- Pets and Animals
Body Language 101
Learning to Speak Horse
I'm not an expert by any means, but I consider body language to be the single most important thing we can learn when it comes to being around horses. Horses are inherently honest and forthright communicators and just as we expect them to learn to understand us, so should we make the same effort to understand them. It is the "failure to communicate" that so often causes problems between people and horses. By the time a horse kicks or bites, he has usually run through several milder attempts to communicate his feelings to us which were either ignored or (more likely) went completely unnoticed. How many times have you heard someone begin relating an incident with, "I don't know WHAT happened..."
The more I've studied horse's body language (both at home with our own and out and about at various places) the more fascinated I become as to the depths and the degrees of it. Watching horses and other people interacting with horses at public events can help you gain an even clearer understanding. I'm pretty sure that this is one of those things that you could spend the rest of your life studying (that's my current plan) and still never learn it all.
I've used my own photos where possible and tried to find as many additional photographs as I could for you (without infringing on copyrights or stepping on toes) and I hope you find it every bit as fascinating as I do - I just LOVE this stuff! :o)
PHOTO: Cinnamon (L) and Katie (R) We really miss Katie's antics; she was a little stinker and always got into all KINDS of trouble (she was returned to her previous owner, who decided he wanted her back).
Although equine body language can be pretty easy to understand superficially, it is actually a very complex topic. I have tried hard to share the subtleties and nuances of what I've learned on this lens (without being too confusing) and hopefully have managed to make it kid friendly and easy enough to understand to include those with little to no horse knowledge too. I didn't want anybody to feel left out :o)
Would you ever consider running up to a stranger on the street, grabbing them in an enthusiastic bear hug and then giving them a big smacking kiss on the cheek? Of course not! As ridiculous as that example may sound, that's just what we're doing when we march right up to a horse, plant ourselves in their personal space and start petting them without so much as a by-your-leave.
Now don't get me wrong, horses are pretty tolerant of our "lack of manners", but that's no reason for us not to practice them. Almost all horses (with a few rare exceptions) love to have attention from people; it's only that they would prefer to be asked first. This is easy enough to accomplish: simply walk up to the horse and give them a moment to check you out (extend your hand, palm down with fingers curled under if you like; this somewhat mimics another horse extending his nose in friendship or greeting). That's all there is to it!
PHOTO: Champ exchanging introductions with one of our "unofficial" visitors :o)
Have you ever noticed that all people seem to have different definitions of personal space? I tend to be a bit reserved, and do not like it at all when someone crowds me. Some people are happy to stand a few feet away to carry on a conversation, while others feel the need to get right in your face (which is SO not cool, especially if they had onions for lunch). Horses are like that too; our Rina has a very LARGE personal space, while Taya on the other hand is not bothered in the slightest when people or her pasture pals get up close and personal. I do not consider this to be a question of right or wrong, nor is it strictly a training issue; it's more a matter of personality (but something you should definitely be aware of).
Just how self aware are horses when it comes to their personal space? - Pretty darn aware :o)
A friend of mine sent me this beautiful photo of a horse accommodating a tiny fawn who had wandered WAY into his personal space (see how his leg is bent out of baby's way?) Horses are amazingly self aware when it comes to their bodies; the biggest exception to this rule being when something else completely eclipses their attention (then all bets are off :o)
Body Language Basics
Horses are masters of subtlety, which oftentimes cause problems for we humans (as masters of large bricks). The horse is primarily a visual communicator (we are primarily auditory), and they are capable of communicating a vast array of thoughts and feelings through body language. Just as we use voice inflection and volume to talk-TALK-TALK, so do horses engage in specific degrees of body language. Communication can be talking - using one or two specific areas, e.g. the head and ears; a more emphatic statement - using several areas at once, e.g. ears, nose & head; or the horse's equivalent of shouting - e.g. pinning the ears back, a pinched nose, rapid swishing of the tail, and moving the head backwards and to the side to indicate extreme anger (the last group of signs often preface a bite or a kick-see photo below).
The Equine Shout
You did not listen to what I said,
and you did not listen to what I Said,
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW???
The direction of a horse's ears, when paired with other body language, can indicate what that horse is thinking or feeling in addition to where his attention is. With the exception of additional body language, a horse's primary focus tends to be wherever his ears are pointing.
