A famous Gary Larson cartoon depicted all too familiar communication difficulties between an owner and his dog Ginger: One on side of a split frame titled “What we say to dogs,” the owner is engaged in a lengthy diatribe outlining Ginger’s shortcomings: “Now Ginger, I told you before, Ginger. You must not jump on the furniture, Ginger,” etc. On the other half of the frame titled “What dogs hear,” the dog’s balloon reads, “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger; blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah.” Larson’s insight is as apt when looking at the human-to-horse communication divide.

Language is so woven into our human experiences and manner of thinking that the word “communication” is synonymous with “words” – speaking, reading or writing. Horses, on the other hand, evolved an effective visual system of communication, where vocalizations were rarely necessary. David Myers, a prominent research psychologist, notes that even though we share a great deal of genetic material with non-human animals (about 96 per cent of our DNA sequence is identical to that of chimpanzees, for example), this tiny difference is critical. As Myers comments, “Despite some remarkable abilities, chimpanzees grunt. Shakespeare intricately wove 17,677 words to form his literary masterpieces” (2013).

In this article, I explore some key factors in equine communication, outline where our human/horse communication difficulties may lie, and suggest a perspective for interpreting “Equinese.” Let’s begin with a look at how horses came to be the silent types that they are.

Why horses aren’t blabber-mouths

Under natural conditions, horses form stable social groups or harems, usually composed of a dominant stallion, four to six mares, and occasionally one or more subordinate stallions. These harems are often life-long, and maintaining group cohesion is integral to the herd’s survival. Hence, horses developed a sophisticated understanding of group members’ sex, age, relationship, personality characteristics and social rank, known in psychology parlance as “social cognition.”

For the most part, this information is communicated visually; most vocalizations are used on the rare occasions when group members are out of sight. There appears to be an evolutionary pattern where animals living in open grasslands (who can easily maintain visual contact) tend to rely more on visual non-acoustic communication, where forest dwelling animals such as the wild boar, and its descendant the domestic pig, have a wide array of acoustic signals. Horses also have a more complex facial musculature than do pigs, allowing them to convey more information through facial gestures (Budiansky, 1996).

Ritualized behaviours: A hint is usually enough

As well as the “equine visual” and “human vocal” bias, horse/human communication is further compromised by the fact that horses’ communication is generally more understated than ours. Horses have developed ritualized behaviours, abbreviated versions of the actual gesture, which carry the same meaning as the behaviours they represent, but are less energy costly. For example, a tail swish may convey the same information as a kick, but is expenditure efficient for both sender and receiver. Horses that learned to interpret a swishing tail as a signal to back off were more likely to thrive and pass on those observant genes to the next generation. Similarly, the horse that could convey his willingness to stand his ground by a swish of the tail, rather than expending costly resources in a fight, was more likely to pass on those genes to his sons and daughters. Thus, a refined system of communication by body signals evolved.

Since body language is not our native tongue, we often miss these abbreviated gestures entirely. Similarly, we not only miss cues as receivers, but make inadvertent mistakes as senders – communicating unintended signals, or shouting unnecessarily. For example, a tense rider’s position can teach a horse to stop; an inadvertent, but habitual shift in weight can teach a horse to swap leads before leaving the ground. Riders may also give conflicting aids, making it difficult for a horse to offer a correct response. This solicits an increasingly stronger aid such that the original signal loses its meaning. The horse is said to be dull to the aids, hard-mouthed or lazy. A more likely interpretation is that the horse, unable to escape an uncomfortable situation, has tuned the rider out, much like we turn off someone who nags or shouts incessantly.

There is strong evidence to suggest that these “dull” horses may well be experiencing “learned helplessness,” a term first coined by Martin Seligman, a social psychologist who observed this phenomenon in his studies with mice and dogs. Seligman set up a situation where an animal, upon feeling an electric shock on the cage floor, was able to jump through to another compartment to avoid it. When Seligman made the current live on both sides of the cage, such that the animal could not avoid the shock regardless of its response, eventually the animals ceased trying. They became lethargic, and no longer made any attempt to avoid the live current. Even when Seligman reintroduced an escape route, the animals did not seek it out. A horse caught in a situation where no response will alleviate his discomfort may well enter into this state of learned helplessness (McGreevy & MacLean, 2009).

