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Understand my horse correctly

Understand my horse correctly

I'm sure you sometimes wish your horse could tell you what it's thinking or feeling. Although horses cannot speak, they communicate with us through their body language. We just have to listen to them properly.

In order to understand a horse correctly, we have to observe its body language and be able to interpret important body signals. Only then can we correctly classify his reactions.

We need to listen and study our horse's language. Only then do we understand what the horse is trying to tell us. That takes a lot of patience and time. Just like us humans, horses have different personalities and therefore communicate differently.

But it's definitely worth listening carefully if it can help you build a relationship with your horse based on understanding, respect, and trust. Show your horse that you are willing to learn his language and listen to him. It will definitely lead to a stronger bond between you. If you understand your horse better, you can also better convey what you expect from him. And then you can better understand why it sometimes doesn't react the way you want it to. Only when you succeed can you express yourself to your horse in such a way that it also understands and accepts you. Then it will be happy to work with you!

horse body language

What do we need to know in order to better understand our horses and those of others?

It is best to first concentrate on the overall impression that the horse shows through its posture.

Then you can observe the body signals that the horse sends out more closely and try to interpret them. You should pay attention to the following : 

  • the posture
  • the gesture with all parts of the body
  • the facial expressions
  • the breathing

Observing and interpreting a combination of these signals is the surest way to understand a horse's body language.

The posture:

Your horse's posture shows you how it feels. Even from a distance you can usually tell whether your horse is relaxed or excited and tense. For example, if you see that your horse is standing there with its head slightly lowered and perhaps also has one hind leg slightly bent, it is probably relaxed and resting. However, if he is standing up straight and tense, he is probably nervous or excited.

posture of the head and neck

The posture of your horse's head and neck in particular says a lot about his emotional state:

  • lowered head and relaxed neck muscles:
A relaxed horse: his field of vision is limited due to the lowered head position. A flight animal only risks this if it feels safe and comfortable in its environment. When resting and dozing, this is the normal resting posture.
  • Raised head and tense neck muscles:

A nervous, tense, or at least very alert horse that raises its head as high as possible in order to have a wide view of its surroundings and to see dangers quickly.

But pain and tension can also lead to a high head position.

  • normally raised head and relaxed neck muscles:

A friendly, alert or inquisitive horse that is relaxed and interested in observing their surroundings.

Gestures with all parts of the body

Our horses communicate with us with their whole body and do so with different intensities. With small twitches or sweeping movements of their entire body, our horses let us know what is going on inside them.

In order to understand your horse correctly, you should pay close attention to his gestures:

The ear position:

Horse ears are in constant motion and show you where your horse is paying attention and what mood it is in. Since its ears can move independently of each other, it can even simultaneously perceive its environment with one ear and listen to you with the other ear when you talk to it.

The ears are an important means of communication for your horse. Surely you know exactly what the position of your horse's ears tells you. Here is a brief overview again:

  • Ears point straight forward:

Your horse is focused and friendly. He directs his attention ahead, may have heard or seen something ahead.

  • Ears are pricked and pointing backwards:

Your horse directs its attention to something behind it. For example, it listens to the rider's voice.

  • Ears are laid back close:

Caution is advised here. The horse is in a bad mood or angry. It may also be in pain or threatening another horse or human in its immediate vicinity.

  • Ears hanging to the side:

Your horse is dozing relaxed or bored.

  • Ears are moved back and forth in different directions:

The horse picks up on multiple sounds or signals and directs its attention in multiple directions. It may be listening to its rider with one ear and listening to the sounds around it with the other ear.

movements of the legs

I'm sure you pay a lot of attention to the leg movements of horses. On the one hand to avoid hurting you and on the other hand because the leg movements tell us a lot about what is going on inside a horse.

In order to understand your horse correctly, you should also pay attention to the gestures of the legs:

  • Relaxed relief of the hind leg:

If the horse's hind leg is resting loosely on the tip of the hoof, it is a sign of relaxation and calm. However, if it only ever loads on one side, it's also possible that the hoof or leg is causing pain.

  • Kicking out or imminent rear leg lift:

Leaking backwards can be a startle reaction. The horse instinctively defends itself against an attacker from behind. Every rider knows not to approach a horse quickly and unexpectedly from behind.

With the threatening lifting of the hind leg or a subsequent kick backwards, your horse can also make it clear that he does not like something (saddling, a certain touch,...)

  • Pawing with the front leg:

This is a gesture of displeasure or impatience, for example when a horse has been tethered for a long time or is waiting for its food. But horses often scratch before rolling and when looking for food.

  • Kicking out with the front leg:

It's usually an immune response. Horses then want to keep each other at a distance or impress the other. You can see the latter especially in stallions.

tail movements:

It is clear to everyone that the tail should not only look pretty or serve as a large fly swatter. Horses also communicate with their tails. If you want to understand your horse correctly, you also have to recognize the signals that your horse gives with its tail:

  • loosely pendulous tail:

a relaxed horse that is doing well,

when riding it shows the relaxed nature of the horse

  • high lifted tail:

a cocky, nervous or excited horse, it can mean nervousness and tension, but also exuberance when a horse gallops happily across a paddock

  • beat with the tail:

the horse feels disturbed (e.g. by insects) or a situation makes him uncomfortable

  • the tail stuck between the legs:

an anxious horse that is not feeling well, a sign of fear, stress or pain


The facial expressions

A horse can express a lot with just the facial expressions of its eyes, mouth and nostrils. A look into your horse's eyes can quickly tell you how he's doing.

