How horses communicate with their ears, eyes and mouth.

By Wendy Talbot on 31 August 2017

When horses communicate, although they may not be able to speak, they are very capable communicators and if we take the time to observe and understand their body language we can learn to ‘talk’ back.

Horses are prey animals with a strong fight-or-flight response and in their natural state, they live in herds for safety, breeding and companionship. While they can vocalise with a whinny, squeal, nicker or snort, they communicate mostly using body language. It’s used to show dominance or subordination, to maintain discipline and to alert each other to danger. The best horse trainers have learnt to spot and respond to subtle signs from the horse, watching the ears, eyes, mouth and tail, noticing head carriage and body position. It may look like magic when they work with their horses but in fact, it’s the result of hard work, patience and skill.

So what are the secrets to how horses communicate?

Tuning into your horse’s ears

Your horse’s ears are capable of both listening and ‘speaking’. These prominent antennae are very mobile and a study has shown that horses may use them to tell others in the herd where to focus their attention, helping to find food and escape predators.

Horses communicate with their ears by directing their ears toward their point of focus. Both ears forwards indicate your horse is concentrating on what is in front. One ear forward and one cocked back suggests divided attention and is often seen when the horse is responding to their rider or handler as well as their surroundings. Both ears flattened backwards usually indicates anxiety, tension, irritation or aggression. Relaxed, floppy ears usually means a comfortable horse.

Monitoring your horse’s mouth

Horses communicate through their mouth and they can do extraordinary things with it. Bared teeth, with lips curled back and ears flat are a usually a sign of anger and a warning before lunging and biting. Foals and youngsters sometimes extend their head and neck, curl back their lips and softly ‘clack’ their teeth together to show subordination and to prevent aggression from another member of the herd. Licking and chewing without food in the mouth shows release of tension and reduced anxiety.

Horses have a special smell detection system called the flehmen response. The raised head and curled upper lip, exposed front teeth and snorting breath may make you laugh but it’s a serious business for your horse. It enables scent particles to be pushed through the vomeronasal organ, which sits above the roof of the mouth, so that smell can be better investigated. Dogs and cats can do it too.

Watching your horse’s eyes

Tense muscles around your horse’s eyes or rapidly darting eyes are signs of stress, fear or discomfort. If the whites of the eyes are showing, when normally they wouldn’t it is usually a sign of fear or anger.

Telling Tails

The horse’s tail is most often whisked to remove irritating insects but it is also a telling communication tool. Aggressive swishing can indicate anger or pain. If it’s clamped close to the body it may be because your horse is cold, anxious or in pain. Raised means excitement or in some cases tension.

Body signals

Horses communicate by also using their legs and body to express themselves. Pawing or stomping with a front leg may be a sign of stress, impatience or irritation while striking out can be dangerously aggressive. Intermittently resting a hind leg suggests a relaxed horse, but shifting weight from one leg to the other could be a sign of pain. A raised hind leg is often a precursor to a kick, which can deliver a powerful and painful blow. Tight muscles and stiff posture and movement may mean, nervousness, discomfort or pain and shaking can be a sign of terror or cold.

Learning to read horses involves spending time observing them, not only with their own kind but with humans too. Soon you will begin to understand what makes your own horse tick and it will become second nature to spot behavioural signs that previously passed you by. If you have no limit on patience and time you too can build a magical relationship with your horse.

In addition, many of these signs can be seen as part of an expression of pain or a medical illness e.g. (pawing the ground to show pain associated with colic) therefore it is important to learn what is a normal behaviour response and what is abnormal.

Other relevant content: 

Caring for your horse’s feet: Essential hoof care.

References:

Science Magazine 

National Geographic 

Thehorse.com

Equus Magazine

Horse Channel 

Wikipedia 

Comments

DR WENDY TALBOT BVSC CERT EM (INT MED) DECEIM MRCVS


Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

This may also help

Busting The Jargon

Get to grips with some of the common terms used to explain worms and worm control with our HorseDialog jargon buster

29 May 2018

Read More

Join the Community

Sign-up to our newsletter