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Horse Communication and Their Five Senses

Updated on October 24, 2014

Horses Have Five Senses

Horses use their five sense to warn them of predators and to communicate with other horses
Horses use their five sense to warn them of predators and to communicate with other horses | Source

Horses Have Five Senses Like People Do

They are mystical, magical, and majestic. Horses have always captured the imagination of man. The picturesque view of a herd of horses galloping through the open plains, or that single horse grazing in a field of grass is an image of grace and art in motion. While we look at horses as a symbol of power, of beauty, of freedom, horses view themselves as vulnerable creatures of prey. Their only defense is to run far and fast, away from a predator.

While they are galloping, while they are grazing, a horse uses everyone of their five senses to pick up cues about what is going on around them. Horses have five senses just like people do, but are more fine tuned, more sensitive, and in some, but not all ways, higher developed than human beings.

Survival Instincts and a Horse's Five Senses

Horses rely on their senses, their ability to see over a wide range, their ability to hear the slightest of sounds, their ability to tell the difference in scents, their ability to tell if a plant is edible by their taste and touch to help horses socialize.

The more we understand what motivates a horse, the more we can understand their behavior. Horses use their five senses to interact with their surroundings. Horses are herd animals, and are more comfortable when they can maintain visual contact with other horses. This helps to make horses very social animals.

A horse’s behavior is motivated by their survival instincts. They will flee rather than fight, and every one of their senses are tuned into their environment to help them know if a predator or danger is near. For about 55 million years, horses and their ancient ancestors have been prey animals, who could only survive with the use of their senses and by perceiving the stimuli that is around them.

Horses Are Prey Animals

As prey animals, a horse's only defense is to flee to safety
As prey animals, a horse's only defense is to flee to safety | Source

Horses Are Prey Animals

Horses generally don’t communicate with other horses through sounds. They are relatively quiet animals. They mainly communicate through body language.

Horses spend more time eating than any other behavior.

A horse gets to know its environment through its senses.

No matter what characteristics a horse has, or the purpose they are bred for, there are some universal behavioral traits that influence how the horse reacts to its environment and explain why a horse reacts the way they do.

A horse knows it is prey for other animals. Its main defense is to run to survive from real or imagined danger. Because the horse is an animal of prey, they must rely on their perception and five senses to keep them aware of predators. They are prepared to flee at any moment. This makes them acutely aware of their surroundings and to pick up sensory stimuli that we easily miss.

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Horses and Body Language

They use the same five senses we use, but a horse’s sense is more heightened. A horse is gifted with fast responses to react to the stimuli around them. A horse knows instinctively that they must react quickly, and run away quickly in order to survive. Horses have good memories. This also enables them to learn quickly from their environment.

Horses are not leaders, they are followers. They are the most easily dominated of all domestic animals. Horses easily accept the dominance of the people. Horses use body language to signal submission.

Horses communicate with other horses using some vocalizations and through their body language. If a horse is lost, hungry or separated from their herd they will use sounds to communicate. A horse that sees something unusual, may make strong blowing noises through their nostrils, or snort repeatedly, almost in a whistling like sound to signal other horses to be alert, readying the entire herd to flee quickly.

Trainers keep in tune with a horse's body language, and eye contact, which helps them know if they are making progress with the horse.

Horses are thought to be able to pick up subtle eye and body movements and are sensitive to our communications. While dogs can pick up our subtle cues better than any other animal, horses can pick up enough to lend itself to cooperating with people on a very high level. How well an animal understands us is invariably tied to their domestication and their predisposition to our communication.

The five senses; taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight are very highly developed. Horses also have a heightened sense of perception.

Horses like humans, have five senses that are used to understand and explore the world around us. Through these senses they gather signals and interpret them so that they can maintain a feeling of security, comfort, and safety.

Horses are very sensitive and can tell the difference between emotions in the human voice.

Horses are very perceptive animals. As science studies the sensory perception of horses, we can learn more about horse behavior. Equines are acutely aware of its surroundings, changes that occur, sensitivity to its own needs, and on the constant lookout for potential threats to itself.

