How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language

The article written by , 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.

Equine body language is expressive. Subtle changes in your horse’s posture, expression and movements can provide important clues to what he is thinking.
Some equine body language isn’t difficult to interpret. Chances are pretty good you understand what your horse is saying when he nickers as you bring him his feed. The meaning of a pinned ear and cocked hind hoof are also pretty obvious. But not all equine communication is quite so clear. Do you know what a clamped tail indicates? What a foal is saying when he clacks his teeth? Even more important, can you recognize subtle signs of fear or frustration before they escalate into a blowup?

Because people rely so much on verbal communication, it’s natural to focus on a horse’s vocalizations when trying to figure out what he is saying. But like many animals, horses communicate much more through postures, gestures and expressions than they do with their vocal cords.

The ability to read and respond to this horse body language is what sets great trainers apart from the rest. From a distance, it may look like these experts are “mind reading,” but in reality, they’re noticing and responding to the subtlest of cues from the horse, both on the ground as well as in the saddle.

This isn’t a mystical skill. Anyone who spends time around horses can learn to tune in to their unique forms of nonverbal communication. It may take some time and attention, but a better understanding of the language of horses will improve your horsemanship skills, and you’ll be able to read your horse more clearly and fine-tune your training and handling accordingly.

Today we will start with the ears:

What His Ears Say

One of the first lessons a novice rider is taught is that when a horse’s ears are forward he is alert, paying attention and/or interested in what’s in front of him, and when his ears are pinned back close to the neck he is angry and about to bite or kick. But the ears have more to say than just that:

Turned out to the side. The horse is asleep or relaxed and may not be attuned to what’s going on around him. You don’t want to march up to this horse and pat him because he may be startled and react by running over you, whirling or striking out. Instead, call his name or make some noise, and don’t approach until he turns his head or otherwise indicates that he’s paying attention to you.

Turned back. If your horse’s ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it often means he’s listening to something behind him—he may be deciding whether to run away or turn around and check out the sound. When combined with a swishing tail or other signs of tension in the body, turned-back ears may be a precursor to pinned ears.

Rapidly swiveling. Ears that are flicking back and forth are a sign that the horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness. He may be trying to locate the source of a frightening sound or smell, or he may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.

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