Horses use body language on a daily basis. They are also keen to pick up your body language as well. Horses are highly social creatures and they talk to each other in various ways.
As humans, we must be able to read the basic body language that the horse exhibits. As children, one of the first body language signs that we learn about are the facial gestures that a horse makes.
If you were ever around ponies at pony rides or other horses, your parents probably told you that an angry horse lays their ears back. Ears that are laid back may also be accompanied by teeth barring, depending on how agitated the horse is.
Some horses are just naturally grumpy and tend to leave their ears back all the time, no matter what you are doing with them.
There are several other facial expressions that you must take into consideration as a horse owner as well.
A horse that is afraid of something usually has both ears pointing in that direction. He may also stand square and with his head high in the air, just before he takes off running. You may also be able to see the whites of the eyes and the tensing neck muscles. His nostrils may flare too.
Many horses will stand square, heads held high and ears pointed straight forward. The horse may not be scared, but perfectly content with his surroundings. You will often see horses doing this when they hear another horse coming.
Threatening or Aggression
This is the ear laid back, not happy look of a horse. These horses are often planning their next move if you agitate them any more. This may be one that involves teeth or hooves.
A relaxed horse will just appear relaxed. His head will be at a medium to low height, his eyelids will be droopy and his ears will be relaxed (sometimes pointing to the side). His lower lip may be loose and he might be chewing softly or yawning.
This is the expression you will normally see when they are being groomed or dosing off for a midafternoon nap.
Each horse will have a subtle variation of these gestures. Spending a lot of time with and around your horse will allow you to see his version of the gestures. You can also get a good view of these gestures if you spend time around a herd of horses at pasture. They will threaten each other if one gets to close, they will be alert at the sound of horses from another pasture, and they will take relaxing naps in the summer sun.
Equine body language can also be vocal. You will hear these sounds every morning when you go to feed. You know that piercing whinny from the barn that says, “I’m hungry! Come feed me!” Horses have a fairly small vocal range but each sound has a distinct meaning that many horse owners will learn very quickly.
Used by a horse to announce his presence. The sound is designed to carry over long distances, that is why you hear it so well across a large pasture at feeding time. It’s kind of like your horse saying, “Hey! Don’t forget about me!” They can also use it as a complaint of loneliness or a “Wait for me!” call. Wild horses would use the gesture as a means of keeping in contact with the rest of the herd when they move out of sight.
Nickering can be equated to that of a cat’s purr. The nicker is a deep, nasal sound that a horse makes with his mouth closed. Mares will often nicker to their foals. This sound is also used as a greeting to owners and other horses (especially if you have treats!). The sound is kind and friendly.
A horse can use a blow in several different ways. The first is that similar to a sigh in humans. They may blow when they are becoming impatient or when you are making him do something he doesn’t really want to do. They can also use a blow as a warning. If a horse is curious about something, such as a new stable blanket, they may blow, wait and then investigate the new item. Some horses also blow when working, and in that situation, it’s usually a sign of relaxation.
A snort is a harsh blow. Horses often snort in disapproval and at other horses. There can be a strong hint of aggression in a snort.
Squeals always sound worse than they really are. Stallions will squeal at new mares or teasing mares. Two stallions will often squeal at each other. The squeal is commonly used as an assertion of seniority. It is kind of like saying, “Hey, I was here first.” The horse will usually hold his head high and ears forward. Mares in season sometimes squeal when being sniffed by a curious gelding. There are usually no real signs of aggression, although the noise itself sounds very aggressive.