I have received some really great feedback about the various types of therapeutic horsemanship programs available. I have also received some great questions. This week, I will take the opportunity to answer one of the recurring questions: How do horses communicate?
When thinking about the way horses communicate, it is important to keep in mind certain equine characteristics:
• Horses are prey animals.
• Horses create strong social bonds. They prefer to live together in herds.
• Young horses learn by imitating older horses’ behavior.
• Horses possess the five basic senses: Vision; Hearing; Smell; Taste; Touch. They utilize these senses when they communicate.
Horses communicate primarily through body language, but also use eye contact, voice and smell to get their point across. Observing the horse can often provide clues to his emotional state or temperament, whether he is in a state of conflict, aggression or dominance or if he perceives a threat in his environment.
A good way to begin recognizing the way horses communicate is to observe specific body parts of the horse and identify what they could be telling us. The following list is in no way exhaustive, but provides some good examples of communication that I have observed in my own horses.
The position of the horse’s ears can be a very good clue to what is going on inside his head. I refer to them as the antennae. They give me an idea of what has captured the horse’s attention.
• Held Forward – The horse is alert, listening to something ahead of him. He may be simply paying attention or it could be a sign of concern.
• Held to the Side – The horse is relaxed. He may be dozing or asleep.
• Turned back, but not flat to head – The horse is listening to something behind him.
• Pinned back, flat to head – The horse is angry and in an aggressive state. This could be in response to a perceived threat or a pain response.
With large eyes located on each side of the head, horses have nearly 360 degree monocular vision, meaning each eye is used separately. Remember, the horse is a prey animal and this wide range of vision makes him very difficult to sneak up on. The horse has two blind spots, however. One is located directly in front of him and the other is directly behind him. The eyes of a horse can be great source of information about the horse’s state of mind and where he is focusing attention.
• Eyes are soft with no white showing in the corners – The horse is in a relaxed state.
• The upper eyelid is wrinkled – The horse is tense, worried or surprised. Think of how we raise our eyebrows when startled or concerned.
• The whites of the eyes are showing – The horse is showing increasing concern or anger. His anxiety level may escalate to panic.
Head & Neck
Horses use their head and neck to communicate in various ways. Observing this area can provide some good clues into what is going on inside the horse’s head at that moment.
o Head held high – The horse is alert or excited.
o Head lowered – The horse is relaxed, submissive or in grazing mode.
o Chewing – If not eating, the horse is showing signs of submission.
o Flehmen response – This refers to the horse curling his upper lip back. Some call it a “horse smile.” The response tends to occur in response to a new scent or a scent he is attempting to identify.
o Arched neck – The horse may be in a playful state or possibly an aggressive state. When ridden, horses are often asked to travel in a frame that requires them to arch their necks.
o Weaving the head and neck back and forth – also called “snaking.” This is an aggressive behavior and should be considered to be a warning sign. However, it is distinguishable from the stable vice called weaving, in which the horse weaves his neck back and forth in rhythmic fashion in an attempt to relieve boredom.
Legs & Hooves
Horses use their legs and feet not only to ambulate, but to express themselves. They also use their legs and feet as a means of protection, or even attack, when they feel threatened.
• Pawing at the ground – The horse is expressing anxiety, anger or perhaps boredom.
• Stomping with front leg– The horse is expressing increasing frustration or anger. However, during the summer months, stomping may be the horse’s attempt at fly control.
• Striking with front leg – This is a very aggressive action. The horse is either in attack mode or taking an extremely defensive position.
• Hind leg cocked with front of hoof resting on the ground – The horse is probably in a relaxed state.
• Hind leg raised – This may be a sign of irritation, pain or a warning that the horse is preparing to kick.
• Kicking out with a hind leg – This is a very aggressive action and may be a sign of irritation, anger or in response to pain. However, horses sometimes kick out or buck when full of energy and feeling playful.
Tail• Flagged – When a horse holds his tail high in the air, above his back, he may be excited, playful or anxious. Flagging the tail may be a signal to other horses in the herd that a threat is present.
• Swishing from side to side rapidly or wringing in circles – This is a warning that the horse is angry or in pain. It is distinguishable from using the tail to swat at flies.
• Clamped down – When the horse clamps his tail between his hind legs, he is likely stressed, experiencing discomfort or cold.
Discovering the Rest of the Story
While it is helpful to isolate different parts of the horse when you are learning to observe and recognize signals of equine communication, it is necessary to view the entire horse to get the full story from him. For example, consider a horse that has his hind leg cocked forward. Is he relaxed or is he thinking about kicking out? It may be difficult to tell if you do not take other postures into consideration. If his head is lowered and his ears are held out to the side, he is likely taking a snooze. But, if his neck is arched and his ears are pinned back, watch out for a kick!
Feel free to contact me with any questions or for further information about the ways horses communicate. Next time, I will be discussing how we can use equine communication to help our clients in the counseling process.
Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit www.lisakrystosek.com.