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How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language

As a horse lover and rider, you probably know that communication with these majestic animals goes beyond words. Horses use body language to convey their feelings, needs, and moods, and it’s up to us to decipher their signals and respond appropriately. While some horse body language is obvious, like a whinny or a pinned ear, others are more subtle and require a trained eye to pick up on.

Understanding equine body language is key to becoming a better horse handler, trainer, and rider. With this knowledge, you can recognize signs of fear, discomfort, and stress in your horse before they escalate into dangerous behavior, and respond with empathy and skill.

1. Ears

Ears are one of the most expressive parts of a horse’s body. A horse with forward-pointing ears is typically alert and interested in their surroundings, while a horse with ears turned back may be listening to something behind them or feeling tense. If a horse’s ears are out to the side, they may be relaxed or even dozing off, but it’s important not to startle them by approaching too quickly.

2. Head

The position and movement of a horse’s head can also reveal a lot about their state of mind. A lowered head and relaxed ears often indicate a contented horse, while an elevated head can suggest alertness or even fear. If your horse raises their head while being ridden, it may be a sign of pain or discomfort, so it’s important to check your tack and ensure it fits properly.

3. Forelegs

Horses use their forelegs to communicate too, and it’s important to pay attention to their movements. A horse that stands splayed may be frightened or in pain, while pawing can indicate boredom or impatience, stress, or even anger. If your horse is pawing forcefully with pinned ears, it’s important to remove other horses from the area and refocus their attention.

Stomping is another signal that horses use to indicate irritation, usually caused by a fly or other minor annoyance. However, if your horse is stomping frequently, it may be a sign of a deeper issue, and you should investigate further. Striking, which is a forceful forward kick with a front leg, can be aggressive or defensive and is a dangerous behavior. Luckily, horses rarely strike without warning, so it’s important to pay attention to signals like stomping, wide eyes, and pinned ears, and take action before things escalate.

4. Legs

The hind legs of a horse are a crucial indicator of their mood. A relaxed horse will often cock one of their hind legs, resting the leading edge of their hoof on the ground, and dropping their hip. If they occasionally shift their weight and switch legs, this is a sign of relaxation. However, if they shift their weight rapidly from one foot to the other, they might be in pain, and it’s time to call your veterinarian.

If a horse is irritated or defensive and considering kicking, they may cock their hind hoof. They may also elevate their head, turn their ears back, and look back over their shoulder to keep an eye on the perceived threat. In this case, it’s best to steer clear of their back end and move them forward and away from whatever is bothering them.

5. Nose and mouth

A horse’s nose and mouth can also tell us a lot about what they’re feeling. A drooping lip or slack mouth is a sign that they’re relaxing or even asleep. If you approach them, do so cautiously and call their name to avoid startling them. If their mouth remains slack while they’re alert, it may indicate an injury or neurological problem.

Chewing is a good sign when you’re training your horse. It indicates that they’re relaxed and thinking, which means they’re learning. Clacking teeth is a behavior that foals use to tell other horses that they’re young and vulnerable.

6. Flehmen

Flehmen is another behavior that looks funny but serves an essential function. It allows horses to push scent particles through their vomeronasal organ, enabling them to detect chemicals in the air, often pheromones emitted by sexually receptive horses.

7. Eyes

A horse’s eyes can tell us what they’re thinking and where their attention is focused. A horse with a “soft” eye is generally relaxed. Tightening of the muscles around the eyes is an early sign of stress, fear, or discomfort. Rapid darting indicates that they’re scared and looking for a way to escape.

If the whites of their eyes are showing, they’re probably extremely upset. If their ears are also pinned, they’re angry. If they’re trembling or snorting, they’re scared, and you need to take quick action to reassure or distract them to prevent a spook, bolt, or defensive move.

8. Tail

A horse’s tail is one of the more mobile methods of communication. If they’re excited, they’ll carry their tail above the level of their back. If they’re nervous or stressed, they’ll press their tail down and may tuck in their hindquarters. Rapid swishing indicates that they’re irritated or angry and may be about to kick or buck.

9. What His Whole Body Says

Sometimes you need “the big picture” to get the full story of what’s going on with your horse. A horse’s muscles are rigid, and their movements are stiff when they’re in pain, nervous, or stressed. Trembling is almost always a sign of fear.

If your horse reaches out to touch you with their muzzle, they might be trying to nip or bite you, be curious, or need reassurance. Swinging their rump from side to side can mean they’re about to kick or that they’re trying to get the attention of any nearby stallions if they’re a mare in heat.

In conclusion, learning to read and respond to equine body language is an essential skill for anyone who works with horses. So, next time you’re around horses, take a moment to tune in to their unique forms of nonverbal communication – it may just make all the difference!

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