Equine Body Language

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Care and Management of Horses by Heather Smith Thomas. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

When handling a horse, you are better prepared for his actions and reactions if you can interpret his body language, to know whether he is at ease with what you are doing, nervous, afraid, annoyed, or resentful. Part of handling horses safely is being in tune with their feelings so you are never caught off guard. If you are aware of how a horse is feeling, you can usually be prepared to handle a difficult situation without being hurt, or defuse it and encourage the horse to become more relaxed and cooperative.

The horse's ears are one of the best indicators of mood and intent. Flicking them continually in all directions usually indicates nervousness and an attempt to learn more about what's happening in an uncertain situation. Ears flat back means the horse is uncomfortable, annoyed, or angry and prepared to defend himself. A horse with flattened ears may be ready to kick or bite. A relaxed horse has relaxed ears.

Head and neck posture indicate intent and whether the horse is about to make a move; he uses head and neck for balance and will move them as he prepares to shift his weight. Aggressive use of the head indicates anger or annoyance; as a threat the horse will make a sudden and purposeful swing (sometimes with ears back and teeth bared) toward a subordinate horse or human.

The horse reacts quickly and strongly to anything he perceives as alarming. Since his head is a very vulnerable area, he tries to get it out of the way of potential danger (such as a kick from another horse) and jerks it up. A startled, nervous, or untrusting horse may suddenly and violently jerk his head up or even rear.

The horse's eyes give clues to what he's thinking and feeling; a sleepy eye means he's relaxed and at ease with what is going on around him. A wide eye (accompanied by an alert heads-up position) means he's trying to figure out what's happening and is possibly triggered for action. A horse that throws his head up and shows the whites of the eyes is very upset-either afraid or angry.

A relaxed lower lip and flaccid muscles around the mouth indicate relaxation. Nostrils also indicate mood; flared nostrils can indicate fright, excitement, or anger. A sigh indicates acceptance or relaxation. If while you are working with the horse he gives a big sigh, you know he is no longer tense but is comfortable with what you are doing.

Feet and legs are used as weapons-front feet for offense (striking) and hind feet for defense. A kick or just the threat of a kick with hind leg cocked is a warning to keep other horses from invading his space or to tell humans that he's very annoyed.

The tail is a good barometer of mood and feelings. When it is firmly clamped down, the horse is angry, defensive, or stubborn. A low, tucked tail can be a submissive gesture. A relaxed horse has a relaxed tail. Sporadic swishing signals impatience, while a violently lashing tail may mean intense discomfort or anger. A startled horse may give an involuntary movement of the tail. When working near the horse's hindquarters, a firm hold on the tail can help you feel the animal's mood and intent and can also help thwart an inclination to kick.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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