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Welcome to the Equestrian Outreach Equine Body Language and Sounds PageFlehmen Response

Equine Body Language and Sounds Overview

Observation is a vitally important requirement for people to safely interacting with horses. Learning their body language and sounds is an important part of that safety process. As a rule horses do not exhibit facial expressions, however they do have clear communication cues or signals some through body language as well as through their vocalizations (sounds). Equine vocalizations and body language (Communication cues) work in harmony with each other (Communication sets) to give a reasonably clear indication of what’s going on in a horses head. An example of a communication set is a horse that is grazing; head down. It hears an unfamiliar noise (a rustling in the bushes). Instantly the horse goes into an alert stance (which is a series of cues or a communication set): head raised, body tense, eyes focused and ears perked straight up and parallel to each other, to hear every sound. If the sound is discontinued the horse will cancel the alert stance and return to grazing. If it continues; depending on numerous variables; including the horse, it may become curious and investigate, dismiss the noise as non-threatening, move away from the noise or in the case of a sudden startling noise in which case the instinctual flee or fight defense mechanism is triggered. The above situation is repeated countless times each day and has little relevance to our safety until we interact with a horse during one of these events. Observation of the communication cues leads to a safe and enjoyable relationship. It is also important to note that the following communications cues vary from horse to horse.

Body Language

Drooping Head & Eyelids: Drooping eyelids may indicate that a horse is tired. They may also indicate that a horse is ill, especially if it is persistent.
Ear Talk: Ears are one of the more expressive parts of a horses body and can be seen from a distance.

  1. Perky Ears – Slightly Forward:
  2. Ears that are perked slightly forward and parallel to each other means that horse this is often a social signal which says “I am friendly and interested. Add a nicker to this cue and you have a horse that is happy to see you.
  3. Perky Ears – Straight Up:
  4. Ears that are perked straight up and parallel to each other means that horse is watchful, attentive and being protective; it may also mean that the horse detects a potential threat. Add a blow to this cue and you have a frightened horse and a potentially dangerous situation.
  5. Pinning Ears: When a horse rotates their ears backward and flattens them this is known as “Pinned Ears” and can be a territorial warning or an indication that the horse is upset or angry. Often act of pinned ears is followed by additional aggressive or protective behavior, such as bucking, kicking or biting. Pinned ears are the clearest kicking or bucking cue.
  6. Propeller Ears: A horse will rotate both ears, slowly and repeatedly in opposite circular patterns like propellers (Consequently the name). This cue indicates uncertainty and possible fear. Horses often exhibit this behavior in a new environment. Basically the horse is saying that it’s uncertain or afraid.
  7. V-Shaped Ears: When a horse’s ears are to the side (About 45 degree angle) like a V and rotated slightly backwards. This is a sign that the horse is concentrating on the rider and the riders aids. Some trainers refer to this ear cue as “V for Victory”.

Flehmen (Also known as Flehmen Reaction): This is a primarily male horse reaction the scent given off by mares in estrus. The horse curls his upper lip back, showing his teeth; then opening his mouth in order to draw a large quantity of air across a specialized scent organ located in the roof of his mouth. This aids in analyzing the scent.

Licking Lips: Usually occurs during training and it indicates the horse’s acceptance or understanding.
Lifting Hind Leg: This may only be a horse resting its leg. If displayed with pinned ears it is a challenge which unchecked will lead to kicking.
Pawing With Front Feet: This is a sign of apprehension or of a horse who is bored or hungry.
Rolling Eyes: Usually indicate pain.
Shaking Head From Side to Side: This is a sign of playful rebellion of a horse who wants to play. In association with pinned ears, it can also represent a preemptory challenge; uncorrected this can lead to dangerous behavior.
Stomping Hind Leg: This may only be a horse trying to dislodge ants or flies. If displayed with pinned ears it is a challenge which unchecked will lead to kicking.
Swinging Back End Around Towards You: This is a dangerous challenge and should not be allowed. Uncorrected, this challenge will lead to a horse that kicks.
Swishing Tail (Not at flies): This is a sign of irritation or of a horse who is not feeling well.
Yawning: There seems to be no specific reason for yawning. Some experts conclude that it is a response to breath-holding due to tension. Some feel that it is a way to equalize ear pressure. Others feel that it is an anticipatory response to things like feeding. Yawning may indicate health issues such as tooth or illness such as colic.

Horse Vocalization (Sounds) Cues

Blowing: While blowing the horse sharply exhales through its nose with his mouth shut. The blow is short in duration and does not create the vibrating or fluttering noise that the snort does. The strength of the blow and related body cues that will tell indicate what the horse is saying.
Blowing Responses:

  1. Greeting: Two horses meet nose to nose and blow on each other. During this, the two horses will tell each other if they are friends or foes. This behavior will usually end with friends showing affection and foes squealing, biting and kicking.  Note: It is a good idea to carefully approach a new horse with your horse.
  2. Curiosity: The horse blows towards an object it is curious about, usually something new that it has never seen before. The response is based on the horse determining that the object is safe or dangerous.  Safe responses are nudging or ignoring the object. Dangerous responses are continued blowing, tensing and or shying.
  3. Satisfaction: While training, a horse will blow when it is comfortable and “on the bit”.

Snorting: The horse usually holds his head high while exhaling through the nose with his mouth shut. The strong exhale creates a vibration or flutter sound in the nostrils. The snort lasts about 1 second. The snort can be heard up to 30 feet away.  Snorting indicates danger.
Snorting Responses: A snorting response is based on the horse determining that the object is safe or dangerous. 

  1. Safe snorting responses are nudging or ignoring the object.
  2. Dangerous snorting responses are tensing and or shying.

Nickering: The horse creates a deep vibrating sound with his mouth closed, from its vocal cords. The strength and tone of the nicker vary greatly, and will tell you what the horse is saying.
Nickering Responses:

  1. Greeting: The horse nickers fairly quietly, and moves toward the other horse or person who he is nickering to.
  2. Flirting: Usually sounded by a stallion. This nicker is slightly more intense than the one above, with mating in mind, and accommodated by shaking of the head.
  3. Companionship: This sound is most usually made by a mare to her foal. It is much softer and quieter than the "hello" nicker. This nicker is usually accommodated by a nudge from the horse's nose (usually towards her flanks to protect her foal from danger).

Neigh or Whinny: The Neigh/Whinny starts out as a squeal, but ends up as a nicker. The neigh is the loudest and longest of the horse sounds. The neigh is not a sound of fear. It is used when a horse is being separated from others.
Neigh or Whinny Responses:

  1. Companionship: The horse neighs with his head high, looking around for other horses or people. The horse usually neighs several times (if the horse neighs after a companion has answered his neigh, it is usually saying "Where are you".
  2. Companionship Response: "I am here" - A returned nicker made by a fellow horse who hears the original horse's question. This response is also a nicker, meant to tell the other horse that it's not alone.
  3. Squealing: The horse usually squeals with his mouth closed. The squeal can be short and quiet or loud and long. The squeal can be heard far away if the horse squeals loud enough.
  4. Refusal: The horse squeals while backing off, or sometimes aggressively approaching the object or person that’s pushing or forcing it.
  5. Screaming: The scream sounds like a loud roar of rage. It is very rare to hear a domesticated horse scream. It is only used during a fight between two horses, usually only in the wild.
  6. Challenge: The horse roars at another horse, moving towards the other horse aggressively, striking, kicking and biting. This continues until one of the two horses backs down.
  7. Concession: The horse backs down, with its tail set low, running away from the other horse's threat.