The article written by JENNIFER WILLIAMS, PHD, and published in Equus in 2013 already, focusses on the equine body language in an easy to understand and follow way, and it is worth presenting it again body part by body part to see the full picture of how an equine present himself to us as the owners, riders, trainers.
What His Forelegs Say
We’re all trained early on to watch out for a horse’s hind legs because that’s where the kicks come from, but the front legs can also communicate quite a bit:
Standing splayed. A horse spreads his front legs out to the sides and leans back a little when he is scared—he may be seconds away from a spook or bolt.
Injuries or health issues, such as weakness from malnutrition or neurological impairment, can also cause a horse to stand with his forelegs splayed. Call in a veterinarian if a horse standing splay legged is unwilling or unable to move.
Pawing. Horses paw—an arcing action with the foreleg that may dig a trench in soft ground—for a number of reasons. The bored or impatient horse paws when tied—he’s saying that he’s tired of standing around and he’s ready to go! Stressed horses may paw in the trailer or at feeding time, and the behavior stops when the source of the anxiety is past.
Pawing to indicate anger is rarer, but it is a signal you need to heed: In these cases, the pawing is more forceful and is often combined with pinned ears. In a loose horse, pawing like this often precedes a charge or some kind of attack. If you see this, get out of his way and make sure you’re not between him and another horse who may be the source of his aggression. In a horse who is tied or in hand, forceful, angry pawing may proceed a bite or strike. In this scenario, move other horses away, correct him with a sharp “No,” then refocus his attention by moving him from the area or putting him to work.
Stomping. Unlike pawing, stomping is raising and lowering a foot forcefully in place. Horses stomp to indicate irritation. Usually, it’s something minor, such as a fly they’re trying to dislodge. However, stomping may also indicate your horse is frustrated with something you are doing, and if you don’t address it, he may resort to stronger signals.
Striking. A strike is a forceful, forward kick with a front leg that can be either aggressive or defensive. This is a dangerous action. If you’re very lucky you’ll walk away with only a bruise, but a strike can break a bone. If the horse rears and strikes your head, he can kill you easily. Fortunately, horses rarely strike without warning, such as stomping or pawing, wide eyes, an elevated head or pinned ears. That’s why it is important to listen to those signals so that you can change your horse’s focus or prepare for worsening behavior.