The Language of Horses
Photos & Article by Annamaria Tadlock

Like all social animals, horses need to communicate. Horses live in small herds with a social hierarchy, with older and larger horses tending to be dominant and younger, smaller ones lower on the social ladder.

Every horse has a position in the herd; dominant horses eat or drink first, and less dominant horses will move out of their way and show respect, which prevents fighting. Dominant horses lead the way, and the others follow. Living in a herd situation not only provides companionship, it also gives protection against predators.

Translating horse is useful to anyone who works in industries involving horses. Breeders, riders, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, animal chiropractors, and even authors or movie producers can benefit from understanding horses.

While horses’ main form of communication is through body language, they do vocalize. We classify many of the different sounds into the categories of neighs (or whinnies), nickers, snorts, squeals, and blows. These can be divided further by meaning – for example, the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker, or the maternal nicker.

A basic “neigh” or “whinny” is what you often hear in the movies (generally a sound effect added in later; Horses do not neigh when they’re running into battle). The neigh is the loudest sound a horse makes, generally with the head held high, the ears forward, and the mouth open. Horses do this to try to locate their herd mates or people— it basically translates to “Hey, I’m here, where are you?” You’ll often hear this sound when a horse is separated from its friends and is trying to locate them, or when a horse is unloaded at a new place (a show ground, for example) and is trying to see who is there. It can be done in a shrill and panicky manner—for example, if a young horse is separated from its mother. (Youtube video of a horse neighing)

The nicker is a softer neigh, generally not as piercing, and done only through the nostrils. It is usually a greeting. This is the sound you’ll hear when you walk into the barn in the morning to feed your horse; they generally greet you with a friendly “hello!”
This is also seen when two horses greet each other, in a friendly manner (horses that are friends are more likely to nicker to each other than two horses that don’t know each other). However, just as people have individual personalities, so do horses. We had one horse that would nicker all the time to any person she saw or met, and to other horses too. (Youtube video of a horse nickering)

Nickers can also be used in courtship situations. Stallions are often very vocal when they are interested in a mare, and will emit low, long nickers. The Bedouins rode Arabian mares into battle, because sneaking up on an enemy was difficult if your horse would nicker to warn them you were coming. (Youtube video of a miniature horse nickering to mare)

Mares have a maternal nicker that they will use with foals. It is generally very soft and low and often used when the mother is worried (for example, if the foal runs off to go investigate something), or comforting the foal. (Video of newborn foal and mare)

Snorting is blowing air through the nostrils to produce a low, long sound. The sound comes from the nostrils vibrating, rather than an actual vocalization from the throat. A snort is done to point out something the horse is scared or wary of. They are saying, “Hey, there is something scary here!” It is not uncommon to ride a horse past a “scary” object (a lawn chair, a hose on the ground) and have them lower their head and snort toward it. Snorting can tell other horses that there is something to watch out for. Because the horse is generally scared, the neck is usually outstretched toward the object or held high, and the body usually tense and ready for flight. However, snorting can also be done in play, when horses pretend to be scared, as in this video-- the horse is running around playing and gives a snort.

There is also another type of snort that has no significance because it is done to clear the nostrils of debris. This is generally seen when the horse is eating or in a dusty area— like a sneeze, it is a quick exhalation through the nose, often done with a shake of the head, and none of the tenseness seen in a warning snort. (Video of horse rolling in dusty area, and snorting)

Squeals are high-pitched and often done in annoyance or anger. They are seen when horses are about to fight, or often as a way to say “Get away from me now” as a warning before a horse will kick or bite another horse. For example, if two stallions meet, they may squeal before fighting. It is also seen when a stallion is courting a mare who has no interest—she may squeal at him while threatening to kick. (Video of angry horse squeal)

Horses will blow through their nostrils when meeting other horses for the first time. If they like each other, they may simply sniff and then leave. If they dislike each other, or one is challenging the other’s dominance, they may squeal.

Horses may also groan or grunt, often a sound made when getting up or laying down. It can also be done out of pain, and many painful conditions (such as colic) will make a horse want to lie down or twist about to find relief.

