It seems natural to try to determine what your horse wants or means through it’s vocalisations. After all, that’s what we do. But the horse has developed over time to communicate a whole different way. More than anything, they use their bodies. All of their bodies, from nostrils to rump. Today we are going to take a minute to talk about how that looks and what they’re trying to say.
Observation is the key. Start by spending some time just observing your horse in it’s paddock. Every horse is different so you need to get to know yours (or, y’know, the horses you’re spending time with). It’s better not to try and guess. A little knowledge of the science and your animal will guide you in the right direction.
A horse in pain will display it in different ways depending on the type of pain. An early sign they’re hurting is moving themselves away from the group. They may be grumpy and show defensive behaviours toward other animals and people. They may be rigid and not want to move a lot, with a fixed stare. Some pain may lead to them being aggressive when you try saddling them. Facial expressions say a lot too. Flattened ears, a hard stare and tightening muscles around the orbital bones and chewing muscles, repetitive mouth opening and head tossing are all signs that have been shown in studies to reflect pain experiences. A team in Milan, Italy have developed something called The horse grimace scale that can give you more insight with a quick Google.
Stressed horses display fairly obvious and consistent behaviours. They will often be stiff, with swivelling or forward pointing ears, wide eyes and nostrils, with possible nose blowing and defecation. Splayed front legs and leaning back may indicate he is scared and ready to bolt. A swishing tail and trembling are signs of stress, anxiety and fear too. As they move out of the stressful situation, horses will begin to involuntarily lick and chew. This results from the change from sympathetic to parasympatheic nervous systems, from stressing to relaxing.
While an impatient horse might paw at the ground to say they want to get moving, pawing can mean irritation and aggression in rarer cases. If combined with pinned ears, forceful pawing may precede some kind of charge, so it’s best to steer clear to keep yourself safe. Pawing may lead into stomping. A stomping horse is definitely mad about something and this is your warning. Maybe a fly is annoying him, something needs dislodging, another horse is annoying him, or something you’re doing is annoying him. Best to quickly rectify the situation, redirect his attention or get out the way. If your horse is stomping, you can see the whites of his eyes, he’s snaking his head and swishing his tail, you might be in line for a biting or worse, a strike. Horses might strike aggressively or defensively. This is a forceful forward kick with a front leg, and will injure you. Best case, a bit of bruising, but a rear and strike to the head can cause death.
A depressed horse is much like a depressed human. They tend to stare off, stand still for long periods, shift their weight forward, will often face walls and cut themselves off.
Happy horses smile. Not in the same sense we are used to, but they will half close their eyes and stretch out the upper lip, usually lifting the neck. This is referred to as the “Equine Smile”.
Horses can get irritated pretty quickly. They’re always taking in a lot of new information in lots of different ways. Irritation can sort of precede the other feelings we have talked about before they decide how they feel about something. Your horse will tell you they don’t like something, they don’t play games. Ridden horses swish their tails if they don’t like your leg cues, the same way they will swish if an insect is bothering them. If you’re grooming them in an undesirable fashion they might go wide-eyed and purse their lips.
Relaxed and comfortable
We learn about the other stuff in an effort to get to here. We want to avoid the other negative expressions and see these ones as much as we can. A relaxed horse will cock his leg, resting the leading edge of the hoof on the ground and dropping his hip. If his head is lowered and his ears are hanging to the side, this is him just chilling out. Cautiously. A cocked leg in a horse with other irritated signals could mean he’s thinking of kicking. A relaxed and contemplative horse will sometimes chew, despite not having food. A “soft” eye generally means relaxed. A tension-free body and mouth are good indicators in general.
Of course, everything is relative. Seeing the whites of the eyes, for example, may be a good indicator of aggression, it may also be pretty standard for your horse. Nobody communicates in quite the same way. We would encourage any equine lover to do some more in depth research into horse communication and to spend time working out what applies to your horse/s.