Horse behaviour can tell you a lot about how an equine is feeling. We all strive to keep our horses happy, but how do we know if they truly are? There are tell-tale signs to look for to gauge whether a horse is happy or not. Here horse behaviour expert Dr Debbie Marsden explains the 13 signs you can look out for to check how your horse is feeling.
Signs to look out for include your horse’s body language, their behaviour in the field, as well as their behaviour in the stable and when you ride. Horses are constantly communicating with us and it’s our job, as loving horse owners and riders, to listen with our eyes and our ears.
How to read your horse’s body language
1. Their nostrils
Your horse’s nostrils should be relaxed, soft and round. If they are unhappy, the nostrils become tight, thin and drawn.
2. Their lip line
Your horse’s lip line should curl down slightly in a relaxed, soft manner. If a horse is feeling tense, they’ll be tight and drawn in this area.
3. The lower jaw
Your horse’s lower jaw should be loose when they are feeling happy. Their lower mouth may hang down and you might also see the horse dribbling, a great sign that they are feeling happy and relaxed.
4. The tail
Your horse’s tail will be fairly loose and swinging freely and evenly when they move. In the absence of any injuries that affect where the horse’s tail hangs, it should be straight.
5. Their ears
Your horse’s ears are generally not something you should determine happiness from as they will normally point them in the direction of where they are feeling tense. If they’re pointing forward or back, your horse is probably concentrating on something in that direction
How to read horse behaviour in the field
6. Rearing and pawing
It may look as though your horse is fighting, but rearing up with their front legs at another horse or pawing the ground are often signs they are enjoying themselves. Horses generally won’t play with each other unless they’re happy. If they are galloping along the fence line, this may well be an indication that the horse is feeling stressed and unhappy.
7. Looking relaxed
Your horse should look physically relaxed while grazing and alert to the environment.
8. Mutual grooming
Mutual grooming in the field is also a sign a horse is relaxed, healthy and bonding with another horse.
How to read a horse’s behaviour in the stable
9. Regular droppings
Your horse’s droppings should be regular and of a normal amount. When horses are stressed, they may not defecate, which is an indication they are not happy.
10. Sharing a haynet
If your horse shares a haynet with a stable mate while they’re tied up in the yard, it’s a sign they are happy.
11. A smooth bed
Your horse’s bedding should remain largely in place, as happy horses aren’t restless in their stable. A stressed horse may pace around.
12. Stable vices
Stable vices, such as crib-biting and box walking, are not something your horse will do only if they are stressed – they also release endorphins that make them feel happy, so vice-like behaviour could be a sign they are feeling excited.
How to read a horse’s behaviour when you ride
13. Breathing out
When your horse breathes out through their nostrils and makes a soft snorting sound, it’s a sign that your horse is relaxed in the diaphragm while being ridden and feeling happy in themselves.