Humans should pay attention to what horses have to say. Yes, horses do speak, with facial expressions and body language. The eyes and ears, in particular, communicate important information. Veterinarians often examine the eyes to determine medical conditions. Horses utilize ears, eyes, facial expressions, head orientation, and tails to communicate.
- Ear Position: Ears held flat tightly against the head is an aggressive position and may indicate discomfort or anger. Humans beware as hostile behavior may soon follow. If the ears are loosely held back against the head, the horse may be sleepy or bored. A horse’s ear position is a vital communication signal. There highly mobile ears are often pointed in the direction of a horse’s gaze, signaling another horse or a predator. The ears may be utilized to direct other animals towards a food source.
- Eye Communication: Horses displaying the whites of the eyes are afraid or angry. Half closed eyes often indicate a relaxed horse. Horses have strong eyesight. Due to the position of the eyes on the head, the horse’s binocular vision is narrow. A horse may utilize its’ monocular vision to focus one eye on a groomer and the other eye on a horse standing nearby. Yellowing of the eyes may indicate liver insufficiency. Dulling of the eyes, excessive tearing of the eyes, swelling, or papillary reflex may signal an illness. In comparison, a normal eye will be bright and clear with no signs of discharge.
- Facial Expressions: Ears held tightly back with a pronounced chin in combination with the tightening of eyes, mouth, and nostrils most likely signifies pain. The horse’s profile will appear flattened. Bared teeth can be a sign of affection if no other anger indications are apparent. A stallion may roll its’ lips back and display teeth, while extending the neck and holding its’ head up high. This combination of expressions is referred to as flehmen and is priming the stallion for reproductive behavior. However, mares will display the same signals during the first few hours after birthing a foal. It is caused by the inhalation of scent molecules and triggers a chemosensory reaction.
- Head Orientation: A raised neck and head signifies alertness and anxiety. A lowered head and neck could denote a possible illness. The horse may be tired or weak. The head orientation in combination with the eye gaze may suggest the primary target of concern. The horse may point its head in a vertical position and hold its nose low when focusing on an object nearby.
- Pawing Hooves: Pawing is when a horse lifts a front hoof and pushes the hoof into the ground repeatedly. Pawing may be indicative of stress, fear, or a bored horse. Horses often paw the ground in anticipation of feeding time or out of curiosity. Pawing in combination with other signals such as rolling may be a sign of colic or other illness.
- Tail Position: A fearful horse may have a flattened tail. A tail may be utilized to swish pesky flies however, it may also be a warning sign of irritation. A swinging tail in combination of ears held tightly back on the head is an indication of hunger or possible aggression.
Photo courtesy of 1-15-17 Say Cheese by Jill P. at Flickr’s Creative Commons.