Horse Body Language and Communication
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Some people only see horses alone in a stable, rarely in a field with other company. For this reason, it is too easy for some to see them as solitary animals. This is not the case. As with humans, horses are social animals which need contact with others to maintain their well-being. Horse communication functions through a system involving both body language and vocalizations. Although horses use these techniques to communicate with other horses, they also communicate with other animals and humans. As they use nonverbal communication, we need to be able to interpret the meanings of their signals.
At AnimalWised, we look at the different types of horse body language and communication. By understanding the different signals horses use to communicate, we can develop better understanding between horses and humans.
Why do horses communicate?
It may seem like an odd question, but different animals communicate for different reasons. Bees will dance to tell other bees where there is nectar, some animals can even change color to warn off potential predators. Despite their size, horses are actually prey animals. In the wild, apex predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions would all prey on horses.
Despite the fact many of the horse's natural predators are dying out, the horse maintains the behavior of a prey animal. This means they are wary of potential threats, will become defensive when they sense aggression and are likely to run away at the slightest movement. It is the reason many horses can be skittish or generally fearful. We are told not to walk behind a horse because they kick out of the fear something is attacking them from a vulnerable position.
Wild horses live in herds. They do this, in part, to help each other survive. By communicating with the other horses in their herd, they can warn when a predator is approaching or provide any information important to the group. They can also move to warmer climates when necessary and signal to others when they find food or other resources.
Some studies suggest that a herd can be in harmony up to 98% of the time. Through subtle changes in body language, the entire herd can change their course. These movements can be forceful and dramatic, but others might be practically unnoticeable to onlookers. Although we can never have the full understand of a horse, this is why it is important to try to understand their body language as much as possible. This is why we look at some of the most common signals in equine communication:
Horses using their eyes to communicate
A study from 2014 showed that the eyes also played an important part in horse communication. The study involved one horse looking at another horse to know where food was placed. When the faces were uncovered, the horse could work out where the food was most of the time. With the eyes of the other horse covered, this was less.
This shows that horses use their eyes to communicate, using them as information giving non-verbal cues. Their eyesight is very acute and they even have help at night due to having a tapetum lucidum. This is a reflective membrane at the back of the eye which helps to concentrate light. Since horses can be awake either day or night, this can be important.
Similar to human facial expressions, a horse's eyes can also identify their mood. When there is tension around the eyes, it is possible they are tense in themselves. If they are moving very quickly or darting around, they may be fearful. It is usually a way for them to check out their surroundings and see if there is somewhere to make a quick escape.
Eye movement in horses is important. When a horse's eyes are wide, it is possible they are scared. The wideness may come from a fear response. When a horse is showing the whites of their eyes (sclera), they may be scared or alarmed. However, it is important to note that some horses, particularly with some breeds, may show some white of the eye normally. We should look at the other signals which make up horse communication to best determine their mood or state.
It is also important to remember that a horse has blind spots thanks to the positioning of their heads, so they may look askance just so they can see better.
Horse ear signals
The ears are one of the most important ways by which a horse can communicate. Through changing the positioning of their ears, horses can send various signals. These can provide information on their mood, attention, possible attack and even provide signals to instigate mating.
One of the reasons ears are so valuable in equine communication is because they can move independently of each other. The horse can register their attention to two different areas at the same time, something important when protecting themselves in the wild. Some examples of horse ear positions and their meanings include:
- Stiff ears turned forward meaning the horse is alert and expectant.
- Flat ears back and close to the head indicating the horse can have a spontaneous and volatile attitude.
- When a horse is being ridden and their ears slightly lower, they are listening carefully.
- When a horse's ears are hanging on either side of their head, they are either bored or tired.
- Relaxed and loose ears is an indicator they are comfortable with the company they are in, whether with a horse or person.
In the study we mentioned above, although the horse's eyes gave important signals, the ears appeared to be even more significant. This was seen when the horse's worst ability to understand where the food was placed occurred when the other horse's ears were covered.
