Although your languages aren’t the same, you can understand the thoughts of your horse. You know what they’re saying when they’re wagging their tail or cocking their hind hoof and pinning their ear. But not every equine body language is clear enough. Do you know what the clacked teeth of a foal or a clamped tail mean? Even more essential, can you detect a subtle sign of frustration or fear before resulting in a blowup?
Since humans rely much on verbal communication, it’s natural to pay attention to your horse’s vocalizations while trying to understand them. But like several animals, horses communicate more through expressions, gestures, and postures.
Your ability to recognize and respond to your horse’s body communication distinguishes you as a great rider or trainer. It’s not magic. Spending time around your horse will help you understand their unique non-verbal communications. Here are the basic horse language cues every rider should know.
Horses are typically prey animals, and fear is their most common reaction to uncomfortable situations. If they display the white parts of their eyes, something is wrong. If their eyes bulge, it’s a sign of panic, which may cause them to lash out or bolt.
Bright and focused eyes indicate the engagement of your horse in what’s happening around them. They may be thinking about what another horse is doing, what you’re doing, or how to reach a bale of hay they can sight ahead.
Partially closed or hooded eyes indicate a relaxed, safe, and comfortable horse.
When a horse’s ears are facing forward, it implies they’re paying attention to something around them or focused on something. They’re alert, and you need to know what interests them. Is the alertness a warning sign, or are they excited about something?
Alertness is in different stages, and a horse can easily slip from focus to anxiety. If the ears begin to swivel and flick, their tension is building up. This language cue indicates that they aren’t comfortable with what’s happening around them, or they’re bothered about an unfamiliar sound.
Pinned back ears indicate an angry horse trying to let you know they’re about to kick or bite.
When a horse is alert, they hold their head and neck in an upright position, which can also imply that they’re afraid. The easiest way to differentiate is by looking at their neck muscles. If your horse is quivering or tensed, they’re more frightened than alert.
A horse’s head lowered in your direction implies they accept and are satisfied with your presence. They feel relaxed and agree with what you’re doing.
The hind legs are potent and can cause serious injury if your horse decides to kick. If you notice the horse adjusting their weight and clocking a hind hoof, move away from their back. Try to discern what they’re worried about, and find something else to distract them.
Every new horse rider learns to pay attention to a horse’s hind legs, but their forelegs can also help to know much about what’s going on in their mind. When your horse paws at the ground, they may be impatient or bored, and violent pawing with pinned ears could be a warning before aggression.
You can tell what your horse is feeling from their mouth and nose.
A horse that stands quietly with a drooping lower lip may be asleep or relaxing. As soon as its awake, the lip should be back to its normal position. But if slackness persists in its mouth even while alert, this might be a neurological issue or an injury. Contact your veterinarian.
When you’re training your horse and they’re chewing, but you’re sure they aren’t eating anything, they’re thinking and relaxed, which implies that they’re learning. When a horse stretches its nose wide, it’s trying to breathe in more air while exercising. At other times, the nostrils may flare or quiver when they’re nervous or startled.
If your horse’s mouth gapes when you’re riding, they may be feeling pain. You may need to adjust the fit of your bit or bridle. If the horse suddenly stops eating and stretches out their neck with mouth gaping, there may be an obstruction in the esophagus.
A horse is excited when they raise their tail above their back level. This behavior is more common in Arabians, but other horses can do it if they’re well energized. If a horse flags their tail in excitement without paying attention to you, they may be prone to bolting, bucking, or spooking. You can put them in action to regain focus.
A stressed or nervous horse will tuck in their hindquarters with their tail pressed down. If they clamp their tail while you’re riding, the horse may be feeling pain or discomfort. Make sure the tack fits well and the horse is sound. If this behavior persists without an apparent reason, call your vet.
If a horse is repeatedly swishing their tail while you’re riding them, check the saddle fit to ensure there are no protruding or sharp edges hurting them.
The Entire Body
When a horse’s movements are stiff and their muscles are rigid, they’re either nervous, stressed, or hurting. If they’re scared, try desensitizing them — doing this is more convenient when they haven’t bucked or bolted.
Another sign of fear in a horse is shaking. A nervous horse will tremble when you expose it to a new sight, but this is more common in recently abused horses afraid of being handled.
When a horse is so nervous or scared that they tremble, they may fight to protect themselves or run away. If this happens, leave what you’re doing and give the horse some time to calm down. As soon as it’s calm, slowly reintroduce what scared it. Working with a nervous or scared horse requires patience and time. You may need the services of a horse trainer to offer them support through the problems.
Remember, It’s a Gradual Process
It takes time to learn a horse’s body language. Observe how your horse’s expressions and postures change while interacting with you and other people and animals. After some time, you’ll begin to understand subtler signs. Then, you can have more proactive “dialogue” while focusing on your work and replying to your horse’s cues. Someday, people will envy you for being a “mind-reading” rider.