Horses have a subtle yet effective way of communicating with each other, and it’s our job as good owners to identify the language.
It would be brilliant if we could have a conversation with our horses to ask them why they behaved in a certain way or to simply know what they are thinking — but sadly, we can’t.
So how can we work out what they are trying to tell us? Here are six things you need to know about how your horse communicates with you.
1. Your horse’s body language is subtle
While it is one of the horse’s best ways of communicating with us, a horse’s body language can be very subtle and is often missed by humans. One reason for their subtlety is that horses are naturally stoic, as they wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to themselves in the wild by being loud or overtly displaying illness that could attract predators.
We can also train our horses to look calm and collected, even when they are not. For example, police horses are taught to stand and not move when a rioting crowd comes towards them.
While they may look as though they are holding it together, their heart rate is high, indicating that they are stressed.
2. There are important signs to pay attention to
If a horse is uncomfortable, they will show subtle signs that are enough to get a reaction from other horses, but can be missed by humans. These include:
- tail swishing
- shaking his body
- a triangular eye
- tense muzzle
- open mouth
If we miss his subtle signs, then he might start to communicate more ‘loudly’. These behaviours can include:
3. Your horse’s facial expression is very telling
Our horse’s facial expression can reveal more than you might think about how he’s feeling.
You can do this using the Horse Grimace Scale. This is a pain assessment tool which identifies six facial expressions of a horse and scores them on a scale of 0 (not present), 1 (moderately present) and 2 (obviously present).
The actions are:
- Stiffly backwards ears — the horse’s ears are held stiffly and turned backwards causing the space between the ears to appear wider at the top compared to the base line.
- Orbital tightening — the horse’s eyelid is partially or completely closed. Any closure that reduces eye size by more than half is coded 2 (obviously present).
- Tension above the eye area — contractions of the muscles in the area above the eye causes underlying bone surfaces to appear more prominent.
- Prominent strained chewing muscles — this is increased tension above the mouth.
- Mouth strained and pronounced chin — a strained mouth is clearly visible when the upper lip is drawn back and the chin appears more pronounced.
- Strained nostrils and flattening of the muzzle’s profile — the horse’s nostrils look strained and slightly dilated, and the profile of the nose flattens with elongated lips.
4. Watch out for learned helplessness
Some negative behaviours are labelled as naughty ones, and instead of working out what is causing it, we punish the behaviour. In the end, the horse gives up and does what is asked because it is better than being punished.
He now has to continue working through his discomfort or confusion and the only way to deal with that is to shut down, also known as ‘learned helplessness’.
A horse with this condition may have a sad demeanour or be non-responsive. They may present with a lowered head, little interest in their surroundings and it looks like they have given up.
5. Your horse may ‘talk’ to you
Horses aren’t hugely vocal animals, but they can use their voices when they need to. A loud vocalisation may be used when your horse is on his own and trying to locate his friends. If he whinnies as you pull into the yard, he might have learnt what your car sounds like and is trying to work out where you are.
He might whicker at you as a greeting in anticipation of what you may offer in way of care and food. If he squeals, it is usually social excitement, whilst a nicker is used to attract the attention of other horses.
Snorting, particularly if short, can be a sign of fear or excitement. This is different to a nose blow, which is when they clear their nose.
6. We can learn our horse’s language
Learning your horse’s body language is key to understanding what he is trying to communicate with you. Negative behaviour doesn’t mean that the horse is being naughty — pain should always be ruled out first. Other reasons could be that he is depressed, or doesn’t understand what we are asking him to do.
If in doubt, seeking the advice of a behaviour consultant can be a good start to understanding what he is trying to tell you. As you practise, you will find it easier to pick up on the subtle signs he’s making to show you how he’s feeling.