Understanding horse body language

June 29th, 2017

As you spend more and more time with your horse, you’ll be able to pick up on their body language and understand what they are trying to tell you and how they feel. However some people can misinterpret their horse’s behaviour, or not understand the subtle signs that their horse is giving.

As people rely so much on verbal communication, we tend to focus more on the noises horses make with their mouth, and tend to ignore the other signs. This can be a problem as horses will often use more than just their vocalisation when communicating such as; postures; gestures; expressions; and slight movements of certain body parts.

Petplan will take a look at some of the body signals and what they mean when trying to read what your horse is saying…

Tail

  • Low: this is a sign of exhaustion, fear, pain or submission
  • High: the horse is excited or alert
  • Held high over its back: the horse is playful or alarmed (seen in most foals)
  • Swishing: this is showing signs of irritation

Legs

  • Pawing: frustration
  • One front leg lifted: if they are eating this is considered as a normal stance, however if they are not eating it can be perceived as a mild threat
  • One back leg lifted: a defensive threat
  • Stamping: can be seen as a protest or a mild threat – also can relate to biting insects and the horse is trying to get rid of them

Facial expressions

  • Snapping: this is when they open their mouths and draw back the corners, then open and shut their jaws – often seen in foals as showing submission to older horses
  • Jaws open with teeth exposed: signs of a possible attack or aggression
  • Flared nostrils: shows excitement or alertness
  • Showing white around the eyes: in a select few breeds this is a common trait, however in most horses this means that they are angry or scared

Ears

  • When a horses ears are held loosely upwards, facing forward or outward they are to be considered as neutral
  • Pricked: stiff ears with the openings facing forwards shows signs of alertness
  • A horse is showing signs of tiredness and distress if their ears are flopped out laterally with the opening facing downwards
  • Drooped ears: this shows signs of tiredness or pain
  • Angled backwards: this is common when riding and usually means they are attentive to the rider or listening to commands
  • Pinned flat against the neck: be very wary of this as it usually means they are very angry or aggressive

It is always good to continually teach yourself about your horse’s body language and behaviour as it makes for a greater bond between the two of you. Remember that to properly tell what your horse is thinking, you have to factor in a number of vocalisations, postures and gestures coming from different body parts. One gesture by itself may mean one thing, although grouped with a number of other movements and postures it can mean a completely different emotion.

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