Head and neck position in horses
The neck and head of a horse can be surprisingly mobile. The horse will move them into various positions and make various gestures to communicate. Head and neck movement in horses is most likely related to intent. While there are dozens of gestures which can be made, some of the most common include:
- Thrusting the head thrusts can signal aggressive threats between horses. If ignored, they can quickly escalate to a lunge or charge to attack.
- Bowing the neck is often a response to aggression from other creatures.
- Neck and head slightly down implies the horse is relaxed and content.
- Neck completely drooping implies the horse is almost asleep or sleeping.
- Neck and head raised means the horse is active, excited or alert to any stimuli.
- When the horse draws their head and neck back, especially while walking back, they are trying to evade something.
As we stated above, horses also communicate vocally. They use different sounds to indicate different emotions or intentions. Perhaps the most well-known is neighing. You can find out more by looking at our article on why horses neigh.
Horse tail communication
Similar to the way a dog uses their tail to communicate, he horse's tail is a very expressive part of their body. When it is swaying, it means the horse is calm and relaxed. They may even be using the tail to drive away flies.
However, when a horse whips their tail dramatically or swishes it nervously, it means they are in a state of agitation. Even if they seem otherwise calm, it is possible the horse will become aggressive in a split-second. On the contrary, when the horse's tail is raised, it means they are excited. As with dogs, horses will hide their tail between their legs when they are in a state of fear or submission.
Flehmen response and mouth communication
Along with some other animals, horses carry out a behavior known as the flehmen response. You may have seen them do it yourself. It occurs when they curl back their top lip and inhale with their nostrils closed. They often extend their neck out and reach into the air for a few seconds.
The purpose of the flehmen response is to open up access to the Jacobson's organ (also known as the vomeronasal organ). This is a part of the body which allows the horse to detect pheromones and find out information about another horse, another animal or their environment. It is important to remember that smell is also a key aspect of horse communication.
A horse's mouth itself can also provide signals about their current state. Retracting lips are not only used in the flehmen's response. They can also be a threatening signal, especially when exposing their teeth and gums. When a horse is licking their lips, some claim it is a sign the horse is learning something from the environment. Others say it is employed after a tense situation to relieve stress.
Of course, a horse moving their mouth also implies they are looking for food. A horse will move their lips in the direction of something delicious, often because their line of sight occludes it from being able to perceive it with vision.
Horse body language
Although there are specific parts of the body which are used for communication, the body as a whole will say much about their emotional state. As with most humans, a horse may tremble and shiver when they are nervous or fearful. When something unknown to them approaches, their whole body may shake. Sometimes they may step or run away, but when they are very tense, they may not want to move.
Although horses can be sensitive and fearful among strangers, they can also be curious and playful. The latter occurs especially in those which have been educated well. If they reach out to you with their muzzle in a gentle manner, they are likely wanting to know more about you. They may also want a little affection or reassurance if they trust the person.
When a horse is tense and worried, their body will be tense and visibly agitated. Conversely, when they are relaxed, a horse will be moving gently and have greater fluidity. We can often see their body movements and other signals previously mentioned in concert. We need to pay attention to as many as we can to predict how the horse may behave in a given situation.
Horse and human communication
When we look after a horse, it is important we learn their body language and communication signals. This not only means we learn the general signals described in this article, but also those specific to a given horse. Some horses have an even temperament, but others may be spooked easily.
Getting to know the temperament, personality and behavior of your horse is not a chore. It is something which helps you to bond and discover together. Eventually, you won't need to think about how to interpret a horse's body language, but know what they are saying as if you were another one of the herd.
While all horses are individuals, certain horse types and breeds have common characteristics. To know more about the Arabian horse breed, you can take a look at the video below:
If you want to read similar articles to Horse Body Language and Communication, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.
1. Wathan, J., & McComb, K. (2014). The eyes and ears are visual indicators of attention in domestic horses. Current Biology, 24(15), 677-679.