In order to understand your horse correctly, you also have to pay attention to his facial expressions.

The eyes:

We do not want to go into the eyesight of horses in this blog post. That would be worth a separate article. But to properly understand your horse, it's definitely important to know what your horse's eyes can tell you about his mood.

  • shiny, lively eyes:

everything is fine, the horse is fine

  • it rolls its eyes so that the white can already be seen:

Caution is advised, the horse is very excited or scared, maybe even panicking, it is important to find out the cause of the fear now

  • dull, dull eyes, expressionless gaze:

your horse does not feel well, may even be ill or in pain, this is emphasized by a steep crease above the eyes


The mouth

The horse's very sensitive mouth cannot be ignored when assessing your horse's mood.

With the very sensitive whiskers on the mouth, your horse feels what we would feel with our hands. This enables him, for example, to feel for and sort out very small foreign bodies that have gotten mixed in with the feed.

Horses also communicate with their mouths:

  • the lips are loose, the lower lip hangs down:

the horse is relaxed, dozing or sleeping

  • a relaxed mouth area with closed lips:

a happy horse

  • the mouth is pinched, the mouth tightly compressed:

the horse does not feel well or is even in pain

  • the upper lip is long and slightly twisted:

the horse enjoys it, for example because its coat is being scratched or because it enjoys the feeling of grooming

  • Yawning:

the horse relaxes and loosens its jaw muscles, but it may also have severe pain, the difference can be seen depending on the horse's overall situation

  • grind your teeth:

either the horse is stressed or there is something wrong with the teeth

  • chew with closed mouth:

the horse is relaxed, maybe it was stressed or agitated and is now relaxing again

  • chew with open mouth (without food):

this "vertical chew" is intended to demonstrate inferiority, eg by a young horse versus a more dominant older horse, to make it clear that they accept the senior horse's superiority

  • flehme: Upper lip pulled up, head stretched far up:

it looks as if the horse is grinning, the horse has noticed a particularly interesting or fragrant scent, the flemming closes the nostrils and the smell that has been absorbed is perceived even more intensely,

but it can also mean that the horse is in pain, here again attention must be paid to the overall condition of the body and the situation

The nostrils

What many people ignore: Horses have a sensitive and well-developed sense of smell. Therefore, smells can have a direct effect on your horse's emotional life and may also instill fear in him. Of course, the movements of the nostrils have a lot to do with his breathing, which we will deal with separately in a moment. But a well-known gesture with the nostrils, which I'm sure you all know, is a clear signal from your horse:

  • flared nostrils:

the horse is signaling that it is ready to flee, it has heard, seen or even smelled something that frightens it and is on alert

The breathing

There are many articles and books on communicating with horses. The focus is usually on the horse's posture and gestures. In their wonderful book “Language Course for Horses”, Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel also go into the different types of breathing that horses use to communicate. Breathing is definitely a signal that tells us a lot about our horse's condition.

Horses communicate with us using different breathing types.

In her book, Sharon Wilsie differentiates between 9 different breathing types:

  • The greeting breath:

Snorting from a distance towards another horse or a human, with the last exhalation usually being longer

  • The welcome breath:

another horse or human is welcomed,
a fine widening of the nostrils and at the same time a conscious and gentle breath, a horse “breathes” you in and invites you into its space

  • The interested breath:

a horse draws in its breath several times to show interest, as if sniffing a pleasant scent

  • The nourishing breath:

it sounds like an "inward snort," mares use this breathing to get their newborn foals to stand up or drink

  • The relaxing breath:

a long, gentle, friendly blow to relax each other, horses constantly exchanging breaths while clearing their nostrils

  • Yawn, big sigh, trembling breath:

Horses use this breathing to relax, they "snort" an experience, clearing their nostrils and shaking their heads: they yawn to let go, sigh in agreement or take two short breaths in and then long out ("trembling breath").

  • The Guardian Breath

A forceful, snorting exhalation coupled with a sense of fear will cause horses to snort and snort in the direction of suspected danger

  • The trumpet

It sounds like an elephant horn, horses rarely do this, but it does happen when they are separated from friends or something unknown scares them

  • The conscious breathing

A relaxed horse breathes deeply so that its belly expands, we can help a horse relax by also breathing deeply and consciously into the belly

In order to understand your horse correctly and to be able to respond to his behavior, you should also pay attention to his breathing. Every rider knows from personal experience that we can have a decisive influence on our horse, depending on how we talk to our horse. But Sharon Wilsie goes much further: we can help our horse to relax if we breathe deeper and more consciously around him. In her opinion, conscious breathing is very important in our “conversations” with the horse.

Understanding your horse's language takes patience. Here are some signals to look out for. Of course, a horse communicates with us through many different signals at the same time. You have to observe your horse a lot (also when dealing with other horses) in order to be able to interpret them correctly and understand their language. We are also aware that every horse has its own personality and individual characteristics and accordingly reacts differently.

It is definitely worth listening to our horses to understand them properly. It is the best prerequisite for a harmonious bond and good communication between you and your horse. And of course, a horse also needs to know your body language and reactions in order to trust you and understand what you expect from him.


- Andrea Kutsch, From the horse's point of view, Kosmos Verlag, 2019

- Konstanze Krüger, The horse in the focus of science, Xenophon Verlag, 2010

- Sharon Wilsie & Gretchen Vogel, Horse language course, Kosmos Verlag, 2018 Werden/ behavior/das-einmaleins-der-koerpersprache/


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