Horses For Dummies
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Because horses are such highly social creatures, they do quite a bit of talking to one another. Of course, the equine way of communicating is nothing like what Mr. Ed did. Horses have their own exclusive language, and traditional nouns and verbs aren’t part of the picture.

Humans primarily use verbal language to express thoughts and emotions to one another. Horses do the same thing within their species, only they mostly use their bodies to get their points across. This clear way of expressing a variety of attitudes, intents, and emotions is universal among all members of the equine family.

To truly understand horses, you absolutely have to know how to read equine body language. Trying to get by without this crucial skill is like trying to conduct business in a foreign country without comprehending the native tongue. You just can’t do it.

Horse's facial expressions

One of the most obvious ways that horses talk to each other — and to humans — is by using facial expressions. Horses send out at least four distinct messages by using their faces. Each message has a distinct look.
  • I’m afraid, and I’m about to bolt. Horses that are on the verge of panic often warn you with this expression before they take off (although they may act in a matter of seconds). The ears are pointed toward whatever is the source of fear. The head is held high and the whites of the eye are showing. You sometimes can actually see the muscles in the neck tense up.
  • I’m alert and wondering what’s next. This welcome expression indicates that the horse is content and curious about his surroundings. The ears are pricked forward; the eyes are focused on the object of wonder. The head is held at medium height.

Get away or else! This expression immediately precedes a bite or a kick. The horse usually directs the aggression at other horses, but occasionally, ill-tempered horses direct this aggression at humans. The ears are laid back flat against the head, the nostrils take on an oblong shape and the mouth is open with teeth exposed. (Don’t confuse flattened ears with ears that are simply cocked back for listening.)

  • I’m relaxed and secure. The sign of a happy, healthy horse, you may see this expression while you’re grooming, while your horse is dozing in the pasture, or even while you’re riding together along a familiar trail. The ears are in a relaxed state, usually pointing backward. The eye has a calm look, and the head is at medium height.

Individual horses exhibit these expressions with subtle variations, so getting to know the individual expressions of your particular horse helps you understand him even better.

common horse facial expressions Horses use these four basic facial expressions to communicate.

Listen to the equine voice

Although body language is the primary means of equine communication, horses also use a range of sounds to talk to each other. The most prominent among these are the neigh, nicker, snort, and squeal. Each sound serves a particular purpose in a herd situation, and horses often use the sounds as a way of communicating with human beings, too. Although scientists aren’t completely sure what each of these vocalizations means in a literal sense, each one seems to take place under certain circumstances, giving us a clue as to its intent.
  • Neigh: A neigh, or whinny, is the loud call that most people associate with the horse. You hear it as a sound effect in Hollywood westerns all the time (usually used incorrectly). The neigh seems to be used most often by horses that have been separated from their herd or from a very close companion. Neighs have a sense of urgency to them that seem to be saying, “Hey, I’m over here!”
  • Nicker: The nicker is a soft, gentle call that is usually heard when horses with a close bond greet one another. Mares nicker to their foals, and herdmates nicker to each other. Horses that are attached to their human caretakers sometimes nicker to them. You can also hear nickering at feeding time as the person delivering the food approaches.
  • Snort: The snort, made by a rapid blowing of air from the nostrils, is most often heard when a horse is alarmed in some way. If a horse comes upon something that scares him, he may bolt, then spin around and snort at the offending object. Horses sometimes snort at random when they are feeling frisky, too.
  • Squeal: One of the more amusing equine vocalizations is the squeal. The squeal is usually reserved for other horses, and seems to be a message of controlled aggression. Strange horses often approach one another with heads up and necks arched. After a short muzzle sniffing session, one horse squeals to show dominance. The other horse often reacts with an aggressive facial expression or a return squeal. The horses almost seem to be testing each other to see who backs down first. A mare that isn't quite ready to breed may squeal to tell a frisky stallion to back off.

Another type of squeal comes from horses that are really frightened. These fear squeals are higher pitched and shorter in length than their more assertive cousins.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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