Body Language 101: What Your Horse is Telling You (In 5 Emotions)

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Body Language 101: What Your Horse is Telling You (In 5 Emotions) - Silver Lining Herbs

Knowing what’s on your horse’s mind can feel like a confusing puzzle sometimes, huh?

One minute, your equine friend could be relaxing and munching on grass, while the next, they’re ready to run you over just like the bad guy in an old western movie!

How are you supposed to know what your horse is thinking and feeling — and what do you do to keep them healthy and happy? Leave it to the horse pros to help you out!

For more than 20 years, we’ve been providing health products and comprehensive educational resources to horse owners, trainers, and competitors, just like you! If you’re looking to better understand those gosh-darn confusing signals your horse is sending you, then this article is for you!

Join us as we break down body language into five different emotions! Welcome to Horse Body Language 101!

 

Cracking the Communication Code!

Person on top of horse patting the horse's neck

Have you ever seen a horse trainer that was so in tune with their horse’s needs, that they looked as if they could predict what their horse would do next? Wondering what they did to crack the code on their horse’s non-verbal communications?

Learning what your horse needs and how to keep them (and yourself) happy and healthy requires noticing how horses communicate. But before tackling which non-verbal communications indicate that something’s gone awry, we need to know what a horse looks like when they’re at their best.

 

Signs that a horse is relaxed

A young girl, man, and woman on top of the backs of horses

When relaxed, most horses will have the following body profile:

  • Ears: up and facing forward
  • Legs: one hind leg is resting and bent
  • Eyes: open and no whites of the eyes are showing
  • Muzzle: relaxed and soft
  • Nose: nostrils are oval-shaped
  • Mouth: closed
  • Tail: lowered and at rest
  • Body as a whole: alert

Understanding "relax mode" will help you note when something’s gone askew, and help you take corrective action to prevent a potential meltdown and accident from occurring while protecting the health, happiness, and safety of all parties involved.

By understanding what your horse’s body looks like in a healthy, non-aroused state, you’ll have a baseline to compare what your horse looks like when they’re in a heightened state of arousal.

 

Breaking down a horse’s communications by emotion

A gentleman fixing a rope next to a horse in a dirt field

Most horses use their bodies to communicate to you the following five emotions:

  1. Worry, anxiety, and/or fear
  2. Sadness and/or depression
  3. Anger, frustration, and irritation
  4. Discomfort
  5. Joy and happiness

We can also better understand how a horse is feeling by turning our attention to the following body parts:

  • Ears
  • Legs (forelegs and hind legs)
  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Mouth
  • Tail
  • Whole body

In the rest of this article, we’ll break down what horses are trying to communicate to us with each mouth curl, flick, ear cock, and startle. Have your pen and notepad ready, because we’re about to learn more about the language of horses and the emotions that fuel their communications!

 

Worry, Anxiety, and Fear

A horse staring at the camera amidst a field of reeds

When a horse is worried, anxious, or scared, they tend to exhibit the following body cues:

  • Ears: ears back and pointing in different directions
  • Legs: may be spread to the sides or leaning back
  • Eyes: eyes wide open and with tense muscles around the eyebrows in an upside-down V-shape. The whites of the eyes may also be showing.
  • Muzzle: may be tight; may be clacking (for foals) or showing their teeth (for adult horses)
  • Nose: squared nostrils and open wide
  • Mouth: cheek muscles are taut
  • Head: may be slightly elevated
  • Tail: may be stiff and raised in a flag-like shape if excited; may be clamped down if stressed
  • Whole body: may be sweating or even be leaning back with their head raised or turned to face the perceived threat.

To diffuse the situation, it’s your job as your horse’s advocate to notice these behaviors, take steps to reduce the threat coming your horse’s way, or lead your horse away from the threat whether you’re on the road, preparing for a horse show, or even on the trail!

 

Sadness and Depression

A horse that looks sad resting it's head on the outdoor barn bars

You can tell your horse is feeling blue if they show the following signs:

  • Ears: may be unmoving
  • Legs: they may be placing all their weight on their front legs
  • Eyes: open wide
  • Muzzle: may be tight; may be clacking (for foals) or showing their teeth (for adults)
  • Nose: squared nostrils and open wide
  • Mouth: cheek muscles are taut
  • Head: may face the wall of their stable for long periods of time
  • Tail: may swish back and forth slightly
  • Whole body: have a rigid posture and seem to stand still for several minutes at a time.

Another sign of a horse being sad or depressed includes general indifference when interacting with you and other horses. Many horses might fall into a state of learned helplessness after chronic stress, which is why you’ll want to keep an eye on your horse’s social behavior.

If you suspect that your moody mare or stallion is depressed, consider whether you’ve made any recent changes to their diet or lifestyle. If you’re wondering what else to look out for, you can always take a look at a few of our other related articles on supporting a moody mare and overly zealous stallion.

If after making changes to diet, addressing stress and neglect, and changing other lifestyle factors contributing to your horse’s blues, you still notice your horse is feeling down, it may be time to take more serious action. In this case, we recommend calling a veterinarian immediately.

 

 Anger, Stress, and Irritation

A horse running through a brown field looking energized and focused

We’ve all heard of a horse raising its legs, bracing itself to kick at a moment’s notice. With keen attention and observation, you can make sure you take action to provide better care or help your horse find a way to escape from what’s bothering them in the first place.

