There is a universal language amongst all equines, and it is mainly a nonverbal one. Horses rely strongly on body language as a primary form of communication. This is good news for you if you are seeking better communication and a deeper connection with your horse. It means you’ve got a head start on becoming fluent.
That is because as mammals, we already utilize body language daily, even if only subconsciously. But equine body language is very intentional, and you must become intentional in your listening (seeing) and speaking if you want to converse with your horse and improve your horsemanship.
I am going to show you how to do just that by breaking it down for you. In this article I will discuss:
Why Body Language is Important in a Herd Setting
If you really want to connect with your horse through effective communication, you are first going to need to understand the root of why horses need to communicate with each other.
Horses are herd animals and therefore are highly social. The need for social connection goes deeper than just wanting companionship (although that is important). Social dynamics are imperative for horses’ sense of self preservation. To put it simply, horses are seeking two main things: safety and comfort. They rely on their herd to fulfill those needs.
Horses need to have clear ways to alert other members of their herd to potential danger. Imagine a herd of horses grazing in a field next to a wooded area. If one horse detects a threat in the trees, he or she will send out an alert signal via a change in energy which will be displayed through body language. This signal will ripple through the herd, all horses becoming alert and waiting to be given the cue to either run, or that it was a false alarm. This is how horses help to keep each other safe.
They also will establish a hierarchy among themselves so that roles and expectations of each horse are clear. These roles are often fluid amongst heard members depending on varying factors, but this allows certain horses to be “on guard” while other horses can feel safe enough to eat or rest.
Horses’ need for comfort is directly related to their need to conserve energy in case they do need to flee or fight. This hierarchy allows horses to feel comfortable enough to take the rest they need.
Specific Equine Body Language and What it Means
Horses utilize various physical expressions to get certain messages across to each other. One of the first things most equestrians learn to recognize is a horse’s ear position as a form of communication. However, there are many other aspects of equine body language including even subtle facial expressions. Below I’ve listed the basic “vocabulary,” so to speak, that horses use. So, let’s dive into the many ways horses express themselves. Keep in mind that just like in a spoken language, specific words/vocab can have different meanings depending on context and the energy in which the words are spoken.
Ears pinned back flat against their neck is a warning signal to “back off!” This can be an aggressive gesture, or it simply can be a horse clearly stating his or her boundaries. It basically means, “Hey, you have encroached on my space, and I want you to move back,” or “don’t come any closer.”
Ears pricked forward is an alert to where that horse is focusing their attention. This indicates to other horses or to you, what the horse believes is most important in the moment. To accurately read the specific meaning of this gesture, you will need to interpret it in combination with other aspects of the body. For example, ears pricked forward combined with a high head likely means the horse is on guard and evaluating a potential threat. But ears pricked forward with a somewhat lowered head could indicate curiosity when meeting a new horse or when they detect the familiar crinkle of a peppermint wrapper in your pocket.
Ears relaxed and soft, gently pointing to either side of the horse’s head indicate a relaxed horse. When a horse has their ears in this position they may be resting and may not be as aware of their environment in that moment, so it is important to gain their attention before approaching to avoid startling them. This ear position can also indicate a horse that is in a more internal mindset. For example, this is common for horses that have been overly desensitized or who have become bored of the work that is asked of them. So again, this ear position should be evaluated in relation to other factors relative to the environment and to the individual horse. This horse may appear relaxed but could be stressed internally and just not outwardly expressing tension. Some signs of tension could be expressed through a slightly higher head carriage, tight lips, or non-blinking eyes.
Individual ears flicking back and forth will also indicate where the horse’s attention is. This isn’t necessarily an alert, but rather could be similar to the way humans use eye contact. Eye contact can help a person feel like they are being actively listened to. Similarly, if my horse flicks his ear toward me when I am communicating something to him, it shows me he is paying attention or at least noticed my ask. However, if your horse’s ears are flicking back and forth quickly or swiveling in all directions this can be a sign that he is worried about a possible threat and scanning his environment for the source.
A high head and hollow back indicate alarm. A horse will lift their head high when they notice something that is concerning to them. Usually this will be seen in combination with wide, unblinking eyes, and ears pointing in the direction of the concern. If the cause for alarm is coming from behind the horse, they will put their ears back. However, the ears will be turned backwards but not pinned against their neck. It is important to differentiate this from a horse pinning their ears as a “back off” warning.
