Psychology professor Albert Mehrabian determined in his 1971 book “Silent Messaging” that 55% of human communication was achieved through body language. But to a horse, body language is everything.

Your horse is constantly communicating with you whether he or she is happy, sad, anxious, depressed, angry or content.

All you have to do is watch – closely.

You see, not all horses communicate in exactly the same way. There are a multitude of common cues to look for.

But the only real way you’ll get to learn how your horse is feeling is by spending time with them and closely watching how they react and behave at certain times.

Their eyes, ears, nostrils, tail, backs and even their feet may all be used to relay messages. They’ll even use vocal cues but primarily it’s about body language.

Body language: Signs your horse is unwell

A horse feeling unwell will display very readable signs.

Besides often losing their appetite, they can appear grumpy or disinterested and may droop, walk around slowly or stand with head hung low and a fixed stare.

They may also guard a particular part of their body that is causing them pain so it is important to pay close attention.

Horses with colic may continually bite or kick at their abdomens or they may continually lie down and stand back up in an effort to relay their discomfort.

Body language: Signs your horse is in pain

A horse with back pain may flinch or become aggressive while being saddled in anticipation of their injury being aggravated.

Ridden horses in pain use a number of obvious methods to alert their rider including:

  • ears back
  • repeated mouth opening
  • intense stare or eyes closed
  • changing of head position either above or behind the bit
  • moving of head either up and down, from side to side or tilting
  • repeated tail swishing

Body language: Signs your horse is stressed

Signs of stress in horses are also fairly easy to detect.

With ears pointed forward, eyes wide open, nostrils widened, a stiff stance, raised tail and a high head, it doesn’t take a genius to decipher a horse’s disapproval.

If you haven’t got the message by then, horses may even resort to more extreme behaviour such as blowing out through their nose or defecating.

Body language: Signs your horse is depressed

Horses are highly emotional creatures and it is not uncommon for them to become depressed, especially with separation anxiety.

Again, the signs are fairly easy to read.

Many will stand staring at a wall, eyes wide open and ears unmoved, their weight shifted forward with their neck low and elongated, showing little reaction to anything around them.

Some exhibit these signs after long periods of chronic illness, almost relaying a mood of resignation.

What is my horse saying to me?

A horse uses each different part of its body to relay different signals. 

It’s up to you to decipher those messages watching each signal sometimes in isolation, sometimes in tandem with others. 

Eyes – much like humans, there are many clues to be found in a horse’s mood through their eyes. A wide-eyed horse is engaged and alert.

When their eyes are squinted or closed, it can be trickier. This may suggest relaxation or could mean some level of discomfort.

Ears – these are one of the best barometers to a horse’s mood. When pushed forward, your horse is alert and interested, especially if combined with wide and open eyes.

When the ears are pinned, your horse is angry or discontented and may even become aggressive. Flattened ears may also suggest they are in pain.

Posture – this is also relatively easy to read. A horse with an arched back with neck high and standing tall is ready for action. They may be feeling excited, ready to run or possibly even agitated.

If they are standing with their legs apart and head hung low, they are more likely relaxed or tired.

Tail – similarly, a tail pointed high indicates excitement. A horse’s tail will most often hang loosely but if it is tucked between its legs, that may suggest they are defensive or submissive.

Neighs and whinnies – these are also used to convey a horse’s thoughts. Neighs or whinnies are sometimes used as a greeting to their owners but can also be a cry of approval or confidence.

They are also used as calls to other horses when they are looking for company. Conversely, short, sharp snorts may indicate disapproval or annoyance.

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The only real way you’ll be able to communicate better with your horse is to spend time with them.

Horses will go to great lengths to communicate their feelings with their owners as long as they know they are interested and paying attention.

If they sense that is not the case, after a while they will give up.

By reading your horse’s body language and learning their methods of communication, you will give yourself the best chance of identifying when your horse is unwell or injured.

These are important signs to recognise because if they are left untreated, minor illnesses or injuries can quickly develop into chronic conditions and more serious problems.

At Newmarket Equine, we provide a dedicated service to the thoroughbred racing and polo industries, as well as private clients, with the practice having a long and proud history based around the excellence of our staff.

Our team is experienced in all matters including medical, reproduction and quarantine procedures.

State-of-the-art equipment is provided including digital radiology, digital ultrasound, shock wave therapy, video endoscopy and IRAP processing. 

Contact us today to book an appointment.

The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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