Horses communicate through a combination of body language, vocal sounds, and facial expressions. Much like humans, what they don’t say can be just as important as what they do say. While we speak vastly different languages, we can learn how to communicate with horses when the starting point is love, when we take the time to learn their language, and when we choose to be their leader before pursuing any other accomplishment.
Equine Body Language
Horses communicate through their body using their overall posture—or “body language”—their eyes, their ears, tail, head and neck position, and their facial expressions. Here are some signals that every horse owner should know to understand their horse’s state of mind.
Ears: Horses say alot through their ears. This is the quickest way to get clues into the horse’s emotional state. Ears that are alert and forward indicate a horse that’s interested, which could be positive (attentive to the task at hand) or negative (scared of something looming ahead).
Ears that are floppy or droopy is a telltale sign of a relaxed horse, and ears flattened straight back indicate an angry horse. Horses that have one ear facing you (if you’re on the ground) and another ear oscillating in a semi-circle usually mean that they’re listening to you while surveying other noises.
Eyes: The eyes are a window into the soul, and it’s just as true with horses as it is humans. When a horse is scared, their eyes will be wide (sometimes you’ll see the whites of the eyes) and when a horse is relaxed, the eyes will be “soft”. You can even tell that a horse has submitted to you through his eyes, because they’ll be soft, and he’ll be looking downwards.
Tail: You can read a horse’s energy based on the position of his tail. Relaxed horses will have tails hanging low and limp. Horses that are either scared or excited (especially running around in a turnout arena) will carry their tails high.
Body: How a horse carries himself will tell you the most about how he’s feeling. Horses that are tense, carry their necks high, and move rapidly are usually scared. Horses that are relaxed carry their heads low, and have nice, fluid movement.
Facial Expressions: To read a horse’s face, you have to spend some time looking at how their faces look when they’re relaxed. Horses that aren’t feeling well will look irritated or tense in their faces, whereas happy horses have a relaxed look to them. Fun fact: horses look at our faces when trying to read our moods, too!
Remember this little saying which might help you identify if your horse is in an introverted, or present state of mind. “If he’s blinking he’s thinking, if he’s not he’s hot. If he’s licking and chewing, he’s digesting a thought.” This means that if his eyes are soft and blinking he’s probably present, if the eyes are not blinking and seem tense, the horse is likely introverted and not ready to receive information from you. When your horse licks and chews this is commonly a sign that they have relaxed enough to “digest” the concept and you can move on to the next task.
Common Equine Noises
While body language is the primary form of equine communication, they do have some sounds that can tell you how they’re feeling. The following are the most common.
Whinny: This is the sound most commonly associated with horses because it is so distinctive. Horses whinny at each other when one is leaving the other, or to signal a greeting from a far away distance. Many “buddy-sour” horses will whinny when leaving the herd to go ride.
Nicker: This sweet, inviting sound is associated with affection—for other horses, their human partner, or for food.
Blow: Horses will let out a big, gusty blow from their noses when they’re fearful, excited, or curious. It’s a very expressive way to signal that they are interested in something.
Squeal: Squealing is often a sign of aggression, dominance, or displeasure from horses. You’ll often hear mares squeal when a male gets too close. But on some occasions, it could also signal pleasure.
How to Communicate with Your Horse
Horses are always talking if we’ll slow down enough to listen. So often in our journey with horses, we focus on accomplishments. In Natural Horsemanship, the principles of success are Love, Language, and Leadership. Here’s how you can reframe communication with your horse through these three simple principles:
The first step to creating a great partnership with your horse is to start with love. This means that instead of coming to your horse with an agenda or trying to anthropomorphize his actions (trying read him like you would a person), you figure out what your horse wants.
And in light of herd dynamics, your horse wants three things: safety, comfort, and play. Humans, by contrast, want praise, recognition, and material things. But you must set aside these things when working with your horse and instead become absolutely passionate about building the relationship with your horsefirst. All other accomplishments are secondary in your partnership.
The next step to a great partnership with your horse on his terms is to learn to speak his language. If you are puzzled by your horse’s actions, ask yourself: “Am I trying to speak horse, or am I expecting my horse to speak human?” We need to become so fluent in horse language that it’s second nature.
You can begin by understanding equine body language and vocal cues above. The next step is to master the Seven Games with your horse. These Seven Games derived from Pat Parelli’s study of how horses groom, play, and assign dominance with each other. This leads us to the third and final leg of a harmonious partnership with your horse.
Playing the Seven Games with your horse won’t just teach you how to speak horse, they’ll also establish you as his leader. This is crucial in partnering with your horse, because becoming his leader shifts your role in their mind from predator to partner. And my friend, that is the goal of everything we do here at Parelli Natural Horsemanship.
But to do so, you need to have a plan. While us horse owners often focus on riding as a means of accomplishment, what we do on the ground means so much to the horse. When you focus on mastering the Levels on the ground, your riding will benefit.
Communication Means Considering the Horse Your Equal
Pat likes to say that Equus simply means that the horse is “equal us.” There is no room for chauvinism, autocracy, or thinking that you’re better than the horse within Natural Horsemanship. And if you reflect on your horse journey, you will likely agree that micromanaging your horse is stressful for everyone. Imagine a partnership where it’s simple, natural, and easy. By making passion your first priority, learning to listen to your horse, and having a plan to become his leader, you can surely become your horse’s trusted partner.
Do you need help learning how to communicate with your horse? Check out the Savvy Club Membership to gain access to a huge training library, Q & A’s with Pat and other Parelli instructors, and learn alongside thousands of other horse owners like you.