How Do Horses Show Their Emotions?

Ever wonder how do horses show their emotions or what your horse is thinking? I think it’s really important when caring for your horse to know how they express themselves! This is one of my favourite horse care tips and I’ve included an emotions chart below as well that I hope will help.

In this post, I’ll go through four principle areas of the horse’s body through which they communicate their mood and thoughts.  I’ve put together a simple chart of some body language cues to help you get started on improving the communication with your own horse. 

How do horses show their emotions

If you’ve read my series on training Rudy, you’ll know that I’m really big on listening to to my horse. If you haven’t yet and you’re interested, you can check out the first post here: Building A Young Horse Training Plan From Day 1

In the series, I walk through the process of training Rudy from day 1 after I got him as a 4-year-old gelding warmblood cross after he was only under saddle for a few months. In each post, I discuss a big issue that we worked through during that week of training. 

Throughout my training with Rudy, I talk about how I always strive to listen to him and pay attention to how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking at any given moment. Personally, I think creating a good bond with your horse is much more important than getting obidience or attaining skills. That being said, I found that the more I was in tune with what Rudy was thinking, the faster and smoother the training went. 

Table of Contents

    So I definitely think we can have both with our horses: a great bond and great performance. In fact, I think it’s much easier to acheive performance if we have that foundation of a bond first. 

    What Emotions Do Horses Have?

    When we think about how do horses show emotions, we tend to think in a more human way: “how horses show saddness” or “how horses express happiness”? 

    The truth is, horses function more in the spectrum of relaxed to anxious. You can equate relaxed to happy and anxious to sad in the way that one is positive and the other is negative. I’m not suggesting that horses don’t have a broad range of emotions just like humans do that encompass happiness and saddness. When Rudy runs around his paddock with his best friend, Bobbi, you can immediately see the happiness. 

    But when we’re working with our horses, we’re working much more in the spectrum of relaxed to anxious. My goal whenever I’m working with Rudy is to keep him as relaxed as possible the entire time. I try to ask him to do things as much as possible when he’s telling me he’s feeling relaxed and good. If he’s telling me that he’s anxious about something, I try to bring him back to a state of relaxation first and then ask him to do the next thing. 

    The Horse Emotions Chart

    The Horse Emotions Chart

    The mouth, eyes, ears and tail are the most obvious indicators of how your horses is feeling. There’s a lot more than this but if you can keep an eye on these body parts while you’re working with your horse, you’ll have an excellent foundation for listening to your horse. You’ll also probably be more aware of most riders out there!

    Let’s go through each area of the body in more detail…

    The Mouth

    Listen to what comes oout of that mouth! 

    Horses communicate with each other and with humans through a rrather wide range of vocal signals and facial expressions. Combined with body posture, this can tell a great deal about the horse’s mood and attitute. 

    I’m always keeping an eye on Rudy’s mouth to see how he’s feeling.

    How do horses show emotions with their mouth…

    • Twitching of the lower lip indicates that the horse is transitioning from a state of being stressed to more relaxed
    • Licking and chewing indicates a relaxation response 
    • Yawning indicates a relaxation response
    • Nuzzling or nibbling often indicates a desire to engage and be social 
    • Quick nipping or bitting indicates some sort of discomfort in the form of anxiety or physical pain 
    • Snorting or sighing indiates a relaxation response 
    • Whinning especially with the head up can indicate an increased stress level (a horse with seperation anxiety who is away from their herd will often whinny to them with their head way up when taken to the arena) 
    • A fixed mouth and clenched jaw indicates a higher level of stress

    The Eyes 

    Pay attention to those eyes as they make up the foundation of horse facial expressions!

    A horse has large eyes with a wide field of vision that encompasses approximately 250 degrees, enabling it to see far out to each side, as well as what’s behind it. 

    Did you know that a horse can see a different sign with each eye? Is it any wonder that the horse is supersensitive to movement or surprises coming from any direction? 

    Horses also don’t have the same neural pathways that humans do connecting the two sides of their brain. This means that they process visual information coming in from the left eye seperately from that coming through the right eye. This is why we have to do everything on both sides with horses. A horse that’s always saddled on the right might spook when saddled on the left.

    How do horses show emotions with their eyes…

    • Showing the whites of the eyes can indicate a higher state of stress 
    • Rolling of the third eye lid indicates a relaxation response 
    • A lack of blinking indicates a higher level or stress or a horse that’s more shut down
    • Looking in a different direction than the head can indicate a higher state of stress (this is especially true if a horse turns their head away from you but their eyes are still on you

    The Ears 

    Watch those ears! Have you ever noticed how your horse swivels its ears? No matter what the horse is doing: eating, drinking, dozing, or just leaning against the fence, the ears are always in play, monitoring the world and listening for that quiet sound that indicates danger is near. 

    How do horses show emotions with their ears…

    • Fixated ears can indicate a higher state of stress especially when coupled with puffing of the body, a raised head and widening eyes
    • Flicking ears back and forth indicates changing focus and a state of relaxation 
    • An ear flick towards you indicates a connection with the rider

    The Tail 

    The Tell-tale Tail. Tail seitshing has many uses. Horses swish their tails to keep flies and other insects off their skin. Rythmic, slow swishing may indicate the horse is waiting patiently for something to happen and is in a submissive mode. 

    How do horses show emotions with their tail…

    • Sudden, big tail swishes that aren’t in response to bugs indicate resistance or an increase to a higher state of stress 
    • Holding the tail slightly away from the body while moving indicate a state of relaxation

    Other Indicators of Horse Emotions

    There are, of course, plenty of other indicators. Every single part of the horse as well as their movement in the moment and movement patters over time are indicators of how their feeling. 

    Horses are extremely social herd animals and thus they’re excellent communicators if you know how to read them. This post is meant to be a start on learning how to communicate better with your horse. The start of learning to listen. 

    I won’t go through everything here but here’s a few other indicators that I pay attention to a lot. 

    The Head 

    The head has two subtle cues that I think can say a lot about a horse’s feelings. In fact, this is probably what I pay attention to the most on a day-to-day basis now.

    • Raising of the head usually indicates increasing level of stress; lowering the head usually indicates decreasing level of stress
    • Turning the head away while keeping their eyes and ear on the object (usually us!) indicates a stress response to that object or person 

    The Feet 

    Horses tend to move their feet more without being asked the more anxious they are. A horse that can’t stand still in the crossties or on a trail is showing you that they feel too concerned to stand still. 

    A very specific indicator of concern is pawing. Horses that paw consistently typically are showing you that their anxious about something or they generally feel anxious. 

    What Next? 

    The amazing thing about horses is that once you know what their body language indicates and get good at reading it, you don’t have to worry about doing any sort of interpretations. Unlike other humans, horses don’t hide what they’re feeling. 

    They make it pretty obvious if you know how to look. 

    They don’t think to themselves: “I’m actually really scared but I’m going to act happy today because I don’t want anyone to know”. Nope! When they’re scared, you’ll know. 

    Of course, the next step beyond this is how to respond to stress indicators in order to calm down your horse and recognize relaxation indicators so that we ask for a little bit more from our horse in those moments when they’re feeling their best. 

    If you’re interested in learning in more detail how to do this, I go through it in my course on learning how to “talk to horses”. I’m definitely no horse whisperer, I just have put a lot of effort into learning how to be very present and listen to what my horse is saying to me so that I can respond appropriately. Just the act of showing my horse that I know what they’re thinking does wonders for his trust level in me and our bond. You can check it out here: Ground-Up Horsemanship.

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    Happy bonding,

    Martina

    How Do Horses Show Their Emotions? 3

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