Improve YOUR confidence by learning to decode your horse's communication!
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
I’ve discovered that the “Confidence” article last spring (“Building confidence for you and your horse. It's a two-way street.”) ….. was a very popular topic.
Since then, I was inspired to write this article which goes deeper into developing your own confidence by learning to better understand your horse’s communication. The idea surfaced while teaching my clients some basics of reading their horses’ body language. My students started to tell me that they began to feel more self-assured around their horse when they had some idea what their horse “was saying”. I even had one client say that now that she understands her horse a bit better, she doesn’t feel worried or intimidated around him.
This makes a lot of sense to me as I feel the same way when I’m able to clearly interpret what a person is saying. And conversely, I feel less comfortable when say for instance: no one is speaking English around me (unfortunately English is my only fluent human language) or if someone is saying one thing but presenting with contradictions.
One of the most wonderful things about horses (of course, there are many other wonderful things 😍) is that horses’ communication with each other is totally pure. Having no ego like humans, their language is authentic. There’s no mixed messages or contradictions. Horses use mostly very subtle cues that involve facial and body language, some breath and vocal tones, as well as radiating energy. Most people can’t read the energy aspect coming from horses; so are left with primarily reading breath and vocal cues; as well as facial and body language to interpret what the horse is thinking and feeling.
The position of the horse’s body, their body posture, the ears, the eyes, the nostrils, the tail, their breathing, certain breath sounds, as well as the lips and mouth all play a role in the message they are sending. You can almost predict what's going to happen next by paying attention to these cues. Learning to read your own horse's unique communication will improve your partnership immensely.
How about we begin with ears since most horse-people are familiar with paying attention to their horse’s ears. And pretty much everybody knows to back away!!!....when their horse is pinning their ears flat against the back of their head.
But, let’s get a little deeper into ear communication.
If an ear (or ideally, both ears) are pointed in your direction, your horse is probably paying attention to you....YAY 😀. This can be seen when you're in-the-saddle or on-the-ground. So, if you’re on the ground and you’re in front of your horse, his/her ears would be pointed towards you. (But, also watch the eyes to see if they possibly are looking behind you.) When you’re in the saddle, it’s great if your horse is continuously checking in with you by turning one or both ears back to you. You might want to acknowledge this behavior with a gentle touch of your hand, your heel/leg, or offer a soothing voice communication that you’ve used with your horse in the past both on-the-ground and while riding. Sometimes, when a horse does this, he or she is looking for emotional support about something they’re worried about.
Notice if before or after they pointed their ears to you, they pointed their ears at something else which will give you a clue as to what they’re worried about. Also, be aware of sounds as this might be the cause of your horse’s worry. You will have needed to have done your homework with your horse to alleviate his/her concerns on the ground and be able to use that same cue to bring your horse back to relaxation.
When your horse’s ears appear to be almost floppy and turned a bit out to the side and sometimes slightly back, they're super relaxed and/or sleepy. Make sure if you’re near your horse at this time and want to approach, that you communicate something to your horse, so he/she isn’t startled. If you're in an appropriate position to try this: you might want to gently feel their ears, so you know what they feel like in this relaxed state; they should feel soft and flexible (it’s quite the opposite if they’re scared/worried.)
When your horse's ears are pointed away from you, they're focusing on something else...and NOT you. If they're pointed away from you and feel rigid, your horse is concerned, worried, or scared about something in that direction. Whether they’re worried about something or just generally curious about something, this is not the time to make requests until you get your horse's attention back again either by waylaying their concerns or by being interesting in some way (whereby you’re more interesting than the thing your horse is focused on 😊).
Horse’s ears are probably one of the most obvious indications of what your horse is thinking/feeling. However, there is a chance of misunderstanding their meaning due to the fact that different horses present a little differently. Also, the ear messages should be clarified by looking at other body parts. For instance, it can be difficult to tell when a horse’s ears are turned back as to whether he’s paying attention to something behind him, in deep concentration, or possibly it’s a moments precursor to pinning ears. Signs that he’s about to pin his ears might be a swishing tail, body tension, lack of blinking, and holding their breath.
Breathing, Breaths, Eyes, & Mouth
Notice your horses breathing. Can you hear it? Or, is it barely audible? Can you see whether there’s steady in-and-out of the lower ribcage? When horses aren’t confident, or are scared/worried, they kind of stop breathing or breathe very shallowly…not unlike humans. If you see and hear regular rhythmic, relaxed breathing then they’re generally feeling ok emotionally.
Horses communicate much with certain breaths. For instance: if you hear a couple of quick inward breaths followed by a longer outward breath (again similar to us), they’re kind of saying “phew”, “ahhh”, or “thank goodness”, “oh good, everything’s fine”, etc. Or, you can think of it as they’re relieving some tension that they had for some reason. There are also many other breaths and sounds that have important meaning. If you want to learn more about these, check out: Horse Speak by Sharon Wilsie.
Horses eyes quite often give us some real insight into what the horse is thinking about doing next. When your horse looks off to the right or left, it’s likely that that’s where they’re about to go possibly in a spook or bolt. They also might look back and forth quickly which might be a signal that your is planning an “exit stage right or left or back” etc.
We hear a lot we need to be careful and concerned if we see the “whites of their eyes”…. However, this would only really mean something if that’s not the norm for your horse. Some horses as a natural part of their being have the white showing, like paints/pintos and Appaloosas. Other horses have the whites of their eyes showing when they’re mildly alarmed or particularly interested in something (like my GiGi). However, if the situation has gotten so extreme and the whites showing is not normal for your horse, then your horse is very angry, or upset. It would likely occur with other signs like ears pinned which would mean the horse is very angry. Or, it could happen along with trembling, barely breathing, tail raised or clamped…all depending on the situation but a horse showing these signs is very, very upset, fearful, or agitated.
The horse’s lips can communicate much, particularly when combined with other messages sent along with the horse’s body and face. Their lips can be tense, tight/clenched indicating the horse is not comfortable, worried, or stressed in some way. In contrast, when the lower lip is loose and maybe droopy, it usually suggests the horse is quite relaxed. Licking and/or chewing is commonly known to point to relaxation and/or the processing of information.
Yawning in horses is subject of much controversy. There’s thought that it could be: a way to release stress and calm down; a social behavior amongst other horses; an appeasement signal; or it can simply mean the horse is truly sleepy, tired, and/or relaxed. I believe that it’s all four depending on the situation and the horse.
Try to pay attention to your horse’s body language and cues to help you better understand and be able to address your horse’s needs. Remember to not just focus on one thing; pay attention to all the clues that your horse is presenting. Also, get to know your own horses’ individual communication patterns. This might just be the ticket for you to become more self-assured and confident around your horse. Knowing whether your horse is relaxed, scared, nervous, or uncertain may also help you feel more confident in various situations to know what to do next.
Kyle Van Splinter