Watch that (horse) face!

By Nicola Jane Swinney on |



If you’ve ever had a horse put in a dirty last-minute stop at a jump so that you go sailing over his head, you’ll recognise that expression on his face as he regards you from the other side of the fence — innocent astonishment that says, “What on earth are you doing down there?”

We have all heard about horse body language, but our favourite equines also have a whole range of facial expressions (and, just like humans, they alter them to respond to social situations, according to research by the University of Sussex). Just think of that bright-eyed eager look you get on arrival that you think means he loves you (most commonly seen around feeding time) or the abject horror when he spies a Lidl carrier in the bushes. To be fair, he would probably have reacted the same way to a Waitrose bag — horses aren’t snobs.

I once had a mare that would pull the most terrible faces when I tacked her up. In my ignorance, I thought that she was might be coming down with colic, so agonised was her expression, but she was actually just puffing out her belly so I couldn’t tighten the girth…

Then there was the stallion who would feign terror whenever you approached him in the stable. He’d stand in the corner and roll his eyes wildly at you, as if he thought you were about to visit all sorts of violence upon his person. But he’d still give you a nasty nip if you turned your back on him, then leap away as if the very hounds of hell were on his heels. Absolute sham.

Horses certainly have a sense of humour. When they flatten their ears, lift their heads and curl back their upper lip, it looks for all the world like they’re in on some great gag, although it’s often simply a reaction to an unusual taste or smell.

But the biggest joke to them, of course, is when you trudge across the paddock, wielding headcollar and wheedling temptingly (you think), in the hope that your pony won’t lead you a merry dance around the field. Not a chance. As soon as you get — almost — within touching distance, he dances away, giddy with glee. And that glance he throws you over his shoulder says, quite clearly, “Isn’t this fun!”

It’s enough to make a horse laugh.


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