body language horse

The top ten equine body language postures you should pay attention to.

Observing our horses can bring great pleasure and peace, but if we’re paying attention it can also help us to gain an immense understanding of their nature. The horse’s language is predominantly silent, and body language and gestures are a big part of that communication.

Learning any language takes time, commitment, patience and practice. Sometimes it’s helpful to have an interpreter too. Here are ten of the most common body language gestures and postures you will encounter in your horse.

1. Awareness

Awareness ranks high on the horse’s list of survival traits and is especially displayed in herd leaders. With their high head carriage, horses focus on distant objects. Their ears pinpoint the location of their focus as well as reveal their mood. As flight animals, horses are reactive and a chain effect can occur within the herd. When in an overall relaxed state, “floppy” ears to the side show contentment; when at work, this same gesture can denote confusion. When creating a team of two, you want your horse to pay attention to you, with his ears pointed to you.

2. Move

Stallions often use “snaking” – lowering their heads and pinning their ears flat back against their necks in order to move not only the herd, but also unwanted strangers from the area. Some are more demonstrative than others, but either way this motion means “move” in no uncertain terms. You will know when this gesture is meant for you as your horse will stare you in the eyes, square his shoulders towards you and pin his ears flat back. The intimidating energy is also very clear!

3. Listening/focus

Ears signal what horses are listening to and where their attention lies. When placed forward, horses are focused on something ahead. When positioned softly backwards, they are paying attention to something from the rear. Each ear works independently and follows movement. Wherever your horse places his ear, his eye will follow.

4. Play

As social creatures, horses love to play. Their movements are intentional and although they sometimes appear rough, they usually involve mutual consent. You can capture the “whisper” in your horse’s eye and, with practice, determine a soft, playful eye versus a skeptical, concerned, fearful or dangerous one. Horses play both horse to horse and horse to human. Their mouths will remain supple – especially apparent in an extended top lip!

5. Mutual grooming

Mutual grooming is an important part of herd interaction. It’s a sign of mutual trust and respect. For me, it’s always a compliment when our horses invite us to become one with the herd. Their eyes remain soft, the head curves around your body, and they nuzzle you with their upper lips. Sometimes forgetting their strength, they use their teeth and have to be reminded to be gentle with our delicate skin, and nuzzle only.

6. Licking & chewing

A Pryor Mountain Mustang colt watches intensely from close by. As he eats his supper, his soft jaw motion shows his relaxed nature and comfort level in our presence. Licking and chewing is a sign of relaxation, understanding a request, and either a release of pressure or emotion. This communication is known to mean: “I am an herbivore and mean no harm.” A tight jaw on the other hand would denote fear and concern.

7. Curiosity

Savannah Belle, a Premarin (PMU) filly, is particularly confident and explores unknown situations and circumstances with confidence. Naturally curious horses enjoy investigating and engaging with unusual objects and beings. As they explore, you will often notice their ears forward, neck carriage reaching towards the object, a focused eye, soft muzzle, and large exploring nostrils.

8. Flehmen response

Here, a McCullough Peaks bachelor stallion checks a pile of manure for identification and marking purposes. The flehmen response, fondly known to many as “smiling”, is actually a horse’s response to an unusual smell. In order to identify the smell, the scent travels from the upper lip into the nose to the Jacob’s organ.

9. Worry

Carrying his nose high, this gelding displayed herd-bound behavior and yet at no time became overpowering or dangerous. His shoulder is situated in front of the handler and not towards her, which would indicate his intention to crowd or run over her. The light hand of his handler shows you that she was able to remain calm and gradually diffuse the situation. Worry in horses can be identified when their tails rise – particularly seen in many demonstrative hot-blooded horses such as Arabians. Head carriage high, they show the whites of their eyes and are light on their feet.

10. Flight mode

A green McCullough Peaks Mustang filly startled suddenly. This is her first time leading in an open and yet enclosed area and clearly there is little to no reasoning with her at this time. The gentle gelding ahead of her becomes the pillar of strength. An instantaneous tightening and tucking of the hind end muscles, an extremely high head carriage and a concerned eye are all indications that your horse is about to flee. If you take away flight, you often induce fight or freeze responses.

Better communication makes for better relationships

Horses are often subtle with their body language, but those “whispers” can quickly escalate to “shouts” if the conversation goes unheard. Capturing your horse’s initial thought can often eliminate misunderstandings, prevent undesirable behavior patterns, and enhance your relationship. Domesticated horses are asked to adapt to our lifestyles, which in many instances goes directly against their natural instincts. Many times their messages can appear similar and are often misinterpreted.

Before you expect and demand your horse to adjust to an unnatural world, you can enhance your relationship with him if you first reach out and meet him by learning the intricacies and subtleties of his body language. When we understand the herd guidelines to which our horses adhere, and that they are sentient beings and talk to us through non-verbal communication, a whole new world opens up before our eyes.