In a herd setting a low head carriage can be interpreted as a sign of submission or simply as non-threatening behavior. You will commonly see this when a less dominant horse is approaching a more dominant horse. Or when a horse wants to approach another horse to share space or to groom one another. If you see a horse approaching you or another horse with their head lowered, swaying side to side, and with ears back then this should be interpreted as an aggressive behavior known as snaking. Often times this behavior can be seen in stallions protecting their mares from a rival.
Neutral or lowered head carriage indicates a relaxed horse. Horses will lower their head and cock one foot when they feel relaxed enough to rest or doze off.
Lowering of the head can be a sign of relaxation or release of tension. You may also see a horse lower their head either to a neutral position or stretch down below their top line when ground working or under saddle as a response to proper biomechanical balance.
Wide, unblinking eyes indicate a horse that is concerned or on edge. If you can see the whites of the eye, it indicates a higher level of concern. Sometimes, you will see this along with a higher-than-normal head carriage, a tight muzzle, and alert ears in response to a specific stimulus. However, a horse with a normal head carriage and wide, unblinking eyes, especially in combination with any tightness around the eye could be an early warning sign of stress or that the horse is experiencing general anxiety in their present environment.
Soft eyes indicate a relaxed and happy horse.
Darting eyes are similar to rapidly swiveling ears and indicate that your horse is stressed and not sure where to focus their attention.
A relaxed or dozing horse will have a soft muzzle with a drooping lower lip. Conversely a tight lip can indicate stress or tension in a horse.
A horse with wrinkled nostrils and tight muzzle is trying to communicate irritation and may use this form of body language in conjunction with pinned ears as a warning sign.
A horse with a gaping mouth and bared teeth is basically “raising his tone” to a previously unadhered warning signal such as pinned ears. If the horse or person who is encroaching on that horse’s space doesn’t back off immediately then that horse will likely progress to biting.
A flared or quivering nostril can indicate a horse who is stressed or concerned.
A quivering or twitching nostril and/or muzzle can also indicate a horse that is potentially beginning to come out of a sympathetic nervous system state and could be a subtle sign of a release that is to come through licking and chewing.
Licking and chewing is a sign of understanding and/or release of tension in a horse. When a horse comes down from a state of fight or flight (often indicated with the wide eyes, high head, and tense muscles) they will release the tension they were holding and express it through the physical act of licking and chewing. If you are attempting to communicate with your horse in a training or educational way, licking and chewing in response to your cue can indicate comprehension within the horse, or at least that your horse has returned to a state in which they are more able to learn and be in their "thinking mind." (* other similar signals of relaxation from your horse could be blinking eyes, lowering of the head, sighing/big breath out *)
A circular swishing of the tail is another way for a horse to say, “back off, you are too close.” Especially if the horse or person is pushing the boundary from the back side of the horse. Horses will of course swish their tails regularly at flies but a tail swishing in a circular motion is an expression of irritation. You may notice the circular tail swishing as a sign of irritation and frustration under saddle or while practicing groundwork as well. This can represent frustration due to a lack of understanding of what is being asked, or as a result of physical discomfort.
When you see a horse clench their tail tight to their rump and between their legs you can interpret that as a sign of tension and uneasiness.
A horse will use their front legs to communicate in a couple ways. They may paw at the ground to express frustration or impatience with being asked to stand still or being confined for too long, or at feeding time. They may also paw to communicate a sense of anxiety about their current environment if they feel trapped in it. Horses may also paw at the ground or up to their barrel as an indication that they are feeling physical discomfort. This is often seen as a warning sign of colic. A horse will also use their front legs to strike out. This is a common behavior to be aware and cautious of when introducing new horses to each other.
Horses use their hind legs to communicate different messages as well. A horse may raise a hind foot as a warning preceding a kick. Be especially aware that this will likely escalate quickly if seen in conjunction with the other warning signs (pinned ears, wrinkled muzzle, swishing tail). A horse with a cocked hind foot is shifting weight off that foot and leg. This is a common position of a relaxed and resting horse.
Be aware of your horse’s breathing. A horse who is holding their breath is signaling that they are very stressed and likely holding tension throughout their body.