Acute observers

When we next feel the urge to escalate an aid to make our horse understand us, we would do well to remember the horse Clever Hans. Hans, lived in Berlin in the early 1900s, and became famous for his remarkable intellectual abilities. Indicating the correct answer by counting out taps with his hoof (a certain numbers of taps stood for particular letters or common words), Hans was able to read, count, perform mathematical computations, tell time, demonstrate an understanding of the calendar, offer an opinion on musical pieces and even comment on the attire of his audience. Such was his fame that eventually a commission was sent from Berlin composed of scientists, doctors, a veterinarian, psychologist and a number of other professionals to discover the truth about Hans’ supernatural abilities. Perplexingly, Hans could answer correctly not only when questioned by his trainer, but also when questioned by members of the commission when his trainer was not present. It was only after months of exhaustive investigation that the secret was uncovered. Apparently, Hans was responding to minute shifts in posture made by the questioners when he had arrived at the correct number of taps. The body cue was so subtle that none of the examiners had been aware of making it, and when the commission’s lead investigator purposely tried to suppress the cue to test his hypothesis, he had a great deal of trouble doing so such that he could fool Hans. Eager for his food reward that appeared predictably upon ceasing tapping, Hans was hypervigilant for the cue that told him when he should do so.

This astute ability to read not only equine, but human body language makes horses amenable students, learning complex manoeuvres with the most subtle tightening of a rider’s leg or core muscles. It also means, that we are often inadvertently cueing them when we have no intention of doing so. As Paul McGreevy and Andrew MacLean, Australian equine researchers, note, “Just because we have not intended to train a response, does not mean that the horse will not be learning something.”

Over there! Over where? Over there!!!

Despite horses’ ability to read our body cues, some gestures central to our communication are not well-understood by horses. Researchers have looked at various animals’ ability to use human gestures (such as pointing or gazing) to find a hidden food reward, a skill that requires a rudimentary understanding of taking another’s perspective and interpreting intention. It turns out that dogs are remarkably skilled at this, more so than chimpanzees or other primates genetically much more similar to us. These studies suggest that dogs have evolved an ability to understand human intentions, which may have resulted from, and undoubtedly facilitated, their unique domestic relationship with humans (Hare, 2012).

The jury is still out on whether horses understand human pointing gestures in the way that dogs do. There is some evidence that horses can do this when the cue is close to the target, but the evidence is inconsistent and it is not clear whether horses really understand what the gesture means. In one experiment, many horses nuzzled and followed the experimenter’s extended arm down the fingers to the bucket (Maros et al. 2010), suggesting that the horses’ success may have had more to do with socialization, and the knowledge that human hands bring treats, than demonstrating a true understanding of human intention.

You scratch my back…

A promising entry point into a horse’s communication system may lie in grooming. Allogrooming, the mutual, synchronous, nibbling around the withers and neck observed between pairs of horses, plays an integral role in establishing, maintaining and strengthening pair bonds, and herd mates generally have one or two preferred and enduring allogrooming buddies. Alessandro Cozia and his research group in France found that allogrooming is also used in friendly reunions after conflict. Horses who were not involved in the initial conflict would play the role of either “consoler” (socializing with the victim of the aggressive encounter), or as “appeaser” (socializing with the aggressor). The researchers commented that these third party interactions serve an adaptive function, restoring group harmony more quickly, lessening stress for both victim and aggressor and, ultimately, facilitating group cohesion.

In other studies, allogrooming has been associated with physiological effects of stress reduction, including lowered heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, increased immunity and a rise in beta endorphins (Feh and de Mazières’, 1993; Haverbeke et al. 2002). Allogrooming appears to serve an evolutionary need and may be as critical for horses’ psychological well-being as movement and social contact with other horses. Thus, daily grooming may be a way to bridge some of our human-to-horse communication misunderstandings and engage in positive conversation. Vigorous wither grooming appears to have similar stress reduction effects for horses as grooming by another horse (Feh & de Mazières’, 1993) and may have similar bonding properties. Though it has not been tested, I would argue that it may also have calming and bonding properties for the human groomer!