The horse’s main way of communicating, however, is through body language. The ears, face, tail, neck, and even general body position can tell you a lot about the horse. Is he scared and about to bolt? Is she in pain, or just being lazy? Is he only playing, or is he going to attack?
Like all language, an accurate translation relies on taking into account more than just what is “said”—the body language and context are important too. For example, a nicker may mean “hello”—or, if it’s feeding time, it may mean “Hey, feed me first!” before the horse begins to bang on his stall to get your attention.

The horse’s ears and face will often display how they are feeling. A relaxed horse may have its ears drooping to the side or lower lip hanging down.
The ears laid back can mean the horse is giving a warning and is about to bite.
However, the ears back can also just mean the horse is listening behind him. An angry horse will often have ears laid flat back, the lips will usually tighten in the corners (the teeth may show), and the eyes may show their whites, and they may shake their head. A horse that is simply listening to its rider will have one or both ears tilted back but a relaxed face.

The ears are also laid back when the horse is moving fast. You will never see a horse racing with ears forward. When horses are running—either in play or in competition—they will have their ears back, to protect the ear and prevent air from rushing into it. Much like people may frown when concentrating, horses will also lay their ears back when concentrating at a task, and performance horses will often flip their ears back during difficult maneuvers.

Ears forward signify interest. Horses greet each other with their ears forward. If your horse thinks you’ve hiding a treat, he’ll probably have his ears forward and his nostrils sniffing at you, trying to find it. However, scared or nervous horses often point their ears forward to listen for potential dangers, but will have their head up, often looking around.

Tail-swishing is a sign of annoyance; it can mean, “Get back, I’m going to kick”. The tail may also show signs of excitement; Horses will often play or run with their tail held high; Foals are often seen doing this. Horses will sometimes stand side-by-side, swishing their tails, but this is done as a sign of friendship, and a way to get relief from flies and bugs.

A leg cocked can mean the horse is about to kick—or is simply relaxing, depending on whether he’s acting annoyed (ears back), or sleepy (ears sideways, head down). It can also mean his leg hurts, if it is accompanied by limping or reluctance to move.

Foals have a specific behavior not seen in older horses. When a foal greets a larger, older horse, they will open their mouth and chomping movements, with their ears forward. This “foal-greeting” is a way for them to be respectful and avoid getting hurt. It’s like they are saying “Hey, I’m only a baby, nice to meet you.” (This video shows a foal opening/closing mouth in a greeting; he is nervous because of the person near his mother)

When trying to understand horses, the whole body can also tell you what the horse is saying. If a horse is afraid, he will be tense, his head high, ears flickering nervously, nostrils dilated, and he may snort or prance. If a horse is in pain, he will generally stand still, and be disinterested in what’s going on, breathe quickly, swish his tail, or act lethargic.

Horses learn to communicate and behave by socializing with other horses. A foal quickly learns that trying to eat another horse’s food will get him bitten. This is why horses that are kept in isolation often develop behavioral problems or are hard to train. Horses that spend prolonged time with people who don’t correct their bad behaviors become more aggressive and dangerous. Breeding stallions that are kept alone, except when breeding, are often more aggressive and exhibit disrespectful and dangerous behaviors toward other people and horses.

Horses will sometimes “test” their person to see who is dominant. It is not unusual to see foals bite at people to see if they can get away with it. Little nips may be cute from a foal, but from a full-grown horse they can be deadly. A horse that runs into you while you’re leading is not showing aggression, but is showing disrespect. In a herd, entering a dominant horse’s “personal space” can get you bitten or kicked. By walking into you, the horse is showing you he doesn’t respect you, and he may end up stepping on or trampling on you.

If you’re working with horses, it is just as important to “talk” back as it is to translate. A good trainer or rider is sensitive to how a horse is feeling and can tell if a horse is misbehaving because he’s hyper, scared, in pain, misunderstanding the rider, or just being lazy. If a horse moves into your personal space, you make him move back. This is what a dominant horse would do. If a horse is scared, you stroke and comfort him—much like a mare would nuzzle a scared foal.

Being the “lead horse” is vital to a good (and safe) relationship with horses. Understanding what horses are saying can help you begin to communicate back, and as all horse people know, the foundations of riding, training, and showing are built on the ability for horse and human to communicate.


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