Translating Equine Body Language

Horses have two basic forms of communication--vocal and body language. The more sophisticated of the two by far is body language. With a mere look, a flick of the ears, or a turn of the head, horses can communicate to each other and to us, if we learn to understand their body language. Horses learn these communications skills from birth, but humans often misinterpret a horse's body language.

To be sure, vocal sounds also play an important role in equine communication. First, there is the loving, low-pitched nicker of the mare as she nuzzles her newborn. Later, when the baby strays too far, there is an urgent note to the nicker, and it is higher pitched as she calls him back to her side.

When equine pals are separated, they often call to each other with long, drawn-out whinnies. The sound carries a message of urgency and loneliness as the buddies seek to be reunited. There are also mating calls by stallions, receptive greetings of in-heat mares, and recognizable rebuttals of affection by mares not in season.

There are also the squeals that denote challenges and submissions when a new group of horses establishes a pecking order. The squeals, snorts, and whistles take on a different tone and significance when two stallions meet--becoming shrill, harsh, and challenging. They are a prelude to battle or submission on the part of one of them. Usually, one adversary will signal via body language that he would rather submit than fight, and will yield without a blow being struck. However, when neither yields, the fight can be ferocious and the grunts and squeals that accompany it are chilling.

Snorting is another form of verbal communication. It can express a number of emotions, but often it means that the horse has encountered something fearful or is apprehensive and uncertain. When riding, it can be a prelude to, or part of, a horse becoming nervous and jumpy.

Let's take a look into verbal communication and body language here, and how we can use them to better understand our horses. No one knows for certain how horses think. We don't even know if they are capable of thought processes. There are "experts" who put on clinics and demonstrate responses to certain stimuli and tell you that they know exactly what is going on in a horse's mind and how to harness those thought processes, but that is more sales pitch than reality.

I'm no more of an expert than anyone else with a lifetime of horse experience. Much of what follows is based on personal observations and experiences, with the explanations of trained experts in the field of equine and animal behavior.

When Horses Meet

We have already mentioned that a certain amount of posturing and vocalizing takes place when horses are thrown together for the first time. By the time it's over, each horse will have its own place in the pecking order. Often, this happens through body language, accompanied by some vocalizing and occasional physical contact with teeth or hooves.

Two horses will approach each other and sniff noses. Both often will pin their ears, and perhaps squeal and stamp a front foot. They might also turn their rears to each other, squealing as they do so. Sometimes they lash out with the rear feet, but more often, one horse will turn away in submission. From that point on, that horse will always be subservient to the other. If the dominant horse approaches the subservient one, the subservient horse will give up his space to the dominant horse, whether that space involves a succulent patch of grass or a place at the water tank. Often, the only body language involved is an approach by the dominant horse.

The big question is this: Why did one horse submit without a fight? There's no single answer; there could be many factors.

I was watching from a hiding spot in Theodore Roosevelt National Park one day when a huge roan stallion approached the herd run by a stallion we had donated. I thought that if the situation came to a fight, our little guy didn't have a chance.

Our stallion went out to greet the intruder. They sniffed, squealed, and stamped front feet. Suddenly, our stallion whirled and kicked the other horse in the chest with both back feet. The big roan stallion did not retaliate; he just seemed to shrug as he turned and walked away. The confrontation was over.

Why did the roan leave without a fight? He was much bigger than the other horse. What signal did he receive during that brief confrontation? No one can know for sure. Perhaps it was the speed of the smaller horse. Maybe the roan just didn't have the energy or desire for a fight that day. However, as far as I know, the roan never again challenged the smaller stallion.

Wild stallions are among the most expressive of equines in terms of body language. When a mare strays from the band and the stallion wants her back, his body language is impressive and unmistakable. He will move toward her with his neck snaked low, his nose just off the ground, and his ears pinned. If the mare doesn't respond quickly, he will charge with teeth snapping. He uses the same technique when he wants the band to move to a new location.

