Q:Hello, I am someone who clicker trains her dog, understands their stress signals and believes fully in force free training. I am totally inexperienced with horses, but my girlfriends mum has a horse, and I just am so inexperienced. I know nothing about horse body language and want to learn how to read them. Could you please explain to me, or direct me to a link that explains horse body language? I haven't asked the people I know, because they have some bullshit ideas about animals and training.
First off, signs of stress. I pay the closest attention for these, because I work a lot with spooky, unhandled horses, and I want to back off before small discomfort turns into hard spooking or fleeing.
- Like dogs, horses will show ‘whale eye’, or have the whites of their eyes visible when they’re nervous.
- You’ll also see a lot of the whale eye in conjunction with high head position. A wary horse will usually have their head up high and the whites of their eyes showing, as they regard the object of their fear and try to decide whether they should flee or not. The exception here is when a horse stretches their neck way out to sniff the scary object.
- I see a lot of muscle twitches in nervous horses. This is especially the case when I’m sacking them out with some new object, or touching them when they aren’t used to physical contact. They’ll twitch as though flies are landing on them.
- Legs braced or twitching - you can see the whole ‘do I run or stay?’ conflict in the legs especially.
Signs of relaxation:
- One leg cocked. A frightened horse will have all legs braced under them ready to run, but a relaxed one will often be leaning to one side. This cocked leg is not a sign that they’re about to kick you!
- Droopy lips. If a horse is really relaxed, you can see their lower lip hanging low, and one of the best things in the world is having a horse that will let you play with their droopy lips.
- Relaxed, droopy eyes.
- This is gross, but a relaxed male horse will typically have his dick hanging out.
- Head low.
- Just a note: This isn’t a problem with horses as much as dogs. A frightened dog will become aggressive, and a frightened horse will flee. Honestly, I have never seen a frightened horse turn aggressive, even when they were being shoved behind panels or swarmed with people. I see them buck sometimes, and occasionally kick out, but I have never seen a horse bite out of fear. The problem is that even if they aren’t attacking you, they can still kill you in their flailing, just because they are so huge.
- I see aggression the most between horses when there is food involved, and sometimes aggressive body language when you’re bringing a horse their food, which is more about the food than it is directed at you.
- Pinned ears are the most obvious sign. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between ears turned backwards and ears pinned back against the head. Pinned ears practically vanish against the neck, so all you can see is the mean and ugly face pointing at you. Here’s a good example:
The horse on the right has its ears tipped backwards, but not pinned. Horse on the left has its ears pinned flat against its head.
You can also see aggression in the eyes and the mouth. An aggressive horse has a tight mouth or bared teeth, and often has the whites of its eyes showing. And there is a difference between a really aggressive horse and one which just has a ‘mulish’ look.
Here’s another example, just because I think this is an issue a lot of people hit on:
This horse has a more ‘mulish’ face, like he’s tolerating someone tightening his girth or paying attention to something rambunctious going on behind him. Note how the ears are fairly flat, but the lower lip still has that relaxed little bulge to it. He doesn’t look 100% relaxed, but he’s not pissed off.
Notice that here, the ear is at roughly the same angle, but the mouth and lip are tighter. With this expression you’ll also see baring teeth and sometimes hear teeth grinding. Another important note here is the head and neck position. An aggressive horse will be sticking out their neck, as seen in that first picture, stretching out to bite something. A relaxed, natural neck with pinned ears, or even a high head is more frustration, tolerance, or ‘mulishness’, but a neck snaking out like that is aggression.
Another note on ears: Most people assume that pricked ears = happy and pinned ears = mad, but like a dog wagging their tail, it’s not always so black and white. A frightened or uncertain horse will often have their ears pricked towards whatever frightens them, and a relaxed horse may have their ears tipped backwards. Generally you can assume that the direction the ears point is just indicating what/where the horse is listening to. Pinned ears are the really only clear emotional sign.
A few notes on tail position:
- An irritated horse will often thrash their tail (you can see this in a lot of shoddy dressage routines), but don’t mistake this for more relaxed tail swishing. If a horse has a content face but a swishing tail, they’re probably just shooing away flies.
- A high tail position indicates high spirits. Google ‘horse high tail’ and you’ll see what I’m talking about. You see this a ton in arabians. If they look like they’re about to poop, but they’re running around, they’re peppy. (or spooky)
- Horses will clamp their tails down when they’re uncomfortable.
- The ideal tail position is where it’s fairly low and relaxed, but you could see their butthole without trying too hard.
And since you’re new to horses, a few notes on how to befriend them and get into their space comfortably:
- Don’t approach a horse directly from the front. The best angle is to walk towards their shoulder. From there, you can give them a nice shoulder scratch to cement your friendship.
- Horses don’t naturally like to have their faces touched. A horse used to people can looove to have their eyelids rubbed on, ears massaged, and jaw scratched, but unless you’re comfortable with that horse and they’re really cuddly, it’s best to stick to scratching them on the shoulder, lower neck, and chest. Most horses have a weird spot at the front of their chest, base of the neck, which makes them go all wonky when you scratch it. I see a lot of horses throwing their heads and making bizarro faces when I hit this spot, which can be alarming if you aren’t used to it, but they don’t move away so I assume they don’t hate it.
- A lot of horses also love butt scratches. I know one donkey who will practically walk backwards to me to get scratched on the butt. Again, this is best for a horse you know well, which is comfortable with people.
- You don’t want to tiptoe around horses to avoid spooking them, but you also don’t want to be loud and unpredictable, because that will freak them out. I find it’s generally good to keep up a base level of noise, just chatting at them, because it allows them to know where you are at all times and gets them used to your noise. As far as touch goes, if you don’t know the horse well, don’t start slap-patting them and grabbing at their parts. Smooth, stroking touches are best. If you make a smooth progression from touching their hip, to their leg, to their foot, in one big sweep, it’ll let them know where you’re going and won’t startle them. In general, don’t slap horses. I see people slap-patting all the time and it drives me nuts. Horses don’t like being slapped. Just stroke or scratch them.
- Also, one fun thing is to blow into their nostrils. They naturally greet each other by sniffing noses, so I like to do the same to strange horses through stall doors. I have no idea if this means anything to them or gives them any kind of information, but they always blow back at me, which is fun. Don’t like grab their face and blow on them, but if they stick their nose out at you, blow gently on their nostrils and see if they blow back.
And the absolute best way to get to understand horses, as a species and as individuals, is to watch them move around and interact in the pasture. Horses eating off the same bale will show you what an aggressive or evasive horse looks like, and horses grooming each other or grazing will show you relaxation. I’d actually recommend youtube videos of horses at pasture for learning equine body language instead of explicit guides. Here are a few good videos: X, X, X, X, X.
Sorry that this turned into a novel! Every single video or website I found talking about body language was essentially the same ‘If your horse turns your butt to you it means that they’re dominant!!!!’ bullshit. You prob already know this from my blog, but if anyone talks dominance, run in the other direction. If a horse ever shows ‘dominant’ behavior towards you, it’s either one of two things:
1) The horse is naturally curious or affectionate, so they’re following you around, getting in your personal space, nibbling curiously on you, rubbing their head on you, etc.
2) The horse is freaked out and trying to escape discomfort, so they’re pinning their ears at you, or turning their butt towards you, or throwing their head up in alarm, or rearing, etc.
The former is just something you can train away or accept as friendly behavior, and the latter will never be a problem if you treat the horse kindly.
If I forgot anything, anyone feel free to jump in with it, but I think this is a decent overview. Hope it helps!
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