7 behavioral signs that can help you tell if your horse is happy, sick, or painful, as well as keep you safe
Horse, let’s talk. How are you feeling? Oh, you like it when I scratch right there? Oh, but not here, right? Okay. Whoa, wait a minute. You’re not about to bite me, are you?
On paper, it seems like a one-sided conversation. If you happened to overhear this discussion across the stall wall, you might think your neighbor’s having an imaginary sit-down with her horse. But the truth is, horses do communicate with humans. In fact, when given the chance, they do it quite well. And they do it all through body language—the use of their faces, ears, legs, backs, tails, and entire bodies to communicate information.
So this is not a one-sided or imaginary conversation. And your fellow barnmate isn’t nuts. On the contrary, when humans make an effort to learn to read their horses, they can create pathways toward a stronger and safer interspecies relationship.
Your Horse’s Native Tongue
While vocal communication between horses has its place in herds, we know most of their daily communication occurs via body language. It’s through seemingly subtle movements—of the ears, the nostrils, the eyes, the mouth, the tail, the feet, or even just shifting weight or tensing up—that they convey information to each other.
“This is just how they’ve evolved, and it’s how their body language has evolved, as well,” says Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist and founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square.
And it makes sense, she says. These are prey animals, and subtle communication can mean survival in a world where any kind of noise could draw attention from predators. If we can tap into that “horse language code,” we can find a plethora of useful information.
Language Lessons: Breaking the Code
If a horse swishes his tail, is he agitated or happy? If he half-closes his eyes, is he squinting in pain or relaxing?
To understand equine body language, first we have to be aware that there’s communication to start with—which isn’t always a given. “It’s surprising to see how some people, regardless of their background with horses, don’t notice that body language is happening at all, while others seem to pick up on it intuitively,” says McDonnell.
Second, we have to read the cues without projecting or, worse, guessing. Good “listening” comes from knowing the science behind equine body language, says Rachele Malavasi, PhD, of the School of Ethical Equitation, in Moncigoli Di Fivizzano, Italy. It also comes from spending lots of time simply watching your horse. “I recommend that every horse person observe horses,” she says. “Spend some time doing nothing but observing your horse in the field. Horse people need to know how horses communicate and especially how their own horses communicate.”
While each horse is different, with our sources’ help we’ve come up with common things your horse might be communicating to you through body language. It doesn’t matter if some of these aren’t intentional communication. Even if the horse isn’t making an effort to “talk” to you, he’s still sending critical information that you need to be able to read.
Here are seven things your horse might be telling you:
1. “I’m not feeling well.”
A horse that’s ill or in pain might display classic physical expressions of discomfort. “A sick horse probably wouldn’t be very bright or alert,” says McDonnell. “He might stand off from the group as if he doesn’t want to interact with anyone. That body language is often the first sign that something is off, even before he loses his appetite.”
If he’s in pain, he might show guarding, meaning he’s protecting the painful area, she says. A horse in discomfort due to colic often kicks or bites at his abdomen, paws, and lies down and stands back up. If he’s got back pain, he could be “girthy,” showing aggression when you are saddling him. And in general, a horse in pain might seem grumpy or show defense behaviors toward humans or other horses.
A horse in pain might also reduce his activity level, carry his head below the withers, display a fixed stare and rigid stance, and be reluctant to move, says Emanuela Dalla Costa, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECAWBM, of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the Università degli Studi di Milano, in Milan, Italy.
Facial features can also reveal pain, she says. She and her team recently developed the Horse Grimace Scale, which allows people to check for pain-related facial expressions. In the laminitic or recently castrated horses they used in their studies, they noted a tendency for most horses in pain to flatten their ears and tense or strain parts of their face: the muscles over the eye orbits, above the eyes, and mouth, the nostrils, and chewing muscles.
Ridden horses express pain using a different set of behaviors and facial expressions, says Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K. “These include persistently having the ears back, repetitive mouth-opening, an intense stare, alteration of head position by being above or behind the bit, head-tossing up and down or from side to side, tilting the head, and repeated tail swishing,” she says.
2. “I’m stressed!”
Horses in acute stress display fairly recognizable body language, says McDonnell. They might have forward-pointing ears, wide-open eyes, widened nostrils, a high head, a stiff stance, and a raised tail. They might blow out through their nose, and they might defecate.
Horses just coming out of stressful situations often lick and chew, as sort of an involuntary reaction, she adds. Simply put, this occurs because switching from a sympathetic nervous system response (to acute stress) to the parasympathetic nervous system response (“rest and restore”) causes the horse to go from a dry mouth to a wet one. As he begins to salivate, he licks and chews.
“This is an area of significant confusion, especially among ‘horse whisperer’ type clinicians who may not have a scientific background,” she says. “They put the horse through a stressful situation and then mistakenly interpret the horse’s body language of licking and chewing as a sign of submission or special bonding. But it’s not. It’s a sign of a horse being released from a higher to a lower level of acute alert, alarm, or stress.”
Body language indicating chronic stress can be more difficult to distinguish, especially from that of a sick horse or a horse in pain, says McDonnell. “This is where the grimace scale can get a bit confusing,” McDonnell says. “It’s good to look at all the body language as a whole and not just focus on the facial features alone, as these can be similar for pain, illness, and chronic psychological or physical stress.”