Understanding Horse Communication

Katie Navarra

Rider communicating with her horse.

People have about 470,000 words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to choose from when talking with one another. Horses may not have the ability to speak their mind but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Without using words, horses can convey when they are in pain, afraid, relaxed, or content.

Learning the subtle cues of horse communication enables riders to develop a better understanding what their horse is thinking. The basic forms of horse communication gives riders time to avoid, or react to a dangerous situation, advance the horse’s training, or simply enjoy a deeper bond with their horse.

Here's a look at the basic forms of horse communication.

Speak to me

The horse’s vocabulary includes a series of sounds. These are six common horse noises.

  • Neigh: The horse neigh is similar to asking “where are you?” The shrill noise helps horses find their herd mates.
  • Nicker: More intimate, the nicker is a “come here” signal. Horse owners may find their horses nicker to them at feeding time. Horses will also nicker to others in their herd.
  • Squeals: This high-pitched sound acts as a warning to other horses that their personal space is being invaded. It can serve as advance notice for a bite or kick.
  • Snores: Horses investigating something new push air through their nostrils to determine what they are encountering, and the resulting sound is called a snore. 
  • Blows: Short, intense exhalations of air signal that the horse senses danger and that the situation demands caution.
  • Snort: When the horse forcefully pushes air out its nostrils they vibrate, creating a snorting sound. Sometimes horses under saddle can be heard snorting while working. Researchers in France believe the snort is a sign of contentment

Horses like humans make groaning noises. Typically, the low, guttural noise suggests pain or discomfort. However, horses are individual and it’s important to learn what “normal” is for each one. My mare groans every single time she poops! It was alarming at first. After a veterinary consultation and ongoing observation, it’s clear it’s just what she does.

What the ears are telling you

The horse’s ears are like tiny satellite dishes continuously scanning for signals in the environment. Horse ear positionstransmit multiple messages about where their attention is focused and how comfortable they feel in a situation.

When a horse pins its ears straight back to its head, it signals they are angry. It sends a warning signal to “back off or else” to other horses in the herd. Depending on how threatening the horse wants to appear, the whites of its eyes might be visible, and it might even bare its teeth.

Conversely, when a horse pricks both ears forward it demonstrates it is listening to something. Sometimes it is used in combination with a nostril flare to indicate the horse is interested in investigating something or that they are scared of an object.

Under saddle, a horse’s ears frequently move back and forth as they listen to their rider and maintain an awareness of the surrounding situation. At rest, both ears may droop out to the side and look like “mule ears.” This indicates the horse is comfortable and relaxing.

The eyes have it

A person’s eyes can reveal fright, excitement, anger, and more. The same is true in horses.

  • Time to worry: When the whites of the horse’s eyes are visible usually indicates fear or aggression. Anger is signaled by the white of the eyes showing and pinned ears. Fear is suggested when the whites of the eyes occur with snorting.
  • Naptime: Closed eyes typically imply the horse is resting. Give your horse a head’s up as you approach to avoid startling him. If the eye looks squeezed or pinched shut, call the vet to rule out injury or disease.
  • Stress indicator: How frequently a horse blinks suggest how stressed they are. Stressed horses blink less, according to a team of researchers from the University of Guelph.

Marking their territory

Stallions and some ponies are territorial. They mark their space with piles of manure called stud piles. If not cleaned regularly, it can add up to a several-foot tall pile. The smell of the stud piles indicates to other males that an area or mare is already claimed.

“Sometimes they will cover up the urine or feces of a mare so that anyone that comes along signals that this one is taken,” explained Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., professor emerita at Cornell University.

Horses rely heavily on their sense of smell to make sense of their surroundings. Ever seen a horse extend its neck and curl its upper lip? This behavior is called flehming or flehmening.

“The horse is taking things in through their nose, which then go through the vomeronasal organ that perceives things that are not airborne. A stallion will stick its nose in a mare’s urine and flehming. That sends a message to the brain that the mare is interesting or maybe in heat.”

While most flehming behavior is associated with stallions, all horses can curl their upper lip. Oftentimes, it is a response to a new scent. Smelling urine and feces (their own or others) can encourage the action. Mares also flehmen a few hours after delivering a foal. The scent of the newborn foal and the amniotic fluid triggers the response.

Why understanding horse communication is important

The most important reason to understand how horses communicate is to identify aggression, injury, or illness, according to Houpt. Sometimes horses combine multiple cues. For example, when a horse has its ears pinned flat back it can also signal pain in addition to anger.

“Look at their nostrils too. If they are hurting their nostrils may be more closed and their jaws will be tensed so you can see the muscles in the cheeks if the horse is gritting its teeth,” she said.

There are many nuances to horse communication. Learning to differentiate between a horse’s messages is a key horsemanship skill for becoming a better rider.

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