However, the command for the herd to move or go to water is normally made by the lead mare, with much more subtle body language. She simply walks in the direction she wants the band to travel. Obediently, the rest of the band falls into line behind her according to pecking order status. The stallion brings up the rear. It is difficult to detect just what signal causes the band to move; when she moves from one grazing spot to another, they pay her little or no heed.

I'm sure that communication via body language involves the purposeful way she strides off. She appears to be letting the band know that it is time to travel by merely walking off without hesitation. Normally, they follow without delay, rather than waiting until she is far away to make sure she really is leaving.

Initially trailing the group, the stallion immediately moves to the front of the band when danger threatens. Once, when riding in search of our stallion and his band, we met another band heading toward us on the same trail. The lead mare stopped the group, and the stallion came racing to the fore.

He stopped with his head held high, ears forward, and body rigid, staring at us. In this posture, he was able to use his binocular vision to study us. Second, his tense body was poised and ready for flight. He whistled a challenge, but didn't move forward. Neither did we. Suddenly, he whirled and was gone at a run, with the entire band streaming along behind him. We had not yielded our space to him, so he yielded his to us by quitting the field.

Heads Up!

A horse's eyes and ears are key elements in equine body language. Most people who have worked with young or green horses recall that they were constantly communicating nervousness with short, mincing steps, quick sideways movements, and overall body tension. The reason becomes obvious when we realize that it is difficult for a horse to focus on moving objects while on the move himself. However, the horse is blessed with acute hearing.

Thus, the horse's brain is receiving murky messages from moving branches and other objects on which he can't totally focus. This can create confusion and apprehension, both of which are communicated as tension and nervousness.

The acute ears are the single most expressive component in equine body language. Very often, by watching a horse's ears, it is possible to accurately predict what his reaction will be in a given situation.

Here are a few examples.

Pinned or Laid Back Ears--Pinning of the ears normally denotes a form of aggressiveness, or perhaps anger. Horses use pinned ears as part of their repertoire of threatening gestures. When one horse approaches another with ears laid back, the message often appears to be, "Move out of the way, or suffer the consequences." When you are working with a horse and he pins his ears, he's either signaling his unhappiness with you or something you are doing, or demonstrating aggressive behavior. Pinned ears can mean that you have pulled the cinch or girth too tightly or done something else that caused physical discomfort.

Pinned ears also can be a classic warning when you are involved in a group trail ride. When another horse approaches closely from the rear, pinned ears often will be followed with a kick at the offender.

Correct interpretation of this type of body language is critical. If you don't correctly interpret the horse's body language, you might react incorrectly. If the horse is pinning his ears because you have caused him physical discomfort, disciplining him in any form will be counterproductive. On the other hand, if the horse is using pinned ears as a signal that he's challenging you, that is a totally different matter. If you don't establish yourself, with firmness, as being the dominant one in this pecking order, you might be telling the horse that you are subservient, and therein will lie all kinds of problems in the future.

This is a case where knowing the differences between the meanings of similar body language cues makes all the difference. It also confirms how challenging it is to correctly read a horse's body language. There will always be a certain amount of guesswork, but we can eliminate at least some of that with close observation and common sense, such as evaluating whether what you are doing to the horse is really causing him pain or discomfort.

Pricked or Forward Ears--It is a pretty sight to see a horse walking along or standing quietly with his ears forward. Equine photographers go to great lengths to "get the ears up" of horses they are photographing because it enhances the horse's attractiveness.

A horse only puts his ears forward when he's totally interested in something. Once he has satisfied his curiosity--and that can happen quite quickly--the ears relax.

I have found that when camping in the mountains, horses will let us know via body language when something is approaching camp long before our own senses detect it. I have seen a whole group of horses stop grazing on luscious grass to stand with raised heads, ears forward, and bodies tense to stare at a spot in the forest. Normally, this is followed by the appearance of a deer, or perhaps a rider, across the meadow.

Pricked ears are the opposite of pinned ears in equine communication. Pinned ears are a warning that the horse might be considering aggressive action toward you or another horse, while pricked ears often denote a positive form of curiosity.

