If you closely watch a group of horses interact you’ll quickly see that they speak loudly through their body language even though it may be subtle. For instance, the head, or alpha, mare may quickly clear a path by just lowering her head a bit and laying her ears back instead of baring her teeth and charging at whichever horse is in her way. Her herd mates know she means business when she just simply lays her ears back and they move.
Horses are in tune to these slight changes, however as humans we are often oblivious to horse’s mannerisms. Missing these subtle body cues in a horse with behavioral issues can result in getting hurt. It’s important to be as in tune to their language as they are.
A horse will think about something before he actually does it. Much like a person whose emotions are easily read on his face, a horse’s thoughts will be reflected in his body language. This is why it’s so important to know and recognize the changes in your horse’s mannerisms. By reading his body, you’ll be able to tell what he’s thinking.
When a horse thinks about bucking or acting up under saddle, his gait will change. He may speed up or increase his energy so he actually looks and feels lighter. His tail may also become stiff or clamped. If you’re riding, you’ll feel tightness through his back or maybe even a slight hump. All of these behaviors are physical signs that your horse is thinking about misbehaving.
Body language can also give you clues as to your horse’s mindset or mood at the moment. For instance, if a horse is irritated, stressed or uncomfortable, he will often pinch his nose. His nostrils will actually appear smaller. Some horses will also shake their heads or lay their ears back. Pawing is another sign that a horse is agitated.
Most people know that dogs carry their tails up and loose when they’re happy, and down and clamped when they’re scared or irritated. A horse’s tail can also be a gauge to the horse’s mental status. A horse with a clamped tail indicates tightness and stress in the body. This type of horse has the potential to kick or spook. A horse with his tail slightly up and light indicates a horse that’s relaxed and sure of his surroundings.
Headset is another great indicator of a horse’s mood or intention. If his head is up and he steps ever so slightly into your space, that’s a possible sign of asserting dominance. Many times this attempt at gaining the upper hand is so unobtrusive that the handler doesn’t even notice. But horses like this are the kind that if you give them the proverbial inch, they’ll take a mile.
A low headset is a sign of a relaxed horse, however a lowered head with ears back and nose out will usually indicate a very aggressive, and sometimes, dangerous horse. “Goosing” the neck out is frequently seen in herd interactions. When a horse does this, they are treating you as another horse and all bets are off.
Spend some time just watching your horse in different situations so that you can learn your horse’s mannerisms. You’ll not only learn your horse’s body language, but a deeper understanding into his personality and how he thinks.