Do you know what your horse is saying to you? Do you know how to read horse body language?
Obviously, horses don’t speak to us with words, but they are communicating with us all the time. If you learn what their body language is telling us, we can learn to communicate better with our horses.
A horse’s main way of communication is through body language. Although horses use vocal language, the more sophisticated of the two is, of course, body language. With a certain look, a flick of the ears, or a slight turn of the head, horses are able to communicate with each other.
Understanding Horse Body Language
Learning this subtle language can only help us in understanding our horse and better our riding skills. Unfortunately, people will often misinterpret a horse’s body language into something it is not. Below is a small guide to help you understand your horse.
Swishing of the Tail
When a horse swishes his tail while you are training on the ground or riding usually means that they are frustrated or annoyed with what you are asking them to do. Sometime, it may just be that they are trying to get a fly off their back, so pay attention to the situation to gauge what the horse is trying to communicate to you.
If a horse is frustrated or won’t do what you ask him to do, it is because you have asked the question the wrong way. Interpret the swishing of the tail as an opportunity to ask your horse to do something in a different way, and see what type of result you get!
Licking The Lips
Licking of the lips is a great sign that the horse is interpreting and understands what you are asking of them. You will find your horse licking their lips shortly after you ask them to do something and they successfully accomplish the task. In essence, they are telling you, “I got it!” Take a moment and let the horse soak in this wonderful moment.
Lowering The Head
When you are working your horse from the ground or from the saddle, look for your horse to lower their head. A high head signals a horse that is tense, nervous or anxious and using the reactive side of their brain. When a horse finally lowers their head, they are telling you that they are relaxed, calm and have accepted you as the leader.
The horse body language with ears communicate a great deal of information. Each ear has the ability to “tune in” to something different. When a horses ears are both pricked straight up and forward, they are most likely something has grabbed their attention and they are alert or alarmed. Both ears will be tuned in to what has their attention.
When a horse pins both of their ears backwards is a sign that they are frustrated, annoyed and a warning they may show some aggression. Sometimes when riding, pinned ears may signal that the horse has heard what you have said, but may be in some sort of pain by your request.
Take a repeated sign of pinned ears when riding as a potential sign that something is physically bothering your horse. Check his feet, legs, back, saddle fit, etc to rule out any physical discomfort for the reason for a constant pinning of the ears. This happens frequently when you ask your horse for more demanding gaits like a trot or canter.
A horse that has his ears in a relaxed, neutral position in the middle of his head signals a horse that is calm, and paying attention to his rider.
Pinning of the ears should usually be interpreted as a form of aggressiveness, or anger. Horses use pinned ears as threatening gestures towards their aggressor. Discomfort or pain can also cause this behavior, like tightening the girth too tightly for example.
When on a trail ride or in a ring where horses follow one another, you should pay special attention to the movement of your horses ears. If his ears are pinned back in such a situation it often indicates that another horse has gotten too close behind him, and that he might kick. This is why you should always remember to keep distance between your horse and the one in front of you.
Understanding this type of body language can be considered critical. If you don’t correctly interpret the horse’s language, you will react incorrectly to the situation. If the horse is pinning his ears because you have caused him physical discomfort, disciplining him in any form because you think he threatened you is an example of a situation when such a misunderstanding can occur.
A curious, eager or happy horse will usually have his ears pricked forward. An alert horse always has his ears pricked forward when exploring an unknown trail, when discovering something brand new, like the farm cat or when they are interested by any particular thing whether it is an object or a person. Forward pointing ears are a good sign. They tell of a horse very aware of its surroundings.
Since horses never either keep their ears pricked forward or pinned backward, their ears are usually flicking back and forth. Just observe your horse’s ears when riding. He is constantly dividing his attention between his rider and his surroundings, resulting in an endless movement of the ears. Since horses are always on alert and have a very keen sense of hearing, they will often hear or spot people, animals or activity long before you do.
Other than the ears, the general attitude and body posture of a horse can tell a lot. An outgoing friendly horse is easy to recognize compared to a more stressed and scared horse. A switching tail and excessive agitation can often be the expression of pain or discomfort.
As you try to interpret a horse’s attitude through their body movements, they do the same thing with you. A horse is very aware of its surroundings in which it can detect the slightest motion. Just like you do with him, he interprets your general body posture, as friendly, threatening or scared. Confidence and patience are keys in understanding horses, and observing them will prove to be a wealth of information, as you will progress in riding.
What Does Neighing Mean in Horse Body Language?
A neigh that is high pitched, and loud can signal anxiety or confidence depending on their body language and the situation. When horses neigh when they are in a group, it is usually because they see something “unusual” in the distance and are warning the others of what they see.
A low-pitched neighing, where a horse doesn’t open his mouth is a form of a greeting or hello or “hey, it’s good to see you.” I guess you could refer to this is more of a nicker than a neigh.
Horses have so much to tell us about what they are feeling if we simply pay attention. They will appreciate you paying attention and making adjustments based on what they are telling you. In addition, it helps us understand how important non-verbal communication is to how we communicate with our horses as well. Pay attention to what your own body is saying.