Moving Ears--It is the rare horse which has his ears pricked forward, or pinned, on a relatively constant basis. Instead, the ears are usually flicking forward and rearward. This is especially true when you are riding. We can only surmise that the horse is dividing his attention between the rider and his surroundings.

We also see this in racehorses. Normally, as they head down the homestretch, the ears will be flicking forward and back. Generally speaking, if both ears are forward during the final strides in a race, the horse isn't concentrating on running as much as he is focusing on something that has appeared down the track. Usually, others in the field will be in front of or far behind a horse racing with his ears forward. On the other hand, horses in a duel for victory often have their ears pinned to their heads in challenge.

The Eyes

I grew up being advised to shun horses with small or "pig" eyes. My mentors said that these horses would be mean and hard to train. There is a physical basis for this reasoning, starting with the horse's monocular and binocular vision. This means he can see out of one eye at a time with monocular vision, and with both eyes when they are focused forward via binocular vision. Because of eye placement in the skull and the huge size of the equine eye compared to other mammals, the horse is able to see forward, to the side, and even rearward except for a narrow blind spot directly behind the body (and for a short distance directly in front of it).

The horse with a tiny, sunken eye loses a good deal of this peripheral vision and seems to spend lots of time worrying about what is happening around and behind him. Thus, it stands to reason that a small-eyed horse might be more cantankerous and difficult to train and handle.

The small-eyed horse, standing with his head turned slightly toward the rear, ears semi-pinned, and one rear leg cocked, presents a situation like walking toward the barrel of a loaded gun. Both are capable of going off with devastating consequences to whomever is hit during the explosion. This form of equine body language should never be ignored.

Another classic form of body language involves the eye, specifically eyes that roll until the whites are showing. Normally, this action of the eye communicates fear and is accompanied by a raised head, alert ears, and a tense body. This body language signal tells us that the horse might be preparing to take flight to escape what he perceives to be a dangerous situation.

The Mouth

Although it doesn't play as key a role as the eyes and ears, the horse's mouth is also a part of his body language apparatus. The action of a horse's mouth can help tell a rider whether a horse is relaxed and at ease or is apprehensive and tense. The horse which is feeling nervous or uptight about something will move along with his mouth tightly closed. Conversely, the relaxed horse will have eased his jaw muscles and will be working the bit quietly with his tongue.

When working a horse at liberty in the round pen, his mouth is a good indicator of when he is preparing to yield to you as a dominant member of his band. One of his first signs of relaxation and acceptance of you is working the jaws and licking the lips. When that action is combined with an ear being tilted toward you and an eye being cast your way, you are on the way toward gentle domination of the horse. Fear and apprehension are being replaced by a relaxed attitude and respect.

Foals and young horses also use their mouths to signal subservience to older horses. Often, the young horse approaches the older one with his mouth opening and closing, teeth clacking, and tail tucked between his rear legs. One can assume that the youngster is both signaling subservience and seeking the older horse's acceptance and approval.

The Body

The equine body also can tell us what might happen next when working with a horse, providing, of course, that we know how to interpret the body language. Anyone who has ever worked with or ridden rank horses knows the classic form of communication that involves tense muscles from nose to tail. When you climb aboard a horse which "has a hump in his back," often combined with ears that tilt toward the rear, you are probably in for a wild ride. The hunched back muscles and unhappy ears are communicating a message that this horse does not want anyone or anything on his back and likely will seek to dislodge whatever is put there.

If you are seeking to ride the horse, this isn't the time to prove that you're a bronc rider. Instead, put the horse on a longe line or exercise him at liberty in a corral or round pen. Watch for the "hump" to go out of his back and for the mouth to relax before you try climbing aboard.

The horse will also use his body to communicate fear or apprehension. If he is concerned about what you are doing in front of him, the horse might shrink back to focus his eyes and determine whether danger exists. If he's concerned about what is happening around his rear quarters, he'll move them away until satisfied that all is well.

