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To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.

 

How do I know what my horse is thinking?
Reading equine facial expressions

Horses are expressive animals and communicate their thoughts, opinions, emotions, and decisions in many ways. Because they are prey animals, most of their communication is silent and consists of facial and body language. Each expression or body posture must be looked at in the context of other facial expressions, body postures, and the over-all situation. For example, when we say “Hello” it has little significance unless coupled with the tone of voice and facial expressions (smile, frown, pout, etc.). Below is a list of facial expressions and body postures and activities that can help you decipher what your horse is thinking.

Ears
Horses can process sounds from different directions at the same time. They may have one ear pointed at one sound and the other listening to sounds in the opposite direction.
• Droopy – Relaxed or napping.
• Straight ahead and pricked- Attentive to something in front of him.
• Turned slightly back while being ridden – Listening to the rider.
• Turned in different directions – Listening to his surroundings.
• Slightly back - Listening behind him or protection from the wind, debris, bugs, bad weather, or is afraid or worried.
• Flattened – Protecting from the wind or (if body muscles are tense) defensive.

Eyes
• Blinking- Processing information, or trying to remove or prevent debris from entering his eye.
• Dull – tired, depressed, or pain.
• Soft (muscles around the eyes are relaxed and soft) – Calm and relaxed.
• Tense with the muscles around the eyes contracted to form wrinkles and a triangle in the middle of the upper eye-lid. - Depending upon the degree of muscle tension it can mean curiosity, worry, or fear.
• Wide rolling eyes with whites showing but body relaxed – Focusing his eyes on something close to his head.
• Whites showing and body is tense – Uneasy, frightened, ill, or injured.
• Whites showing, long nose, flared nostrils, muscles tense and alert – Defensive.
• Slanted, with muscles of the body tense, head and neck lowered – Herding or aggressive.
• Half closed – Sleepy.

Muzzle
Horses use their noses like people use their fingers. They can pull down branches, unlatch gates and pick pockets with their clever noses. A horse’s nose also tells us much about his moods.
• Flared nostrils – Excited, fearful, hot, exhausted, or smelling something or someone interesting.
• Long nose with puckered upper lip.– Annoyance, avoidance of something close to his face, or he is pointing at something he wants his companion to see or a direction he wants his companion to take.
• Long nose with slightly puckered upper lip, sleepy eyes and outstretched neck – Enjoying a good scratch.
• Long nose with flared nostrils and ears laid back – Annoyance, worry, or defensiveness.

Mouth
• Biting - Horses employ two different kinds of bites, friendly and aggressive. Friendly bites are used in grooming and play. Aggressive bites are meant to move and control other animals.
• Flehmen response (Upper lip turned up – showing upper gums and teeth) – This allows scents to be transmitted to the the vomeronasal organ, a chemosensory organ located near the roof of the horse’s mouth. The horse smells something very interesting.
• Lips pressed together in a straight line – The horse is anxious, in pain or uncomfortable.
• Hanging lower lip – The horse is relaxed, however, some horses are born that way.
• Flapping lips – It may be impatience, happiness, tension, boredom, or a silly habit.
• Jaws tense, teeth exposed – Defensive and ready to bite or trying to entice a playmate.
• Licking or chewing – Asking for food, playing with the bit, or relieving stress.
• Snapping (mouth wide open, teeth exposed, making chewing motions) – The horse is displaying submissiveness or defeat.
• Yawning –Stress relieve.
• Tongue out- The horse may not like the taste of something, is trying to get something out of his mouth or throat, is attempting to relieve the pressure of a bit or noseband, or is playing with his tongue.

The best way to understand your horse’s facial expressions is to spend time with him. Watch his face as he relates to you, other animals, and his environment. Take photos and videos of your horse. Ask a friend to take photos and videos of your horse’s face and body as you interact with him, grooming, working on the ground, and riding. Examine his facial expressions and his muscular tension. Keep a journal of what you observe. Be prepared for surprises! You will discover horses are as unique as the people who possess them and develop quirky expressions all their own.

But facial expressions alone do not always tell the whole story. You also must look at the surroundings, the horse’s overall body tension, his energy, and what his body is doing. When you understand what your horse is thinking, your ability to include him as a partner will grow by leaps and bounds.

First, survey the setting and consider whether the horse is in a stall, out in the pasture; playing with horse friends; or being ridden. Is the horse in strange or familiar surroundings; are there barking dogs; rustling in the bushes; or could he be catching the scent of something unseen? If the horse is in an arena, are there distractions such as strange horses, running children, umbrellas, loud music, traffic noises, applause, or other crowd noises?

Look at the horse’s body tension. Is he relaxed, or tense? Are his veins readily visible, especially along his neck? What is his energy level? Is he moving slowly or quickly? Does he look like he is going to burst out of his skin?

Now, look at his body posture. It could take several large books to catalogue every nuance of a horse’s stationary poses and movements. Here, I am going to provide enough information so that you can begin your own personal discovery. Remember, each expression, posture, or movement can mean several different things. You must look at the total horse, in his setting, to understand what is going on in his mind. Also, bear in mind that these movements apply to a health horse.

Skin tone
Twitching or flinching is a sign of discomfort or nervousness. Soft, pliable muscles under the skin indicate relaxation. Hard muscles may signify soreness, perhaps muscle cramping, or tension.

Head
• Head held high – The horse is sensing something in the distance, excited, evading, or resisting contact.
• Head held low – The horse is inspecting something; grazing; stretching; preparing to lie down; hot; exhausted; ill; or showing submission or defeat.
• Head-tossing – Discomfort, annoyance.
• Turning his head away from you– Focusing on something or avoiding contact.

Legs
• Back leg lifted. – Resting, scratching, stretching, soreness, swatting insects, muscle spasm, defensiveness and warning of a kick.
• Front leg lifted – Impatience, stretching, scratching, soreness, or warning of a strike-out.
• Kicking – Playing, muscle spasm, swatting insects, discomfort, defensiveness.
• Pawing – Impatience, playing, throwing dust on his stomach, preparing to lie down or to roll.
• Stamping – Playing, annoyance or impatience.
• Back legs spread apart – preparing to urinate.

Tail
• Held high- The horse is excited, tense, alert, confident, playful, defecating, urinating, or bearing an artificial tail-set.
• Held low – Relaxed, depressed, submissive, or sleepy.
• Swishing tail – The horse is annoyed, uncomfortable, swishing flies, or directing other horses.
• Tucked tail– Avoiding having his tail or anus touched; fearful; or fearful and demonstrating submissive.

Large body movements
• Bucking – Playing, discomfort, rebalancing.
• Facing you– Acknowledging or questioning your leadership
• Rump toward you – Avoidance, or defensiveness.
• Pacing – Frustration, boredom.
• Rearing – Playing or escaping.
• Running away – Playing, escaping or going after something.
• Trotting or cantering toward you– Acknowledging your leadership or aggressiveness.

Now, I suggest that you sit in a shady spot and watch horses. Or, if that is not possible, watch computer videos, or TV westerns. Look at photos in horse magazines or of your horse, or of your horse and those of your friends. Pay attention to the horses’ facial expressions, their energy, muscle tension, their body posture and movements. Put all these clues together. When you are interacting with your horse, ask yourself: What is my horse saying? Does he look happy, relaxed, playful, uncomfortable, angry, exhausted, relieved, or afraid? If he is relaxed and happy, great job! If not, find out why and, if possible, correct the problem. A happy horse who knows you care about his opinion makes a great dance partner!

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.

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