Pricked (Forward) - Alert or awake. Can indicate interest in an object or sound; curiosity, and/or anticipatory happiness (just watch how they ping to attention when you approach with a feedbucket :o)
Drooping/Floppy - Dozing, content, relaxed and/or happy.
Laid Back - Requesting something (nose out), listening to or focusing on something behind him (head usually up), or concentrating intently (head lowered slightly and nose pulled in toward chest). Just as we may furrow our brow and frown when we are seriously concentrating on a task, so do they.
Pinned Back - Annoyance or anger. If the horse is mildly annoyed, he may pin them back for a moment (this is usually accompanied by the head moving back and to the side slightly) before pointing them forward again; if he is very angry, they will all but disappear into his mane.
Multidirectional - Hesitancy or confusion (flicking forward-back-forward or forward-side-forward) or listening in two directions at once.
The Ear Flick - Acknowledgement (e.g. when one ear pops back to you and returns to its previous position; I liken this to our "uh-huh").
Shifting the Gears with Ears - MEETING MR. RAIN SLICKER (L) and KEEPING AN EAR ON HIM (R)
Note the change of direction in Bella's ears when I place the rain slicker on her back. She is still paying attention to me, but she is also focused on the slicker (the slight tilt of her head (R) indicates she is definitely thinking about this).
Relaxed (L) and Happy (R)
Lady is dozing (L) and Shadow is all but cross-eyed with equine ecstasy from getting his chest scratched.(R)
Laid Back (L) vs. Pinned (R)
The horse on the left is dozing and/or listening to something behind him. The pony on the right, however, is obviously angry about something (note the pinched nostrils). Chances are, any attempt to pet this cranky little fellow would result in either a snap or a bite (ouch).
Pricked (L) and Multidirectional (R) - From our Farm Day photos
This is Champ: He was very curious and eager to "meet" the the strange new creature, a little bunny, in the photo on the left (ears are up, nose is out, nostrils are flared and neck is arched). He was not quite as sure, however, about the piglet (R). Notice how his ears are flicking front to back, indicating his uncertainty; his neck is straight, plus his head is a little higher and pulled back slightly. His hesitancy turned out to be a good call; the piglet squealed loudly in his face, causing Champ to bid a hasty retreat to a safe hiding place behind Lady :o)
The view from above - THE EAR FLICK (L) and PINNED (R)
The photo on the left shows the ear flick (acknowledging a non-troublesome sound or movement). The one on the right indicates anger or extreme annoyance (if I was going to hazard a guess, I'd say another horse moved into his personal space from behind).
The horse has beautiful eyes; when the eye is calm it seems to hold an expression of utter peace and tranquility.
The Worry Line - A series of wrinkles that appear above the eye. It occurs when the horse is worried (obviously), uncomfortable, feeling pain, depressed, distressed, or concerned. This is often the very first sign a horse will display out of all body language.
Whites Showing - Fear, alarm (accompanied by flared nostrils, ears pointed toward the source of the distress or flicking, and the head is up and pulled back) or anger (accompanied by pinched nostrils, pinned ears and a lowered head with nose thrust forward, chin tucked or head to the side). Bella will, on occasion, look down without lowering her head to bring me into better focus*, thereby exposing the whites (doesn't mean anything, but she sure looks like a wild woman :o)
*NOTE: Horses use the top part of their eye to see distance, and the bottom part to see people or objects that are close by.
Frightened (L) vs. Fretting (R)
While both horses are showing worry lines, the horse on the left has his head up (showing fear). The horse on the right, however, has worry lines that are more clearly pronounced and his chin is pulled in toward the chest (indicating distress).
Appaloosas (L) and Afraid (R)
It is important to note that while both these photos show the whites of the eye, only the horse on the right is afraid. Although the sclera (white part) of the Appaloosa's eye is visible, he is not afraid. That is actually an identifiable characteristic of the breed. He does appear to be somewhat "concerned" about the photographer though (note the uncertain ears and worry line).
The nose is usually a secondary sign and almost always paired with other body language. The more pinched the nose, the more intense the feeling and the more pronounced the wrinkles become just behind the nostril (toward the eye).
Flared - Alarm, fright, after heavy exercise, or the obvious strong/unusual odor (see "Startled vs. Scared photo (L) further down this lens :o)
Pinched - Anger, pain or very serious business (at feeding time Lady will follow me to her stall with ears back and nostrils pinched; mealtimes ARE serious business).