Horse communication: Asking the right questions

In our efforts to communicate more effectively with horses, we have focused on what horses are saying while paying less attention to what they are doing, and this vocalization bias has not always served us well. A second bias concerns our intent on figuring out what each vocalizations means, much like trying to translate each word of a foreign language with a language dictionary.

For example, Rebecca Pond and colleagues at the University of Connecticut (2010) used bioacoustics (the study of animal sounds) to record and analyze whinnies of horses while in a situation of distress (a mare and foal separation), or eustress (stress associated with a positive situation, such as the anticipation of feeding). Vocalizations were cut into equal size time slices so that individual features of the whinnies could be computed and compared. Using this model, whinnies were correctly identified as distress or eustress vocalizations based on their acoustic information alone.

However, Stephen Budiansky, an equine behaviourist, notes that it is problematic to attempt to extract meaning from every kind of vocalization. Consider the different nickers emitted when a horse hears the feed cart (“Don’t forget me!”), when a mare nickers to her foal (“Come closer; that’s dangerous”), or a stallion nickers on his way to the breeding shed (“Hey baby…!”). Rather than asking what a sound means, it may be more informative to ask what the evolutionary purpose of the communication is. As Budiansky comments, “Understanding what a sound accomplishes rather than what it means is the first step toward understanding what animal communication is really about” (Budiansky, 1997). Thus, it may be that researchers’ attempts to use bioacoustics to identify the horse’s emotional state, somehow misses the point.

When we abandon the semantic view of language interpretation (both vocal and visual) we also let go of value laden judgments that compromise our horse-to-human communication. For example when a horse pins his ears, we may say he is grumpy (or worse, “she” is being “marish”), is angry, or has a bad attitude. However, if we ask what the gesture accomplishes (perhaps it encourages the receiver to move away), we are more likely to consider a broader spectrum of possibilities for the horse’s behaviour (the horse is in pain, is frightened, or is anticipating an unpleasant encounter). In short, we eliminate judgment, challenge our predetermined notions, provide greater opportunity for our horses to succeed and broaden our scope in our ability to understand our horses.


Researchers have found that horse whinnies can convey meaningful information to other horses about the caller’s sex, body size, identity, motivation, relative rank and physiological state. Alban Lemasson and colleagues (2009) looked at the responses of horses while they heard audio recordings of other horses from their herd mates, a neighbouring group and from strangers. They found that horses were reliably able to distinguish the different groups, showed increased efforts to move toward the calls of their herd mates and demonstrated heightened alertness when hearing whinnies from unfamiliar individuals. Lemasson’s research suggests that horses do create mental representations of their social network and display a sophisticated level of social cognition so essential to establishing and maintaining social bonds.

Equine vocalizations have been classified into distinct categories depending on their acoustic and situational characteristics:

  • Whinnies are the longest and loudest horse sounds (as anyone who has lived through day one at a breeders’ show is well aware!), and can be heard from a distance of up to one kilometre. They are used to maintain and regain contact with affiliates.
  • The nicker is of low to medium amplitude, has little tonality and is of shorter duration than the whinny. Nickers occur in varied situations, but are often heard when a desired object is within sight, but actually or potentially out of reach (anticipation of feed, a mare to her foal, a stallion to a mare, etc.).
  • Squeals have medium to high amplitude, medium tonality and are of varied duration. They are usually heard in aggressive or potentially aggressive encounters between horses (particularly stallions), when mares are not receptive to a stallion’s advances, or in response to acute pain.
  • A horse may scream in more seriously aggressive situations, emitting a longer, louder and higher pitched squeal.
  • Groans are similar in sound to our groans and used in similar situations: during exertion, suffering, or mental or physical discomfort.
  • The blow is produced by a short, strong and sharp exhalation through the nostrils. It serves to alert other horses of potential danger and to warn off potential intruders. A longer blow is often used to investigate a foreign and (from the horse’s perspective) potentially dangerous object.
  • A roar is a breathy call of medium to high amplitude produced by stallions during periods of extreme arousal.
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