As mentioned earlier, the horse's prime defense against predators has always been flight. Fighting is a last resort. If something startles a horse, his normal first reaction is to put distance between himself and the perceived threat. Once away, the horse will stop and study the situation.

Any quick movement away from a perceived threat is both the horse's defense mechanism and his way of communicating that something has startled or frightened him.

Man's Body Language

While we have dealt primarily with equine body language in this article, we must also be aware of what our body language communicates to the horse. We must always remember that the horse is a prey animal and that man, with his close-set eyes, is in the predator category. Our eyes are much more like a lion's or tiger's than a cow's or horse's.

You can arouse age-old fears in a horse by staring at him and walking toward him with a purposeful stride. For old Brownie, who knows you well, that posture will create no problem. However, for that young, uncertain horse, such an approach can spell danger and create a fear response, such as running off, because you are mimicking the actions of a predator. It is much better to approach the tentative horse slowly at an oblique angle and with your eyes averted.

One must always remember when working around horses that abrupt movements can be interpreted by equines as danger signals. This is especially true if one rushes up behind a horse. Always approach slowly with calmly spoken words signaling that you are present.

Always A Mystery

It is doubtful that we will ever be able to read a horse's mind or totally interpret his body language. As mentioned earlier, we not only don't know what his thought processes are, we don't even know for certain that he has thought processes as we understand them.

However, we can learn to better understand horses and interpret their body language through extensive observation. We can study how they react to each other's actions, and be knowledgeable of their reactions to various approaches on our part. We might never be able to talk to them in a mutual language, but we can learn to communicate.


Learn the Horse's History

We once leased a Quarter Horse stallion to pasture breed three of our Quarter Horse mares. The stallion was 14 years old and a veteran pasture breeder. Although we had no past experience with the horse, the owner assured us that he was a "gentleman" in the pasture and would in no way harm the mares. When the mares came into season the stallion would breed them, the man said. When they weren't in season, he would do nothing to harass them. Armed with these assurances, we turned him into a pasture with the three. As luck would have it, one of the mares was in full estrus, and the other two were just coming into heat.

The stallion promptly bred the mare which was ready and receptive. That mare then went out of heat, and the other two came in the receptive stage. Then, a strange thing happened. The first mare took on a dominant role. Each time the stallion approached one of the other two mares, she would charge, with ears pinned and teeth bared, and drive him off. He did not challenge her--he just trotted off.

I decided that the simple solution would be to remove this mare. I caught her, put on the halter, and started leading her toward the gate. The stallion followed. We were nearly to the gate when he began making strong vocal sexual overtures and almost immediately developed an erection. Suddenly, he sprang forward, mounted the mare and attempted to breed her even though she wasn't in heat. She pulled away from me and ran off with the stallion in pursuit.

She rejoined her other mates. The stallion lost his erection, stopped, and stood quietly. I caught the mare again, and the experience was about to be repeated except that this time I was prepared and managed to keep the stallion away.

Why did this happen? I wondered. How could this stallion be dominated by a mare one minute, and trying to breed her the next, even though she wasn't in heat? What body language had told him that this mare should be bred?

Who better to ask than Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and the founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine? First, McDonnell made it clear that she could not provide a definitive answer for a couple of reasons. One was that she hadn't observed the incident, and the other was that no one can be sure what a horse is thinking, if they do indeed think.

However, she suggested that my putting a halter on the mare and leading her might have given the stallion a signal that this mare was to be bred.

Often, McDonnell said, when stallions are both hand bred and pasture bred, it can have a strong influence on their behavior when a mare is brought to them in hand. In other words, perhaps this stallion, seeing the mare being led away, reverted back to his hand breeding days. A mare in hand was a mare to be bred. By leading the mare, perhaps I was signaling to him that he should breed her.

I checked with the owner, and sure enough the stallion had been hand bred as well as pasture bred. As far as the stallion was concerned, it seems, my body language had provided him with an unmistakable message--breed the mare.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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