Protruding - I've dubbed this one "Equine Ecstasy", and consider it a visual version of our delighted (and auditory) back scratching "AHHHH" sound. The pointier the shape of the nose, the higher the degree of delight.
Pinched vs. Plain Jane
The pinched nose (the dirty one on the left :o) can sometimes be harder to spot than some of the other language (note the teeny tiny wrinkle that appears behind the nostril).
Protruding vs. Pointy - It's the personalities that pick
I have noticed that a horse's expression of delight comes in degrees and seems to be directly related to their unique personalities. Rina (photo Left) tends to be serious and a bit reserved. If you look carefully at her photo, you can see that there is a definite protrusion of Rina's upper lip and two shallow but distinct "camel humps" have appeared indicating her enjoyment (DD was scratching her tummy).
Taya, on the other hand is very playful and outgoing (photo Right). Note how her little nose and even her chin have protruded and elongated to match her current state of absolute bliss. Continued scratching ultimately results in a "Stevie Wonder impersonation", with Taya's head waving happily from side to side :o)
This little clip was made for a blogpost - but I decided to put it here too ('cause it's neat ;o)
Happy Trails to You.... - (Champ in Equine Ecstasy)
WOO-HOO that feels good!!!
Not only are this horse's nostrils pinched, he appears to be grinding his teeth. Someone obviously got on HIS last nerve today and he is giving it some serious thought (note the wrinkle behind the nostril and the additional wrinkles around his mouth :o)
Photo courtesy of:Photos of horses
THE HEAD and NECK
The head and neck tend to work in sync, so I've put them together here (note the ear flick acknowledging the photographer)
The Arched Neck - Hesitant or mildly alarmed curiosity (new object/new horse), anticipation and excitement, or flirtation (as in stallion to mare).
Head Up (beyond normal position) - Fear/alarm or extreme agitation; just as a clamped tail indicates a kick is next on the agenda; the head flung high and pulled back will preface a rear if the horse is unable to flee to a "safe" distance.
Head to the Side (ears pinned back) - Very angry, generally a "leave me alone" statement.
Head Tilted - Thinking (ears laid back, nose may be slightly in - see Bella's earlier photo, several modules up); Requesting (head extended, ears laid back, nose out).
Head Down/Chin Tucked - Anger/aggression (nose out, glaring eye and ears pinned or chin toward neck, glaring eye and ears pinned) or requesting permission to enter space of another horse or a person (nose out, worried eye, ears laid back). Requesting permission is often mistaken for aggression (to the horse's detriment).
Bella (L) is anticipating her treat for giving me a kiss (note the ear flick acknowledging the photographer); The horse on the right, however, appears slightly alarmed, but still curious, over whatever is in the bucket (I'm thinking it's probably not supper :o)
Startled (L) vs. Scared (R) - EYES, NOSTRILS, EARS and HEAD
Both these horses have flared nostrils and the whites of the eyes are showing indicating alarm. Notice the difference, however, in ears and head positions. The horse on the left is still curious about what startled him, whereas the ears of the horse on the right show uncertainty and he has flung his head up in the air indicating a more intense degree of alarm. The horse on the right will likely either bolt or rear if the source of his fright is not removed.
The question: To panic or not to panic? - You're often the one who supplies the answer to your horse (whether you mean to or not)
This horse was frightened by something nearby, and more likely to escalate to a state of total panic because he is tied. Unfortunately, Peter Pinhead (L) chose to lunge forward and snatch at the lead rope which only served to frighten the horse further.
When the attempt to rear was unsuccessful this horse threw himself backwards almost into a sitting position and fought frantically to escape his tether, hollering for help the whole time (ya might just wanna rethink the whole grabbing at the lead rope thing there buddy - *facepalm*).
The Equine Request
I think it's pretty obvious what this horse is asking his person for (she has a handful of treats). Ears are laid back, nose is out and head is ever so slightly tilted; is that not the sweetest expression?
Head to the Side and Chin Tucked
This horse (L) is clearly none to keen on sharing his hay (M-I-N-E); while the horse on the right seems to have had just about enough of Mr. Photographer and everybody else on the planet (note the pinned ears, pinched nostrils and whites of his glaring eye). This horse will likely behave aggressively toward anyone that approaches him (I'd pass - yikes).
