When we start riding and working with horses, most people are taught the basics of horse behaviour. This generally revolves around keeping you safe when around them and making sure you understand if they are seriously unhappy.
But after that unless you take a specific interest in horse behaviour then the subject is generally put to the side as lesson complete and we move onto the next thing to learn. The thing with this is it’s about as in-depth as the early French lessons you learn at school, I remember how to say cat and dog and of course horse in French, I remember how to say my name is but apart from that I couldn't string a sentence together and I certainly couldn't have a conversation in French, so I get by, by speaking slowly in loud English and hoping that the French person opposite me understands.
This unfortunately is how a lot of the horse world operates too, I've observed 'experienced' riders struggle with understanding what their horse is trying to tell them, missing what I see as obvious signals that something is wrong, and unfortunately waiting for the horse to shout in broken English back at them that they are NOT happy.
If we were heading into a relationship with a person a person of another country, we'd learn to understand their language pretty quickly, to understand the nuances of what they are saying, the body language that goes with the words and we'd develop a way of communicating that wasn't just one sided. So why do we feel that understanding just the basics of horse behaviour and language is enough to build a strong safe relationship with our horses on? The answer is, I think, well I hope, is that we just didn't realise there was more to it.
When I first discovered the intricate world of horse behaviour and language I was blown away, I couldn't believe I'd never been taught it and I immediately kicked myself of all the times I'd missed something my horse was saying, ignored his signs or just plain misunderstood.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, horses communicate predominantly through body language, and so every movement a horse makes voluntarily is a way of sending a signal, an ear twitch here, a blink of the eye there are all keys to understanding how the horse is feeling and what they are trying to tell you, their guardians and partners.
Let’s start with he facial expressions, we’ve all seen the pictures of horses with ears back = angry, ears forward = happy, ears to the side = relaxed, but when we look closer the horse’s facial expressions tell us the most about what the horse is actually feeling. The ears are the most mobile of the face so the most obvious place to look at to understand what’s going on, so let’s start there.
These are the horses ability to hear, one of the main senses it uses to understand its surroundings and the danger that may be out there, the equine is one of the very few animals that can fully mobilise its ears and spin the 180degrees, this ability to move them gives them a heightened ability to pin point exactly which direction the noise is coming from and locate the ‘danger’ or point of interest. On a side note this is why horses become much more alert and are seen as spooky in windy conditions, wind removes the accuracy of this sense as noise is distorted, sometimes muffled and the horse realises it then needs to use its eyes for much more of its senses, this requires it to move its head a lot and whole body to try and locate sounds and visual cues, leaving it ‘on its toes’.
But not only do the ears help the horse to stay alive by constantly surveying their surroundings they also can give us clues as to what the horse needs from us. The old adage that ears forwards means the horse is happy, is actually wrong, yes they look prettier and that’s why when taking a photo we try to make funny noises or throw something rattily in the air, what this does is focus the sound and the horses attention forwards towards the noise and the ears point in that direction, this then makes them look ‘happy’. A happy horse really is a relaxed horse, a horse that feels out of danger and be calm, so therefor this follows that type of horse wouldn’t feel like it needed to focus its attention or survey its surroundings, it would just be able to chill, chilled horses let their ears relax, giving a floppy impression that means they sometimes fall out to the side. I call it the Eeyore look, not so attractive for photos but a sight that brings a smile to my face as I know that horse feels calm and at peace with the world. That’s a truly happy horse.
Ears back can indeed mean the horse is unhappy, but they need to be flat back, as in pinned to the horse’s neck to really mean this, it’s the horse’s way to show anger or and they do this in conjunction with teeth showing, goggle eyes and a snaking neck. This is the horse’s extreme reaction to something and if they are doing this, we or the other horse they are trying to tell have normally missed/ignored the much subtler signs of discomfort or unease. It’s like the horse’s version of a shout. But ears pointing backwards, tends to be just as it means with them pointing forwards, they are listening to the sounds behind them, often horses with riders that talk to them will point their ears to the rider so the are focused on the noises made, or if you’re grooming their tail end they will focus their ears on you in order to know exactly where you are around them.
