Equine body language (part 1): What is your horse telling you?
Horses are social animals. Herd members interact with each other through a system of communication including sounds, body positions, movements and odours, to let herd mates know what they want and don’t want. Horses obviously don’t use words. They don’t even use sounds to any great extent. But if you watch horses as they interact with one another and with people, you will notice that body positions and movements are their main mode of communicating with each other.
One of the first things I do with any new horse, be it one of mine or one that is sent to me for training, is to turn him lose in the round pen. Having the horse lose, without any ropes or lines attached, gives the horse a chance to express himself and me a chance to read the horse and find out what he is all about. Is he a passive horse, an aggressive horse, or more something in between? Is he friendly towards people? Does he respect people? Is he fearful of humans or disrespectful and pushy? Each type of horse requires a different kind of approach. You may be saying that you are not training horses and wonder why you should bother learning how to read horses, but the truth is, every time you are with a horse, be it your own or somebody else’s, you are training the horse, for better or for worse. Understanding what your horse is saying will greatly improve your relationship with him.
It is important to understand that a horse’s body and mind are hardwired. How their bodies are shaped is how they feel (frame of body is frame of mind). Unlike people, who may smile at you even if they don’t like you, horses don’t lie. They don’t separate how they feel and how they act. What you see in the horse’s body language is how the horse feels at that given moment.
One of the most obvious ways to tell how a horse feels is the horse’s overall body outline, his frame. It’s easy to see the difference between the high-headed frame of an excited horse and the level or low top-line of a relaxed one.
Body language is essentially energy, and energy is movement, and since movement originates from the horse’s hind end, we need to read a horse’s body language from back to front. We need to read and interpret every message from every body part from back to front and then add it all up for the big picture. Body language, however, is not a static thing, so the messages may change constantly.
Starting at the back, a horse’s tail can express six different messages. A curled tail means the horse is calm and relaxed. A swishing tail means the horse is annoyed. A horse with a wringing or twirling tail is showing signs of aggression. A tail that sticks straight out or up (‘high-tailing’) means the horse is excited or feeling his oats. You can see that a lot in high-spirited horses. A tail pointed straight down means the horse is apprehensive. And a tail tucked tight between a horse’s hindquarters is a sign of fear.
Next I look at the hip. Is it cocked at me in a disrespectful manner or is it politely drawn away from me? Is the horse’s ribcage (barrel) bent into me, with his ribs pushing towards me, or is the barrel bent away from me in a polite manner? Is the horse being pushy by dropping his shoulder into my space?
Probably the most easily analyzed part of the horse (besides the tail) is his head. If you want to read what’s going on in the mind of any horse just look at the position of and gestures coming from his head. If he flips his nose up, he is challenging your leadership. A twirling head means aggression. If a horse shakes his neck laterally, that is a positive sign, a release of muscular stress, like shaking of a writer’s cramp. If a horse yawns, he isn’t tired or bored. It is a release of anxiety.
A horse may also bow to you. However, there are different types of bows, and not all of them are based on trust and respect. If a horse bows to you, but his head immediately comes back up high, the respect for your leadership comes from fear. If the horse bows to you with his head going down to the ground and staying down with eyes blinking, lips licking, and ears moving, or if he bows to you and then his head comes back up level-headed, he accepts your leadership out of trust and respect. However, if his head goes down and stays down, with his eyes open staring wide, his mouth closed tight, and his ears stiff, the horse is sullen and pouty and has most likely been pushed too hard.
Ears are good indicators of your horse’s mood as well. A horse has 16 muscles in his ear so he can move them all over the place. A horse has excellent hearing, and the ears point in the direction of the horse’s attention. A horse with his ears 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. Pinned ears (ears put back flat against the neck) indicate anger or fear, which are closely related. Pinned ears are a warning sign that the horse may bite or kick and are essentially telling another horse (or you!) to stay back and keep your distance.
If a horse is putting his ears back while being ridden it is a sign of resistance and could mean several things. The horse may be asked to do 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.
More subtle for us humans are facial signals. A tight mouth shows anxiety and fear. A mouth that is chewing with lips licking means the horse is thinking and calm and relaxed. It does not mean the horse respects you! A wrinkled nose indicates annoyance and disgust. A horse threatening to bite has an open mouth and possibly bared teeth. This is not the same as ‘mouthing’ in foals which is a submissive gesture. A long nose with a slightly open mouth shows the horse wants to mutual groom, a gesture you may have seen while grooming your horse. It becomes the characteristic long nose, drawn-back lower lip and extended neck when you find the itchy spot.