In any face-to-face relationship with fellow humans, understanding each others body language is an unconscious skill. If someone is upset, we often know this immediately even if no words are exchanged. A key to a harmonious relationship with your horse is a basic understanding of his facial expressions and horse body language.
Horses have been a very old part of the animal kingdom spanning millions of years. They are a herd animal that has also been hunted as prey for most of those years of evolutionary development. Therefore, it becomes easy to realize why horses “spook” or scare easily when something happens too suddenly or loudly. They are also naturally cautious in unfamiliar conditions and surroundings.
On the other hand, as a herd animal, a horse is a social creature, and probably the best reason a horse allows himself to be ridden is his perception that his human passenger is a dominant member of his herd. When we gently coax them, or whisper commands, they obey our wish even though they may have no idea or thought about why the command should be followed.
Because horses are naturally social animals, they have developed a set of very predictable ways to communicate with each other. Of course, as they perceive a rider as an important part of their herd, they share those same expressions and gestures with owners and riders. There is a wide range of attitudes and emotions that will be apparent to an owner or rider that learns to interpret the body language and facial expressions of his horse. However, the beginning whisperer should understand the basics.
Basic Expressions Of Horse Body Language
Alert: Horses are often watching out for predators, even if only imagined. A horse that is alert will hold its head high. It’s eyes will be wide open, and it’s ears will point forward. He is looking off toward the distance or expects something to approach him. That alert expression can turn into a fearful expression or may return to a relaxed feeling when the horse has reason to believe all is once again well. Some horses, especially those in front of a line of other horses, will maintain this alert stance and feel for the duration of the ride.
That is normal behavior because horses instinctively expect the leader of the horse group to be the most alert.
Afraid: Many horses are easily “spooked” or frightened. When a horse throws his head back, and the whites of his eyes are particularly visible, he is frightened. If he is not on the trail, you may have approached him too quickly, or there may be a disturbing influence of which only he is currently aware. Try to reassure him by cooing and stroking his face and body slowly before proceeding to work around or mount the horse.
Threatening: There are a variety of reasons a horse will become aggressive or behave badly. He may be in pain. If it is a strange horse, he may dislike being handled or ridden. If a horse is not properly fed or undernourished, he can become confused and threatening until his basic needs for water, food, and care are restored to him. If this is how he feels, you will at least see his head slightly raised with his teeth bared. His nostrils may flare, and his ears may pin back. Take the hint, and perhaps it is best to try again later after you can talk to his owner.
If you do not, you may risk receiving a kick or a bite.
Relaxed: My personal favorite among horse expressions and body postures – your horse will hold its head at an average angle or nod gently as you interact with him. He is most likely content in his environment and is obedient to silent direction and commands. If the rider and owner walk for awhile in the horseshoes of their animals, they will soon discover that they can get along with most any horse.
Anger and disrespect: The first body language sign to look for in this case is a horse with her ears pinned back. This is a threat display; you’ll often see horses pinning their ears back at feeding time. It might be all smoke and mirrors, or it could mean the horse is about to bite or kick.
Horses are best trained when there is an understanding between animal and trainer. Understanding the basics of horse body language sets a solid foundation for cultivating a rich and rewarding relationship with your animal.