Head Down and Pawing the Ground - Can preface a bigger problem
Pawing generally indicates an escalating nervousness, annoyance or impatience. This horse wanted someone to get him out of there RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Because no one responded to this horse's request for help when he began pawing, he opted to take it to the next level by throwing himself on the ground and rolling (another variation of the equine shout) in a more desperate attempt to get someone to listen to him.
Aside from the fly issue, the tail can also be an integral part of a horse's body language. It is usually used to indicate extreme feeling (a kind of punctuation mark, if you like).
Swishing - Really angry, extremely aggravated or total happiness.*
Flagged - Extreme fear (when running) or utter delight (together with a head bob while trotting/prancing in circles or other patterns; a full-body celebration).**
Clamped - Fright (usually precedes a kick; they may just drop their derriere and scoot) or feeling cold and/or wet.
* Visit our website and watch the video clip of Blue Horse Matinee on our Horse Heroes page to see those happy swishes in action :o)
**Some breeds have a higher tail set (see Lady's photo, above) and consequently offer a more intense version of the "flag". Both Bella and Shadow's tails will flip all the way upside down at these times.
Casual (L) vs. Clamped (R)
There is usually a small space under the horse's tail (L). The horse on the right has his tail clamped due to cold (if it is due to fear, it is usually a precursor to either bolting or kicking).
Comparing the Tail Set
These two horses have different tail sets. While both horses are trotting and each has raised his tail slightly, the horse on the right has a higher tail set. If I was going to guess, I'd peg the horse on the left as a Quarter Horse and the one on the right an Arabian.
Extreme Tail Torquage - How high will it fly?
This photo shows a horse with his tail flipped completely over. Two of our horses: Shadow (a Tennessee Walker), and Bella (an Arabian), do this on occasion.
Punctuation can be crucial for clarification - Be sure to read the complete "sentence"!
Looking at the photo above, note the pinned ears, pinched nostrils and tucked chin of this horse. It is easy to tell by looking at these things that she is angry.
When you add in the tail as an exclamation point, however, you can see that this mare is not merely angry; she is L-I-V-I-D.
Below are some additional photographs showing more equine body language; including several of the combinations previously mentioned.
In Social Situations
This is an instinctive social skill inherent in all foals. When faced with anything larger than themselves (or when shown aggression such as the horse on the left), the foal will thrust his nose out and open and close his mouth numerous times in succession (clacking his teeth together). Basically, it's a "Please don't hurt me you are the boss" statement made in self preservation; (like yelling "Uncle-uncle-uncle!" in advance :o)
The Squeal and Strike - Not the best photo; sorry
When two horses meet, they will usually touch noses and then decide which one of them is in charge. Generally, the horse with more self confidence (or sass) will let out a squeal followed by a lashing out of one or both front feet to establish dominance. This is our Rina (a purebred Arabian mare-right) telling Cinnamon (our Appaloosa) in no uncertain terms that she IS his superior. Cinnamon's Appy-tude was undermined by his uncertainty in this particular situation (note the ears) and was no match for Rina's fiery temperament (needless to say, she won :o)
Well, there goes the neigh-borhood...
Horses can have very strong opinions about other horses. Even with a wall separating these two, the horse on the left clearly does NOT like his neighbor (and is more than happy to let her know how he really feels).
Focus and concentration - EARS & HEAD
Both of these horses are intensely focused on the business at hand. Heads slightly down with the chin pulled in towards the chest; one ear back in concentration, and the other focused on the person giving directions.
Distressed but Dedicated - EARS & HEAD
These two horses are still attempting to listen to their riders despite their obvious distress. The one on the left looks to be in pain or discomfort (note the head position and worry line), and the one on the right is in a panic (note the head position, flared nostrils and whites of his eyes).
Equine Alert...Danger Will Robinson, Danger! - The Full-Body Freeze
This horse has been completely distracted (the eclipsed attention I mentioned near the beginning of this lens) by something off to his right. His training will be much better served by addressing the distraction before attempting to continue.
Now that you've read through everything on this lens, you should be ready for a little test. Using your new found knowledge, let's see if you can determine what the horse in the following picture is trying to say:
Um... Did I mention that horses are also EXTREMELY curious creatures? Don't worry, this poor girl was rescued safely - Whew!
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