Your horse’s behaviour is his communication. His facial expressions, body language and posture all have meaning and a message he is trying to send you.
Some of the signs are so subtle that many horse riders and owners miss the message. And the meaning of the “louder” messages is often misinterpreted as being rude, bullying or domination.
Understanding the true meaning of your horse’s behaviour ‒ from subtle facial tension to the more dramatic ‒ can tell you when your horse is scared, stressed, in pain* or has a health issue. It gives you the opportunity to take steps to help your horse feel safe, calm and comfortable. When you give your horse what he needs, he can give you what you want so you can enjoy a good ride and develop a solid partnership.
In order to interpret your horse’s body language and behaviour accurately, it’s important to look at the whole picture rather than just one piece. Are his ears back because he heard a noise or saw a movement behind him, or because he’s feeling threatened?
Also, consider the context. What’s happening in the environment around your horse? Your horse’s behaviour/communication may be directed to you or to a nearby horse ‒ whether in the barn or arena or outside in the ring.
Improve your eye for understanding horse behaviour and body language by observing horses interacting freely when turned out together. Avoid making judgments or theorizing about what is happening. Just observe and notice how they use the following to express themselves (and how the other horses respond):
- facial expressions
- how they use their head and neck
- hindquarters and tail position
- different postures
For example, you might notice one horse tighten his mouth, narrow his eyes and put his ears back. What response does the horse the message was directed at make? If it’s not what the first horse wanted, he’ll send a stronger message, perhaps by tossing his head and neck towards the other horse and then offering an even more threatening behaviour from the hindquarters.
If a horse in the barn is sending a “move away” message to your horse while you’re grooming him in the aisle, that could be the reason your horse moves into your space. He’s responding to the other horse, not intending to be rude to you. Practice being aware of the behaviour of other horses around you whenever you’re with your horse.
To develop a good understanding of your horse’s behaviour and body language, take time to observe him in different situations ‒ when he’s relaxed, sleepy, playing, meeting a new horse, waiting to be fed, or in a new environment.
Pay particular attention to your horse’s face, as it often shows the first subtle signs of tension or discomfort. When horses feel anxious, afraid, upset or in pain, the facial muscles tense, including tightness around the chin and cheeks.
If the signs are missed or ignored, his communication may become “louder” as he tries to get away from whatever is scaring or hurting him. By taking steps to reassure your horse, taking him out of a stressful situation or looking for a source of pain when you notice these first signals, you’ll keep you and your horse safe and build a better partnership.
A relaxed horse has a soft, round eye. A tired, overworked or ‘shut down’ horse will have a dull, vacant eye that moves very little. Wrinkles above the eye ‒ forming a “tented” shape ‒ indicate an anxious, worried horse.
Ears tell you where your horse’s attention is focused ‒ forward, back, to the side, or even split (one forward and one back). Drooping to the side can suggest relaxation or sleepiness, but also pain. Pinned back ears indicate aggression or fear.
A tight, pinched or pursed mouth or muzzle can indicate several emotional states – worry, fear, confusion or mild aggression.
A saggy, drooping bottom lip indicates a relaxed or dozing horse. But if it’s combined with flared nostrils and tension in the face, it can be a sign that the horse is in severe pain.
A “mouthy” horse who often picks up things in his mouth like lead ropes, cross ties, or other nearby objects, or displays flapping lips, may feel tense and anxious.
An open mouth or bared teeth when being ridden signals anxiety, fear or pain. Have your horse’s teeth checked by a vet or qualified equine dentist and check the fit of your bridle and bit. Try using a bitless bridle to see if the behaviour stops.
Flared nostrils show arousal – excitement, fear or being startled – or when meeting a new horse or checking out a new environment. Narrowed, elongated nostrils with wrinkles behind them may indicate annoyance or irritation.
A long, elongated nose shows tension (often seen in ridden horses) or they may just be reaching for something.
Long nose ‘wiggling’ means you’ve found his itchy spot! It is also seen when a horse is investigating new stimuli.
Watch for these behaviours anytime you’re interacting with your horse ‒ grooming, tacking up, doing groundwork or riding. His behaviour tells you how he’s feeling, what he likes, and when he feels uncomfortable, anxious or scared. Pay special attention to behaviours that could be a sign of pain, confusion or feeling threatened.
* For diagrams interpreting various equine facial expressions and how they relate to pain, click here; for indications of discomfort under saddle, click here.