Horses are Herd Animals

Horses communicate with other horses for safety against predators
Horses communicate with other horses for safety against predators | Source

Horses Are Social Animals

Horses are very social animals and communicate with each other through body and facial movements.

Horses communicate through body language, more than through vocal noises. The way they stand, their expressions, behaviors, and body positions express to other horses and to people what they are feeling. They also use their five senses to communicate.

From the way a horse’s ears are held to the direction a horse’s ears are pointed, a horse is communicating a lot. They can point them in two different directions, and tilt them to pick up a sound that will show where their attention is focused. When both ears are forward, the horse is hearing something that is going on in front of them. If both ears are pinned back, the horse is showing they feel angry.

When a horse’s tail is held high over their back, they are showing they are feeling playful and excited. If their tail is flat against their hind legs, they are showing pain or fear. A whipping tail is showing anger.

A horse that is getting ready to flee will have their nostrils flared, the eyes wide, their head high, and their ears pricked up. Their state of alertness will arouse other horses too.

Different breeds have different types of tails, but there are some tail signals that are common to all breeds. A nervous horse will have its tail pressed tightly between its back legs. An irritated, frustrated, or angry horse will swish its tail wildly. A horse that gently swings its tail in almost a rhythmic motion is indicating a change in balance and can be seen when horses change leads.

Horses use vocalizations in four main ways:

  • neighs

  • nickers

  • squeals

  • snorts

Snorting is a sound that travels through distance and is a way that herds communicate.

A Book About Horses

Horses and Communication

Science is still learning more about horse body language. Although people who work with horses, learn to communicate and read their horses and don’t need scientists to prove the things they already know.

Horses also use their ears to communicate their feelings. Where their ears are pointing is where they are looking.

In a research experiment about animal behavior and communication and social skills, conducted by Jennifer Wathan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex in the U.K. concluded that a horse uses their ears to pay attention to the direction other horse’s ears are pointing at to figure out what the other horse is thinking. In the behavioral study, 72 horses used visual cues from another horse to help them choose where to feed 75% of the time.

In a study done to see how horses communicate at the Psychology Department at the University of Sussex, researchers tried five different ways to get a horse to look in an empty bucket. A carrot was dropped in a bucket when the horse got it correct.

The five ways were

  • putting a striped wooden marker in front of the bucket

  • tapping on the side of the bucket

  • pointing at the bucket

  • looking at the bucket

  • having a person face in the direction of the bucket.

There were 34 horses that were part of the study. The horses responded to the pointing and the markers, but none of the other ways. Researchers concluded that horses can use cues but don’t understand the way we really communicate.

Practically all of a horse’s behavior is connected to its self preservation.

Horses are very social animals. This form of communication may help protect each other from predators, while they eat or are looking for food.

Horses communicate using their five senses and their body language.

Horses, by nature, are designed to live in cohesive groups and their ability to communicate with each other is important for their survival. They speak with their bodies, they communicate with their ears, their tail, their eyes, their nostrils, their mouths, their head, and their posture.


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    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Jaye, I always appreciate when you stop by. Horses are beautiful and their sensitive nature helps people in many ways.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Horses are such beautiful, majestic animals! The research into horse body language--particularly what ear positions mean--is intriguing. Humans should continue to learn as much as possible about other species, especially those animals, such as horses, that provide so much help to us.

      Voted Up++


    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Alicia, Most people think if a horse's ears are back they are angry, but there is so much more their ears tell us.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is interesting, toknowinfo. I heard about the research into horse communication via ear position. Ever since I've been paying special attention to the ears whenever I see a horses or horses! I'm looking forward to reading your series of hubs about horses. They should be very informative and enjoyable.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Bill, Horses are truly amazing animals to be around. Maybe you will write something about your wondrous memories and share your experiences.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I adore horses. They are easily my favorite animal, and as soon as we get some acreage I will have horses again. I've had three during my lifetime, and all of them gave me wondrous memories. :)


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