Horses may not be able to talk, but if you study how they position or move their body, their head and their ears, as well as other parts of their anatomy, you will learn a lot about how they are feeling.
Horse to horse, they are capable of plenty of communication. One will tell another that he is the boss in their relationship, or that he is frightened, or relaxed.
Understanding a horse’s body language can make you a better rider, and it will certainly help you to handle them on the ground. When you are more aware of their ‘flight’ signals you will be better equipped to stay safe. So, how will your horse tell you how he feels?
If your horse’s head is lowered (neither high nor near the ground), his back is level, his muscles relaxed and his tail hanging normally, or maybe swishing gently, he is feeling chilled and content. He may even be resting a hind foot if he is standing still and not grazing. His ears are likely to be turned out to the side.
A truly relaxed horse will have its head even lower than a happy one. His eyelids may droop or close, his muscles are relaxed and in some the lower lip may sag. Talk to a relaxed horse on approach so as not to startle him.
Your horse’s ears are a perfect barometer of how alert he is. If his ears are forward and his head is up but not excessively high, he is tuning in to sights and sounds around him. An alert, interested horse may also hold his tail quite high. Alertness is also a sign of wellbeing. A sick or neglected horse will not be alert, but instead lethargic with a lowered head and a lack of interest in his surroundings.
When your horse is anxious the most noticeable sign will be that he sticks his head in the air, while the muscles in his neck and other parts of his body will be tense too. His eyes are likely to be wide and his nostrils may be flared. He may even snort. His ears will probably be back, or flicking backwards and forwards. His tail is also likely to be tucked into his hindquarters.
Beware a horse with this demeanour — he may be about to try and bolt or at the very least push you over as his ‘flight’ mechanism kicks in. If you climb into the saddle, you are likely to be in for a rough ride. It will be much safer to lunge him first to ensure that he is relaxed enough to ride.
A horse who is stressed or annoyed is likely to have his ears pinned back. His tail will probably be swishing from side to side and he is likely to fling his head around and step from one side to another if he is tied up. A stressed horse may also strike out with a front foot or paw the ground in a show of impatience.
An aggressive horse looks quite similar to a stressed horse, particularly his ears, which are likely to be pinned back. He may lunge in an attempt to try and bite you if you are close to him on the ground. Also beware his hind end as he may attempt to kick. If you are riding a horse who becomes stressed or aggressive, check whether he is in pain from his tack — an ill fitting saddle maybe, or a girth that is pinching — and then eliminate bodily pain, such as a back issue or teeth problems.
Beware the signs you give to your horse via your own demeanour. For example, a young or nervous horse will find a person’s stare unnerving, and will feel the same about someone striding towards him.