Although the pleasant sound of a whinny or neigh is familiar us all, horses are in fact, for the most part, non-verbal. Observers may recall the lead stallion commanding a herd forward with a subtle nod of the head, for example. The good news is these cues are generally unambiguous to understand if you’re willing to spend a good amount of time around these animals.
Like humans, horses readily display signs indicating whether they’re angry, relaxed, frightened, or edgy. A relaxed horse may hang its head, almost sleepily, to the floor, seemingly without a care in the world. On the other hand, a raised head can indicate alertness, a judgement of danger, or just an interest in what’s at hand. But if your horse has its head lowered and swinging from side-to-side, you can bet there’s something troubling it, forcing it to act defensively or aggressively.
This simple body language is echoed in the movement of its ears. When the ears are forward this is generally a sign of interest and attention. Ears to the side reflect the general tuning-out of a relaxed horse (and in that case, it’s probably best not to sneak up on or startle it), whereas a pair of pinned-back ears can signify anger. If the horse’s ears are moving all over the place, it’s probably having trouble with threat-perception, meaning it is most likely anxious or stressed.
Similarly, the way a horse swings its tail conveys similar emotional queues. A rapid swishing, for example, implies annoyance or irritation. Whereas a tail tightly clenched to its hindquarters can indicate nervousness. An elevated tail is generally a positive sign, that the horse is relaxed.
Horses are often stood idly for long periods of time, especially when they are in the stable or out in the field. Even if you aren’t interacting with them personally, you should still monitor their activity, you might find they are telling you something serious.
Horses may generally cock one of their rear legs, and even shift their body weight from time to time from one leg to another, just like people do. And while this is generally a good sign indicating relaxation, a horse that shifts its weight rapidly may be one in pain. More specifically, if a horse shows it is unable or reluctant to walk, or if it stands with its legs forward, while simultaneously leaning backward, that may be an indication of laminitis.
There are two types of laminitis, acute and chronic. These conditions can be brought on by a number of complex factors such as diet and stress that limit blood flow to the laminae, a layer in the horse’s feet that supports the weight of the animal. In both cases the horse may lie down to relieve itself of the pain and may not want to get up. As laminitis can be fatal if left untreated, it is important to contact your vet right away if you suspect it.
Horse body language is generally not too dissimilar to a human’s. We are all capable of acting jumpy if we’re afraid of something, being stiff if nervous, or shaking our heads in irritation. But we can tell our loved ones exactly what it is we feel is wrong. A horse cannot, which is why it is important to keep a close eye on your horse. They’ll tell you if there’s a problem, in their own way.