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Equine body language (part 2): The big picture

January 10, 2014

In a previous blog entry, I talked about how horses communicate with one another and with humans.

The ability to understand what our horses are telling us – and respond appropriately – makes the relationship safer and more rewarding for both horse and human.

While it is important to correctly read each individual signal the horse sends to you, in order for you to fully understand what the horse is telling you and how strong his message is, you need to consider all the signals, from tail to head, together. As well, if you want your horse to both respect and trust you, don’t ignore any of his “messages”.  Since horses are prey animals whose lives depend on an extremely high level of awareness, they are experts at constantly testing each other to find out where they stand in the herd hierarchy, and that includes us humans.

Understanding the big picture of the horse’s body language is of utmost importance because without that understanding you cannot give the appropriate response. Most horse people know that they have to respond to the horse’s message immediately in order for their response to be effective. However, what is equally important is where you apply your response and with what type and amount of energy.

Ball 1

No matter what we do with horses, it is important that we read their body language all the time. This horse started out being afraid of things touching his body. In the first picture, he is still fearful of the ball. He is holding his head high, his body is braced, and his tail clamped.

Ball 2

In the second picture he started to relax, his tail is lifted and curled, and his head is low. The brace in his body is gone.

For example, if your horse turns his hind end to you, it is up to you, the trainer (remember, every time you are with a horse, you are training the horse, for better or for worse), to figure out whether the horse is being disrespectful and defiant, or if the horse is doing it out of self-defense and/or fear because you have, in fact, asked or caused the horse to do so. In order to know how hard of a push is needed for that particular horse in that particular situation, you need to look at the rest of his body. If, for example, his tail is clamped tight between his hind legs, which is a sign of fear, don’t push him too hard or he won’t trust you. A low to level flick of the whip towards his hind end is most likely more than enough energy. On the other hand, if his tail is wringing, which is a sign of aggression, you’d better push him a little harder, or he won’t respect you.

Another good example is a horse’s head. If he flips his head indignantly into the air, he is challenging your leadership and needs to be pushed away. If the horse’s head is twirling, which is a sign of aggression, a strong push from you is needed to let him know that you don’t put up with his ignorant attitude. The push, however, should be aimed at the horse’s body, never at his head. Sending impulsive (pushing) energy towards the horse’s head and neck is bullish behaviour and only causes stress, anger, fear, defiance, and/or sullenness.


This horse is ok with having a tarp draped over his back. His tail is curled and relaxed, his ribcage is politely bent away from me, his head is low, and his ears are forward.

To know what type of energy and how much energy to apply to the appropriate body part at any given moment takes a lot of observation and experience.

Remember, if your horse is being disrespectful, make sure his rude behaviour wasn’t caused by you in the first place. Often horses’ actions are actually re-actions to our own body language and how we are working with them. So if you are trying to fix what the horse sees you as causing in the first place, it will be difficult to earn his trust and respect. Horses don’t know what we don’t know. Often they don’t know we have made a mistake, they just think we did something offensive or weren’t paying attention. For example if your horse is reading your body language as telling him to come closer to you, but you thought you were telling your horse to stay away from you and therefore punish him for coming to you, this will lead to confusion and possibly fear or rude behaviour from your horse (cause and effect).

Depending on your horse’s character, passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive, he may challenge your leadership in several ways. An aggressive horse may fight you by kicking, biting, striking, rearing or pressing in against you to push you, while a passive horse may be stubborn, evasive or lazy. A passive horse may also just run away.

If you have ever watched a great horseman (or horsewoman) communicating with a horse, you were most likely amazed at the subtle, almost unnoticeable human body language. We have to remember, however, that, in order to achieve this high level of communication, it takes a lot of awareness and observation on the human part, and a willingness to listen to and focus on the human on the horse’s part. This, again, means having earned the horse’s trust and respect first. It may also mean that at first we may have to “shout” with our body language in order to get the horse to focus and listen. “Shouting” with correct body language produces not only much better results than does using physical force, and it also proactively prevents a great deal of “challenge” from the horse. Correct timing is of utmost importance with body language. For example, you can push a horse’s shoulder back onto the rail of the round pen by randomly hitting the horse’s front end somewhere with a rope or a whip, and the horse will most likely go back to the rail, but his frame will likely be inverted (high-headed and hollow-backed) and not aligned (his hind end will likely drop in). On the other hand, a correctly timed (when the horse is physically able to move the part you want moved) precise push to the point of the shoulder will typically move the horse back to the rail more quickly and often without inversion.

If you learn to consistently use the proper energy, at the right time, at the right spot (body part), with the right amount of energy, your horse will eventually respect and trust you and be willing to focus and listen to you. This, however, requires consistency in your actions and body language and awareness to constantly reading the horse’s body language and responding to it appropriately and immediately.


This mare is nicely focused on me. Her head is low, her ears are forward, and her body is relaxed. She is in a frame of mind where she can learn.

Remember, a horse’s body and mind are linked to the point of being one. Horses don’t pretend or lie. So if you are able to read a horse’s body language, you are actually reading his mind and know what he feels.

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