When a horse is angry, stressed, or irritated, each part of their body responds in different ways. Here are the key signs to keep in mind to help you notice when your horse is exhibiting signs of stress, aggression, or frustration:

  • Ears: may be pointed forward for stress; ears pointed back can indicate anger
  • Legs: they may be placing all their weight on their front legs and also may paw at the ground
  • Eyes: open wide; the whites and sclera of the eyes may be more prominent
  • Muzzle: is tense
  • Nose: open wide and blow out strong breaths of air from the nose
  • Mouth: a gaping mouth with teeth showing could indicate anger; tight, pinched, or pursed mouths indicate stress
  • Head: a “snaking” head (e.g. when the head is moving back and forth from side to side slightly) is a sign of aggression
  • Tail: clamped down (if stressed), swishing back and forth very quickly (angry), or raised (if irritated or keyed up)
  • Whole body: maintains a general sense of tension throughout the body

By noticing when your horse is angry, stressed, or irritated, you’ll be able to read their mood and reduce the chance that your horse bolts, fights, or acts out of anger. The more you take notice of what annoys your horse, the more you’ll be able to support the overall health of your horse in the future.

 

Discomfort (and seeking help)

A horse looking down at their owner scooping out food for them

Though we may have their best interests in mind, horses may not always be on board with what we have to offer them. Whether you’re tacking up your horse with a new saddle or renovating your horse's stall, it’s crucial to be able to identify when your horse feels uncomfortable with your actions.

After all, your horse may be trying to tell you that they don't mind what you’re doing, but may just need some help getting used to their new gear and digs.

To notice when your horse is feeling uncomfortable takes a great deal of skill. The following body responses can help you better identify when your horse is feeling uncomfortable and asking for help:

  • Ears: flattened ears (if in pain)
  • Legs: forelegs may be splayed out
  • Eyes: may be rapidly darting if uncomfortable
  • Muzzle: tense and strained (if in pain)
  • Nose: open wide and blow out strong breaths of air from the nose
  • Mouth: pursing lips
  • Head: raised neck (for discomfort); pointing the head quickly in the direction of an object or nodding a head (to seek help)
  • Tail: when a horse’s tail swishes back and forth, this body expression can indicate that your horse is in pain or is feeling uncomfortable. A quick tail movement can mean your horse is trying to ask you for help.
  • Whole body: shows a general sense of tension

If you notice your horse elevate his head — or if his ears are pointed or pinned — they may be trying to locate the source of discomfort and looking for a way to alleviate it. If this happens, don’t panic!

Take your time, and assess the situation. The more you can learn the patterns of behavior of your horse, the better you’ll be able to intervene at just the right time to help your equine pal. 

 

 Joy and Happiness

A woman smiling at a happy horse with her hands cupping the horse's jaw

A great deal of equine research has focused on what horses’ behavior and body language mean in the context of negative behavior and emotions.

You might be wondering, “What about when my horse is feeling good? What does a horse do when they’re happy?”

If you notice any of the following gestures in your horse, it’s a good sign your horse is feeling happy, relaxed, and calm.

  • Ears: are pointed backward almost in line with the nose
  • Legs: the back leg is slightly bent
  • Eyes: are half-closed
  • Muzzle: The lower lip may droop if your horse feels relaxed. A horse may chew as well, a sign that they’re thinking and relaxed.
  • Nose: soft, round, relaxed, and breathing evenly through each nostril
  • Mouth: the upper lip is still, stretched out, or sometimes twitching very slightly. They may even nip at you because they’re curious about you. 
  • Head: the neck is tilted or lifted ever so slightly
  • Tail: when a horse swishes his tail slowly, this expression indicates that your horse is likely feeling relaxed.
  • Whole body: a lack of tension throughout the body (as a general rule of thumb)

Whether you’re about to go for a strenuous ride or are preparing for a stress-inducing veterinary medicine appointment, you'll also want to identify the best ways to help your horse feel relaxed and happy in challenging situations.

The right nutrition, diet, and health plan can make a world of difference in helping your horse relax — and stay relaxed — for the long haul. To increase the chance that your horse feels happy all year round, you’ll want to make sure you’re feeding your horse the right nutrition during different seasons, such as fall and winter.

 

Keep your horse’s body happy and healthy with quality nutrition

A woman feeding a horse Silver Lining Herbs Herbal Wormer product

Skilled horsemanship takes practice. And knowing everything there is to know about a horse’s body language can be a real challenge.

Whether they’re tuning in and listening to something behind them, exhibiting tension around the mouth, or swinging and stomping their rump and feet, it’s important to do everything in your absolute power to remove as many obstacles as possible for your horse so that they can continue to live a happy and healthy life.

One of the easiest ways to help your horse become happy and healthy is with quality herbal nutrition. At Silver Lining Herbs, we provide only the highest quality natural herbal products to help horses, dogs, and people look and feel their best!

Whether you’re looking for products offering relief to a mare in discomfort or a horse experiencing colic symptoms, our shelves are bursting with quality-tested, nutritional products aimed at helping your horse be their best!

For more information about how Silver Lining Herbs can help your horse live their best life, don’t hesitate to contact us today! Our dedicated Customer Care Representatives will treat your dog or horse just as they would their very own!

 

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