Blowing out through the nostrils with a lowered head and soft muzzle can indicate a release of tension or that the horse is simply clearing dust and dirt out of their nostrils. A big sigh is a release of tension and can indicate that a horse dismissed a possible threat, found physical and/or mental balance, or is comprehending what is being communicated to them.
Horses will sometimes raise their head high with flared nostrils and blow out hard and fast resulting in a snort. A snort is typically an alert sound, and your horse is communicating that they perceive a significant threat. A horse using this body language is preparing to flee or fight. Horses will also sometimes snort due to excitement when running, playing, or exploring a new environment.
How Horses Communicate with Each Other
Now that you know some of the common expressions of equine body language, you will need to learn how horses utilize them. Just like any spoken language, there is a structure to how horses communicate. If you want to use clear communication to connect with and effectively educate your horse, you will need to use this basic structure.
Much of communication amongst horses happens on an energetic level and will typically progress to body language in an escalation of intensity. For example, I outlined multiple “warning signs” in the list of horse body language. But these don’t happen randomly. Horses will always start with subtle forms of communication and escalate until the message is received (if a horse does not start on a subtle level this is probably for good reason and likely has been built into them through some sort of trauma).The subtlety of these expressions usually begin on an energetic level.
Following these communications of applied pressure, be it energetic, visual, or physical, there will be a release of pressure. The horse will “let go” of energy directed at another horse when desired result is achieved.
Horses may use this type of “pressure and release” structure to their communication for a number of reasons. They may use it to determine hierarchy, to gain access to resources, or to define personal space (boundaries). To achieve any of those listed goals it is common to see a horse using pressure and release to move the feet of fellow herd mates.
However, being that equines rely so heavily on the awareness of their social companions, horses also use pressure and release as a form of acknowledgement of the state of being of their herd mates as well.
So, an underlying structure of how horses communicate is an applied escalation of pressure (and/or energy), and a release of pressure (and/or energy). Pressure and release. It is important to keep in mind though, that this pressure is often utilized in very subtle energetic forms and can still be highly effective.
And on top of all that and aside from the more obvious forms of pressure and release, equines communicate through their innate ability to become attuned with each other and recognize even the subtlest states of being in their herd mates. They can perceive changes in energy and facial expressions and are aware of stress indicators and relaxation levels in their herd mates.
Ways to Effectively Communicate with Your Horse
To effectively communicate with your horse, you will need to be able to recognize equine body language including the subtle cues, and you will have to apply this vocabulary with the appropriate structure. You will also have to understand herd dynamics and the psychological and instinctual nature of a prey animal. The following are just some general aspects necessary for effective communication with your equine partner. However, keep in mind every horse is unique and there are always nuances to be aware of relative to different situations.
Before you ask anything of your horse, just observe them. See if you can recognize any body language that can let you in on what your horse is trying to tell you (hint: your horse is always trying to tell you something). This will let you know where to start regardless of your goal.
Invite your horse to connect with you by showing him or her your level of awareness. This can be done by indicating your recognition of direct and subtle changes of attention and energy in your horse.
Establish Yourself, Establish Trust
Understand that when you are working with your horse you are now part of the herd. You and your horse are a band of two. Your horse knows that having a partner capable of leadership is imperative. So, establish trust and present yourself as a capable leader or your horse will feel it is their responsibility to do so. Note that this absolutely can and should be done in a respectful and compassionate manner.
Utilize Pressure and Release
Be sure to be clear and consistent in your communication with your horse by utilizing the same concept of pressure and release that they would use among other members of their herd. There are multiple structured forms of communication to apply to your interactions between you and your horse, which will fall within the 4 quadrants of operant learning. However, in this post I have mostly focused on the pressure and release option. I feel that it is a great way to start when first learning how to read equine body language.
Keep in mind that there are multiple ways to use pressure and release depending on many factors. Being able to gauge the best pressure and release approach for each unique horse and situation is a skill in and of itself. But understanding and being able to recognize equine body language is a great foundation for building this skill.
If utilized accurately this article will provide you a beneficial framework for finding a way to fluently converse with your horse. Herd dynamics, body language, and pressure and release are foundational to effective communication between you and your equine partner. As with everything in life, achieving true connection and harmony with your horse is a simple yet complex process and this is just the groundwork (no pun intended) for it.