Horses may not speak our language, but we can learn to understand what they’re telling us through their behaviour and body language. Equine behaviour consultant Justine Harrison explains what to look for.

The eyes tell us a great deal about a horse’s emotional state. A nervous horse in a new environment may have extremely expressive eyes. A tired horse may have limited eye movement and a dull, vacant look.

A horse’s eye is the largest of any land mammal and vision is believed to be the horse’s primary sense.

Horses have an extremely wide field of vision, but cannot see directly in front of or behind themselves. It’s important for you to remember that the position of your horse’s head can enhance or impair his vision.

In new or scary situations he may need to move his head quickly to learn as much as possible about his environment.

When a horse starts to become nervous or anxious, the muscles in the inner brow area contract, causing the upper eyelid to change shape and the eye to become triangulated.

Worry lines

Wrinkes (or worry lines) form above the eye and research has shown that the number and depth of wrinkles is a good indicator of how stressed a horse is.

A horse who is constantly stressed may have numerous deep wrinkles on his upper eyelid as his eyes are continually triangulating in this way.

Eye wrinkles are common in horses, but differ in number, depth and shape between individuals.

Fear factor

The eye is one of the first indicators that a horse is frightened. Not only does the shape of the eye change when a horse is frightened, but the sclera (the white of the eye) also starts to show.

In some horses, the sclera is always visible, especially in coloured horses and ponies with lots of white on their faces.

A horse who isn’t blinking could be frozen in fear just prior to explosive behaviour, whereas a dull stare could be an expression of depression, illness or pain.

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