Horses are masters of communication. Unlike humans, they have mastered the art of subtle communication, using body language and subtle cues to share information.
Survival being a primary goal, equine communication centers largely on information about the environment, interpreting what is being received, as well as social interactions. If there is a perceived threat in the environment, it is almost impossible to discern the moment when one horse communicates this to the rest of the herd – so swift and subtle is the language of the horse.
Equally important are the individuals comfort and safety, and a horse will quickly communicate when it is feeling threatened, uncomfortable, or fearful, to an approaching horse.
If horses are such masters at communicating their emotions, needs and wants, then why does it go so wrong between horses and humans? Quite simply, we don’t speak the same language. While horses primarily use body language to communicate, humans are predominantly vocal and tend to be unaware of what they are saying with their body. This often leads to mixed signals being sent to the horse, misunderstandings, and frustration.
In order to truly understand the nature of the horse and build a partnership with your horse, you need to become a master at observation and reading the signals your horse is giving. Equally important is being more aware of what you are saying with your body rather than vocally.
The below figure indicates the areas of the horse’s body that are used for communication and what you should pay special attention to when observing your horse. Each area is discussed further in more detail.
The ears, eyes, nostrils and lips
Horses use their entire body to communicate. The ears, eyes, nostrils and lips can convey a thousand words with just a slight movement. Ears that are pulled back, pressed flat and tight are indicating a clear message of fear. While this is an aggressive stance, the aggression is driven by fear, pain or any aversive association. This is a horse you want to stay away from, as this animal will do whatever it takes to defend itself by fleeing or attacking. Watching the direction of the ears will tell you where your horse is focused – is there an ear turned towards you, or are both facing out towards something in the environment? Observing these subtle movements and position of the ears will greatly help you to understand what your horse is saying.
The eyes are also an important indicator of stress, submission, fear, or relaxation. Tight, strained eyes showing a lot of white are clear indicators of stress or fear, while soft, relaxed eyes indicate a calm horse. Flared versus relaxed nostrils will tell you the same thing, as will the lips. A horse that is chewing and licking is communicating understanding, thought processing and learning. This relaxed cue is typical of an herbivore and is a clear signal that the animal is not a threat to you. Tight lips indicate the opposite, and represent an animal in a state of distress.
The head and neck
Alongside the eyes, ears, lips and nostrils as indicators, are the position of the head and neck. All these indicators need to be taken in context of each other, as the horse never uses just one part to communicate, but a combination of all.
An extended low neck can communicate multiple things. For example if coupled with ears pinned back flat, bulging eyes, flared nostrils and tight lips, this is a clearly aggressive stance. The horse is communicating a clear warning to back away or it will defend itself. An extended low neck, with soft ears that are pointed forward, soft, lowered eyes, soft nostrils and chewing or licking the lips shows submission. A lower ranking horse will take up this stance when approaching a higher-ranking horse to ask for a share of resources such as water or food. The body language is meant to communicate, “I’m not a threat to you. I’m approaching calmly, to ask to share your space.”
The head is equally important as a tool of communication. A high raised head signals an alert, reactive state, while a low, relaxed head relates to a calm, passive state. This is vital for the safety of the herd. When horses are in an investigative state, exploring an unfamiliar environment or stimuli for potential threats, they are in a highly reactive state. Think of it is being hyper alert. They will be quick to respond to any stimuli. This state is obvious as it involves height. The neck is elongated and lifted, the head raised high, and the ears are straight up and constantly moving towards stimuli. Any signals given are easily interpreted and seen by other members of the herd. The opposite of this state, relaxed, is purposefully contrasting. A long, low neck, a low head, usually to the ground as the horse is normally grazing or foraging, and everything is soft – ears, eyes, nostrils and the body.
Shaking of the head, or tossing it up and down successively is often seen as a sign of pain or discomfort. If you notice this behaviour occurring frequently, make sure that you have your horse checked by a Veterinarian, Dentist and saddle fitter, as the problem may be pain related due to medical or dental issues, or an ill-fitting saddle.
The back, stomach, tail and legs
The body of the horse is like an open book. A tight, tense and short back indicates a stressed state. The stomach will also lift and tighten in this state and the horse will be preparing itself for flight. Everything will look tight and uncomfortable, almost as if the horse is wearing a second skin that is too small.
Keep an eye out for the tail, as this part of the body has many uses. Besides its obvious uses of warding off insects, the tail is a fantastic communication tool. A raised tail can indicate an aroused or alert state, and sharp flicks convey annoyance – an early warning signal. A low, soft tail that is swishing is merely flicking flies, but a deliberate and hard flick in your direction should not be ignored.
The hind legs are a good way to discern a relaxed horse in a passive state. One cocked hind leg, slightly bent, with relaxed, loose hips indicates a horse that is resting and relaxed. Horses use the stay apparatus to be able to rest while standing.
Tensing in the rump along with the lifting of a hind leg is a clear warning signal that the horse is uncomfortable, threatened or finds the situation aversive. Look out for the other signs too though, as a horse will also lift its hind leg to scratch, and ward of flies. Make sure you are always taking in the whole picture, the entire body.
A horse that deliberately kicks out, has actually been sending out warning signals for a while, which if ignored, result in a bigger, more obvious gesture. Unfortunately for us as humans, being on the receiving end of a powerful kick is much more damaging than if another horse was the one receiving it. Our size in comparison to the horse means that we need to be even more vigilant about reading our horses and picking up the subtle cues first before they escalate into actions that are more aggressive.
The front legs are also often used to communicate. Pawing is a common behaviour and can range from just being a basic act of foraging and digging up roots, to being an expression of frustration, anger, or boredom. Horses often paw before feeding time. This is a completely normal behaviour as the horse is simply communicating his frustration at not having his food yet. Similarly pawing can occur during training, once again indicating a frustration with tasks that may be too challenging, stressful, or even too boring and repetitive.
The art of mindfulness
The main lessons to take away are to look at the single cues in context with the entire body. Think of the body as the whole book, and the different parts as pages. Without all the pages, you can never know the whole story. You could also be interpreting the message incorrectly, as there could be several different meanings depending on what other parts of the body are saying.
Look for the small, subtle cues first, as horses will only revert to bold, obvious communication when it’s the only option left or in extremely aversive situations. This normally translates to aggressive and potentially harmful actions such as biting, kicking, stepping on toes or fleeing. Never ignore or dismiss your horse’s actions. Their behaviour is their way of telling you if something is wrong, painful, uncomfortable or frightening. Ignoring these messages may result in depression, increased illness or medical problems, chronic anxiety, severe behavioural problems and injury to you or your horse.
Be mindful of your own body language, posture and movement, as any small movements on your part will easily be picked up and interpreted by your horse, whether you meant them or not.
We are easily distracted when working with or riding our horses. Sometimes it can be a great time to just think about what you have to do for the rest of the day, compile a grocery list, plan for the weekend – we can’t always help when our minds wander. The problem is that we miss the opportunity to truly bond and effectively communicate with our horse. Practicing mindfulness and making an effort to be present and focus only on your interaction with your horse can be an extremely rewarding experience. It paves the way for a true partnership built on respect, trust and understanding.