the direction of the rider, as some horses will do that when they concentrate very hard and focus on their rider.


Facial signals, anxiety, fear. relaxed:


·         A tight mouth - anxiety and fear.

·         A wrinkled nose - annoyance and disgust.

·         Swishing/Mobile Muzzle - Curious, extroverted           

·         A mouth that is chewing with lips licking - thinking and relaxed.

·         Flapping lower lip - Unfocused, sensitive, nervous

·         An open mouth and possibly bared teeth - threatening to bite.  [This is not the same as ‘mouthing’ in foals which is a submissive gesture].

·         A long nose with a slightly open mouth - the horse wants to mutual groom, a gesture you may have seen while grooming your horse.

·         Long nose, drawn-back lower lip and extended neck - you find the itchy or favourite spot

·         Flapping lower lip - Unfocused, sensitive, nervous

·         Yawning - Allow me to give you an example of misunderstandings about training; when people substitute human logic for horse logic. The University of Guelph conducted a study a few years back to determine if horses yawn for the same reason as people, turns out the answer is No! And in a majority of cases horses will yawn three consecutive times when they do it under training conditions when the horse feels stress, when learning something new during a training session, he would yawn to release endorphins for the calming effect on the nervous system (once there is a break offered). I have witnessed before with horses I have worked with! What I thought (and was told) was that the horse was processing and possibly understanding the lesson. This has now been proven false. The more the horse yawns tells us the more anxiety and stress the horse was under and feeling.

·         Licking and chewing have also been placed under this same false premise by the University of Guelph. Believing that this means a horse is digesting or understanding the information offered. But what it really means is the horse is processing information he found unsettling and needs a moment to relax in order to comprehend and would like to release the excess energy created. 


What their Muzzle Says

  • Even beyond nickers and whinnies, a horse's nose and mouth can tell you several things about what he's feeling

·         Drooping lip or slack mouth. A horse standing quietly with his lower lip drooping may be relaxing or even asleep. If you approach him, do so cautiously and call his name to avoid startling him. Once he's awake and moving around, his lip should return to normal. However, if the slackness in his mouth persists while he's alert, he may have an injury or a neurological problem. Ask your veterinarian to investigate.

·         Clacking teeth. A foal will sometimes raise his neck, push his head forward, curl his lips and click his teeth together. It can look comical to us, but it's an important behaviour for him: This is how the foal tells other horses, "Hey! I'm a baby! Please don't hurt me!" You'll see this most often in foals and weanlings and occasionally among more submissive yearlings. Normally, they stop by the time they're 2 or 3 years old.

·         Flehmen is another of those behaviors that looks humorous but serves an important function: When a horse smells something he's unsure of, he raises his head, curls his upper lip, breathes in and blows air back out. This allows him to push the scent particles through a structure in his nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO).  The VNO enables horses to better detect chemicals in the air, often pheromones emitted by sexually receptive horses. You most often see stallions flehmen when they're determining whether a mare is in heat and ready to breed, but all horses will do this when they smell something unusual and they're trying to get more information.

·         Flared nostrils. A horse will stretch his nostrils wide to draw in more air as he exercises, and the flare may continue for a short time afterward. At other times, a horse's nostrils may flare and even quiver when he is startled or nervous---this is one of those quieter communications that can develop into something more serious if you don't take heed right away.

·         Tight, pinched or pursed mouth or muzzle. This is a subtle sign and can be easy to miss. Tension around the mouth tells you your horse is worried, stressed or scared. When you notice his muzzle tighten, take action to either remove your horse from the situation or help him work through the stress or fear so he won't have to resort to "louder" messages like biting or running away.

·         Gaping mouth with visible teeth. This gesture can signal different things, depending on the context. If the horse also pins his ears and you can see white around his eyes, he's angry and probably seconds away from biting you or another horse---move out of his way immediately to avoid being hurt. If a horse's mouth gapes while he is being ridden, he may be in pain. Check the fit of your bridle and bit, and schedule a dental examination to make sure his teeth aren't hurting him. Last, if your horse stops eating and stands with his neck stretched out and his mouth gaping, he may be experiencing choke, an obstruction in his esophagus. This is an emergency; remove the uneaten food and call your veterinarian immediately


Most times you need "the big picture" to get the full story of what's going on with your horse

 A horse that is so scared or nervous that he trembles is on the verge of either running away or fighting to protect him. If you see this, stop whatever you are doing and give your horse a few minutes to calm down. When he's relaxed, slowly reintroduce the thing that scared him. Be quiet and calm with him, and he'll pick up on your attitude. Working with a horse who is this scared or nervous takes a lot of time and patience. You might want to enlist an experienced trainer to help him work through his issues.  If a horse reaches out to touch you with his muzzle, he may have been hand feed treats, he could be trying to nip or bite you. Or it may be that he's curious and checking you out. Another possibility is that he's nervous and needs a little reassurance. This is one of those times when you need to know your horse to distinguish the difference.  I once worked with a little filly who was nervous and high strung. After a day or two, when she felt comfortable with me, she began to reach out and gently touch me with her muzzle if something scared her. That was my signal to slow down, reassure her and let her get used to the new thing. If I hadn't known her well enough, I might have thought she was being pushy and "corrected" her to discourage biting---which would have made her more nervous and might have caused her to escalate to bolting from things that scared her.  A mare in heat will also swing her rump slightly from side to side, trying to get the attention of any stallions that might be around. She'll also likely raise her tail and turn it to one side and she may urinate a little.