A single ear flick backwards whilst riding or handling can be a sign of unease and a need of reassurance, just before my pony starts to really question what I’m asking of him I get a single ear flick, this is my cue that he needs more reassurance that what he’s doing is correct or the next signal from me of what to do next. If I catch that ear flick my aids can stay very simple and light and he stays reassured. If I miss that ear flick, he then must resort to more obvious ways of telling me he’s unsure, his pace slows, his body tightens and the natural fluidity that I had is lost. Within that his trust in me is slightly dented that I wasn’t fully listening to what he was saying.
Once his happy his ears return to their relaxed state and I know I’ve answered his question correctly.
The key to understanding horse language is to get to know your own horses’ patterns, what I’m demonstrating here is those patterns are subtle so its about tuning in to the movements and starting to understand what they mean.
Moving down the face the eyes tell us the next number of clues, these are less easy to see whilst riding but they are very easy to watch whilst handling, and I can’t emphasise enough how much trust and understanding you can build by working with them on the ground. The horse has an eye on either side of their head, obvious I know, but have you ever thought of what this means to how the horse ‘sees’ the world? It takes two separate pictures of the world, unlike our pictures which overlap, the reason for this is because again it comes back to be a prey animal, having the eyes on the side of the head means it can see so much more of what’s around it, the horse has only two very small blind spots on the whole of its body, directly behind it and directly in front of it, so as the ears pick up the noise the eyes can then spot the location without the body having to move an awful lot, making it easier to locate its predator whilst running and moving.
But the eyes can tell us so much more, as part of the fight, flight and freeze response they become much more in use, and so blinking rhythms change, a horse that’s not blinking at all or fast blinking tends not to be a happy and calm horse. That horse is internally worried about what’s happening around them, this maybe a place you’ve tied them up on the yard or a type of brush you’re using on their coat, it may be a place you’re walking them or a new task you’re learning together. At first this change in blink rhythm maybe the only signal that the horse is giving you that it’s not happy, that its stressed. A horse’s ‘normal’ blink rhythm is slow and steady, this tends to signify a relaxed state, but it wouldn’t hurt to watch your horse over a few days and start to see what their natural blink rhythm is.
If you start to notice the blink rhythm changes you can then start to calm your horse before any adverse signs of stress show through, you have listened to their quietest whisper of concern.
The horse’s mouth, like the ears is very mobile and comes into the process of riding too, especially if your horse wears a bit. You may have heard that we look for saliva in the mouth as we ride, but do you know why? Think when you have your moth numbed for the dentist, all the muscles relax in the mouth and then we get a lot of saliva, so saliva means relaxed. If our horse has a relaxed mouth whilst riding this is a good sign, it means your contact is feeling good to them and they don’t feel the bit as an annoyance or pain.
But what if your horse doesn’t have a wet mouth whilst riding? Does this mean your contact is wrong?
The thing with horse body language is it needs to be taken into account of other points too, a relaxed horse in the field doesn’t stand with saliva pouring from its mouth, but the muscles in its mouth are relaxed, the amount of saliva a horse gives off is personal to that horse, so how do you really tell if your horse is relaxed?
A horse with a tightly closed mouth, that looks pinched shut or that the lips look solid isn’t relaxed through the jaw and ultimately in the mouth, as you sit now really hold your lips tightly shut, I bet this doesn’t feel relaxing.
A horse with teeth bared and lips pulled back also isn’t relaxed, its telling you its not comfy, when riding a horse that opens its mouth a lot in a wide fashion is probably trying to move the pressure to a part that feels right, but if the horses mouth is gently shut, the lips are soft and the muscles around the muzzle are soft this is a calm horse.
When you’re handling a horse from the ground these same signs can tell you a lot, anything other than a moth that is soft and still will be telling you your horse is working things through its mind and is maybe in need of reassurance from you.
The mouth has so many different variations your horse will have its own way of expressing its feelings, the important thing is to get to know these ways and to look closely.
On the mouth, we all find it funny when a horse raises its top lip to the air and sniffs it (called fleming), it gives the impression that its laughing, but this can mean two things, its smelt something funny/interesting and wants to take that smell closer, often seen when mares are in season and stallions or geldings are interested. But it could also mean that the horse is in pain, this curling of the lip is regularly seen when a horse is suffering from colic. Two very different reasons and one being potentially fatal, so how do you know?
