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From Body Language to Behavior: How Horses Communicate  

Learning to recognize how horses communicate improves human safety, training results, trust, and the horse-human bond.  
two weanling horses stare over the camera against the backdrop of a blue sky to communicate with the photographer
Adobe Stock Images

Communication is the exchange of information between individuals. Animals of the same species communicate through a wide variety of ways, such as vocalizations, chemical odors, and even text messages. But if we wish to better understand what horses are communicating to us and each other, observing their body language is the best method.  

Research has shown that a horse’s body language communicates such things as how alert they are, what emotions they feel, if they are in pain, and what they might do next. As negative mental or emotional states can cause horses to behave dangerously, we’ll focus primarily on how horses communicate those things using body language.  

How Horses Communicate Using Body Language 

A critical piece to becoming skilled at understanding horse body language is learning how to observe it, without labeling it. For example, you might have heard that when a horse pins his ears, it means “disrespect.” But it’s not that simple. While ear position is a valuable piece of information, it can’t tell us the whole picture.  

We can break horse body language observations down into two broad categories: overall bearing and discrete (subtle) behaviors.  

A Horse’s Overall Bearing 

Overall bearing includes the horse’s outline (as if seen as a silhouette image) and the quality of both his movement and attention. The horse’s bearing can give us clues as to how aroused, or “activated,” he’s feeling, as well as if the horse is experiencing positive or negative emotions.

For example, horses that stand with their weight balanced evenly over four legs, display fluid movements, and whose attention is easy to capture are more likely to be experiencing lower levels of arousal and positive emotions. Horses that lean their weight backward, show hesitant or quick movements, and whose attention is not easily gained are likely experiencing higher levels of arousal and negative emotions. Horses experiencing high arousal and negative emotions might also appear tense and frozen before moving rapidly away from a trigger or barging over a handler. It will be difficult or impossible to direct their attention. 

Discrete Horse Behaviors 

A bay horse communicates using his ears, eyes, nostrils, and expression
Small changes in the position or action of the horse’s head and neck, tail, ears, eyes, mouth, or nostrils can indicate arousal and emotions. | Adobe Stock Images

Discrete behaviors also provide valuable information about how horses communicate. Small changes in the position or action of the horse’s head and neck, tail, ears, eyes, mouth, or nostrils can further indicate arousal and emotions. The nervous system unconsciously triggers these small gestures. Before a frightened horse pulls away from his handler, for instance, his eyes widen and pupils dilate, his tail might raise or clamp tight, his nostrils tense or flare, and his breathing rate changes.  

Understanding Horse Fear Behaviors 

Negative emotional states affect our communication and interactions with horses. For instance, when fear is triggered, horses behave predictably in one of four memorable “F” ways: They freeze, fidget, or engage in flight or fight. Freezing is accompanied by an overall bearing of tense stillness and distracted attention, with discrete behaviors such as an elevated head, wide, triangular-shaped eyes with wrinkles above, tight lips, and tense or flared nostrils. Fidgeting might include hesitant or quick movements, distracted attention, pawing, mouthing/biting objects or people, or snatching at food. 

Handlers might miss or misinterpret freezing and fidgeting, resulting in fear escalation. Frightened horses might then engage in more obvious flight or fight behaviors. Flight behaviors, such as pulling away from the source of fear, barging, spinning, or bolting are intended to change the distance between the horse and the trigger (fear source).

If the horse discovers these behaviors don’t help them feel safer, he might engage in fight, lunging toward the trigger, striking, kicking, biting, and so on. Frightened horses can be dangerous to handle. The only thing they are learning in that moment is how to escape the frightening situation. However, if we can accurately read a horse’s body language in these situations, we can change our approach and help the horse feel better. 

Take-Home Message 

Learning to recognize how horses communicate has its advantages, including increased human safety and better training results. Equally important, it lets a horse feel “heard” and understood, which enhances the horse-human bond and builds trust. Thankfully, anyone who is interested can easily learn to “speak horse.” 

Related Reading:

Lauren Fraser, MSc, FFCP, has helped people understand horse behavior problems since 2006. With a background working as a horse trainer, an MSc in clinical animal behavior, and more than a decade working as an equine behavior consultant, Lauren’s approach gets to the heart of why horses behave the way they do and addresses issues using low-stress methods. Lauren also guest lectures at universities, presents at conferences, and creates educational programs for horse owners and equine professionals. 

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