Anyone who has spent time around horses will know they are all different. You don’t need to be a horse whisperer to tell a sociable horse from one that is more aloof. Or a confident horse from one that’s a bit grumpy.
But have you ever wondered what your horse is thinking? We mean, REALLY thinking. Changes in a horse’s posture, expression or movements are often subtle but can speak volumes about how they are feeling at any given moment.
There are lots of cues that help you identify when your horse is happy, sick, in pain, or feeling stressed. More importantly, being able to understand your horse’s body language can help you recognise signs of fear and frustration before they become something more serious.
Horses that are scared can easily kick out and cause damage to a horsebox, particularly if they are nervous about being moved. This is where horsebox insurance comes in handy. More on that later. But right now, do you fancy becoming a horse ‘mind reader’? Here are some of the common body language cues to look out for.
One of the first things a novice rider learns is that ears facing forward means a horse is alert and interested, ears pinned back means he is angry. But a horse’s ears can tell you much more than that…
- If ears are turned out to the side, the horse will be relaxed or asleep so you should call out or make a noise before approaching to avoid giving him a shock.
- Ears that are turned back (but not pinned close to the neck) means he is listening to something behind him and deciding what action to take.
- Rapidly twisting ears are a sign of anxiety or heightened alertness.
A horse’s eyes can say a lot about their anxiety level so don’t be afraid to make eye contact.
- If the whites of their eyes are showing, something is wrong and you’ll need to work out what as soon as you can.
- When eyes are bright and focused, your horse is engaged with what is going on around him.
- Hooded and partially closed eyes mean your horse is relaxed, comfortable and feeling safe.
A horse’s head can tell you a lot about their mood. Here’s what to look out for.
- A slightly lowered head with ears hanging to the side is a sign a horse is in a good mood. A more lowered head could mean they are sleeping.
- A raised head means your horse is focusing on something in the distance and could potentially be about to bolt. The combination of a head held high and wide eyes is a sign of heightened alert and fear.
- Lowering the head and moving the neck from side to side is a sign of aggression, usually seen in fighting stallions.
Anyone who spends time around horses knows to keep an eye on their back legs to avoid those kicks, but there’s more communication going on in their legs than you may realise.
- Standing with forelegs splayed could mean a horse is scared or about to get spooked. It can also mean that the horse is feeling weak or unwell.
- A horse pawing its front hoof on the ground can signal boredom (for example if he is tied up) or stressed. In some cases, this action can also mean a horse is angry. This is less common, and the pawing would also be accompanied by pinned back ears.
- A leg stomping repeatedly into the ground tends to indicate irritation. This will usually be a minor irritation (e.g. getting rid of a fly), but be mindful it could also be a reaction to something you are doing.
- When a horse cocks a hind leg resting the tip of his hoof on the ground, it tends to mean he is relaxed and resting (and will be combined with a lowered head or ears). However, a cocked hind hoof can also signal an irritated or defensive horse that could be about to kick (look out for elevated head, turned back ears, and looking over his shoulder as well). In this scenario, you should move the horse away from the source of irritation and refocus his energy and attention.
Nickers, whinnies and brays can only tell you so much. It’s important to pay attention to movements around a horse’s muzzle, too.
- Horses that are relaxed or sleeping will often have drooping lips or a slack mouth.
- When a horse smells something he is unfamiliar with, he’ll raise his head, curl his top lip, breathe in and blow air back out again. This is known as the flehmen response. Any horse may do it, but is most commonly seen in stallions when they are working out whether a mare is in heat and ready to breed.
- A horse will flare his nostrils to inhale more air into his body, but this behaviour can also happen when a horse is startled or nervous. It’s not an obvious sign to spot, but can prevent a more serious situation happening if you do.
- Tension around a horse’s mouth is a clear sign that he is worried, scared or stressed. As soon as you see this tightening of the muzzle, it is important to remove the horse from the source of the stress.
We are used to seeing horses use their tails as a handy fly swat, but look a bit closer and you’ll realise those tails are saying a lot more.
- A raised or flagged tail is a sign that a horse is excited. It also means he is prone to spooking, bucking or bolting so make sure you regain his focus.
- A horse with a tail pressed down will be nervous or stressed, so you’ll need to work on building his confidence. It can also mean he is in pain so check the tack fits properly.
- A rapidly swishing tail isn’t always getting rid of flies, it could be a sign your horse is angry or irritated.
It’s important to look at a horse’s body as a whole, not just in parts. It helps you see the bigger picture. For example, if there is a lot of tension in the body, he may be nervous, stressed or in pain; trembling often signals fear; and swinging hindquarters generally means he is about to kick.
Understanding your horse and keeping them safe is a key priority. Horsebox insurance can help you do that when you’re moving your equine to the vets, to an event and so on – it is also a legal requirement.
Get a quote for horsebox insurance today.