This is where you learn to string the chain of signals together, if the horse is showing signs of discomfort, a rolling of the lip is more than likely to mean pain, if the horse is alert relaxed in every other way then a rolling of the lip would probably mean its smelt something funny. But it’s a sign to keep an eye on and be aware of.
The body muscles
As we leave the head and move into the body the signals become more vast, the body is covered in hundreds of muscles and these can be a great way of telling what’s going on. A horse with tight rigid muscles is tight and rigid, not relaxed. A horse whose belly is sucked up underneath it is either working well over its back and using its abdominal muscles or its in pain and discomfort. A horse’s neck that’s tense is bracing itself against something.
When a horse tenses muscles that aren’t ‘meant’ to be working it generally is a sign of unease, the horse preparing to get ready to take flight or fight.
A good time to get to know your horses muscles is whilst grooming them, as you brush over the horses body you may find it tightens certain areas, this isn’t normal, this is a sign of discomfort, maybe even pain. If the back dips away from your pressure this is the horse telling you its unhappy with that pressure, you then need to ask why. Is pain causing it? Due to the horses coat we can’t see bruising like we can on our own skin, so the reaction to touch is incredibly important, learnt to move slowly across your horses body, and feel the skin, applying gently pressure as you go, you may feel heat in an area or the horse may flinch, tighten or move away. Watch for other signals too, the ears, the eyes, the mouth, this will help you build a picture up of what the horse is trying to tell you.
I so often see horses get to the point where they wont let a saddle near them, this is because the person caring for them has often missed the smaller signs of back pain or girth discomfort.
If you’ve had your horse checked for pain and there is none, but the signs are still the same, don’t dismiss them, some horses need more time, one of my horses for example hates being rushed, if you try to groom and tack him up quickly because you’re running late, he becomes tense, tight and annoyed. His whole body goes into spasm, his back tightens and when it comes to putting the girth on if I’ve really rushed him, he will take a bite. I’ve had him checked for pain, I’ve brought him new well-fitting saddles, and although I know he’s not in pain I also know he’s not happy. But if I slow everything down, give him time to adjust and get used to the pressure of a brush on his skin, a numnah on his back, and then a saddle, if the girth gets done really loose for a few minutes before I very slowly tighten it, if I pause when he flicks an ear and give him a moment to breath, before continuing we get to the end of the tacking up process relaxed and open to the next stage. The more I do this, I listen, he trusts that I can do it with his permission and we flow slowly together.
When riding tail swishing is seen as discomfort, tail swinging is seen as a horse working over its back, notice the difference. How does your horse respond when an aid is applied, does he accept it and softly move in the direction asked or does he resist it tighten and brace? These are signs to look out for, they are signs of potential pain, but most commonly misunderstanding, retuning the horse and yourself to the aids is a way of reconnecting and understanding. But it also can mean your body is doing a mixture of things to confuse the horse (we’ll go into that on another post). To start with notice these signs and signals the horse is sending you as they are the start of your relationship to a better understanding.
Finally for today, the horses breathing, just like us the horses breath changes when the horses state of relaxation/stress changes. Short quick breaths mean dis-ease, maybe pain, probably stressed, the horse is ready to take fight or flight. Long deep slow breaths are a sign of relaxation.
You can tell the horses breathing from their belly or from their nostrils, learning to spot their breath and then noticing changes in this can be key to understanding your horses health and wellbeing. It can give you clues on what you need to do next with your horse and how you can make their life better.
Phew, that’s a lot to think about, my first recommendation is go out and get to know your horse when its not doing anything, spend some time just observing its natural body language, this will give you the basis to work from.
If you don’t own a horse and are taking riding lessons or borrowing a friends, hang out over the stable door, just watching it munch hay, really start to see its body in its natural state, watching the subtleness of movements.
If you get a chance to watch a herd of horses together in a field this can be even more beneficial, as you sit and observe you’ll start to see them communicate with one another, you’ll see whose the most ‘vocal’ and who is introverted, you’ll see the pecking order and how they all fit into the hierarchy of the herd, and when its feed time you’ll see what kind of language and how quickly they tell each other that, ‘that food is mine’, but also how quickly they return to relaxation (another subject I’ll discuss soon).
By taking time to watch, to tune in, you’ll get to know this body language, this way of communicating and you’ll start to understand why its so important that we know this, if we ever want to really make it easier for our relationship to thrive.