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Understanding Horses


To understand how a horse is feeling it is important to observe how they move and vocalise.  But most importantly we must understand who a horse is specifically, this comes down to their previous experiences, weaning, trauma, genetics, species, nutrition, health, stress level and more! Horses in general all have a predisposition to behave in a certain way. Although individual experiences will have a huge impact on the horses consciousness and behaviour. For simplicity, this article will be on observing the behaviour that is easy to see. Although it must be noted that horses do not always show how they are feeling, just as we do not. 


Horses communicate through facial expressions, body postures, movements, vocalisations and chemical messages through pheromones. All over the world they have a common language as their social life depends on them sending messages and the other horse understanding. Horses try to use this language when they communicate with us.  


Positive signs that show a horse is feeling happy (peaceful or joyful) are:

  • Low relaxed head position

  • Normal tail position

  • Back leg resting

  • Relaxed muscles

  • Relaxed muzzle, sometimes with a hanging lower lip

  • Round nostrils

  • Eyes closing when drowsing

  • Standing still calmly

  • Eating with a ‘soft’ body

  • Walking towards you calmly.

  • Moving their body towards you to ask for a scratch.

  • Nicker: There are three types of nicker. 

           1 - Mum calling her foal. 

           2 - When stallions are courting a mare. 

           3 - As a greeting and asking a friend to come over (Rees)

  • Play fighting which may include pawing with their forelegs

  • Chase and charge running play which may include tossing their head from side to side, bucking and rearing.

  • When playing they may raise their tail.


Now here is a list of behaviours you don’t want to see. Fearful, frustrated, or aggressive horses may... 

  • Look away

  • Move away

  • Snap their mouth together (youngsters)

  • Stare at what is frightening them

  • Hold their head high and vigilant or low and submissive

  • Have tense muscles

  • Clamp or raise their tail

  • Lick and chew 

  • Blow loudly from their nostrils to get the herds attention

  • Show the whites of their eyes.

  • Have triangle shaped eyebrows

  • Have flared or tight, wrinkled nostrils

  • Yawn (lowers blood pressure)

  • Freeze standing still

  • Paw with their foreleg

  • Stamp their hoof

  • Head toss

  • Do a poop, stress poo’s are normally loose

  • Sweat

  • Shiver

  • Move with jerky movements

  • Tail swishing shows irritation

  • Lay ears flat back

  • Threaten to bite

  • Bite

  • Threaten to kick by moving their hind-end towards you, tail swishing and or lifting their back leg

  • Kick

  • Rear


You may have noticed that some behaviours can occur when the horse is in both positive and negative states of mind e.g. head toss. It is vital to look at the horse as a whole and not just one  body part in isolation.  In general, the horses ear positions will show where the horse has their attention. Although this changes in some situations e.g. the horse will often lay their ears flat back before they bite. They are not focusing on something behind them, they are putting their ears close to their body to protect them. 


When threatened the horse has 4 choices known as the 4 f’s:






Fidget behaviours are the healthy horse's first choice when mildly threatened.  Many of the behaviours in the second list above  would come under fidget behaviours which include appeasements and displacements.

Appeasements are submissive behaviours which aim to reduce aggression from another e.g. head lowering, moving away etc.

Displacements are normal behaviours acted out in an abnormal context. They are motivated by fear, frustration or confusion e.g. yawning, licking and chewing etc.  A human example is to play with your hair or check your phone when you feel uncomfortable. It is important to look at the whole context when assessing behaviour as each action has more than one meaning e.g. if you ask your horse to back up and he scratches his leg this is likely to be a displacement as he is confused. However, in a different situation he will scratch as he simply has an itch.

If fidget behaviours don't work then the horse will either flee (if possible) or freeze. Donkeys are more likely to freeze and this is why they are thought of as stubborn. If all 3 options fail the horse will fight, and if the horse has consistently learnt that fidget, flee and freeze don't work then they may learn to be aggressive first. So you see aggression is the last option and if we are smart we can notice the smaller signs and stop their behaviour escalating. If you see signs that your horse is fearful, frustrated or confused stop what you are doing. In any situation we can either accept it, or change it. So can you accept that your horse doesn’t want to do something or if it is in their best interests how can you change your practice so that they can feel positive about it? For example, I got a new gel to put on Jac’s sarcoid. After a couple of days I went to put it on and he stepped his hind legs towards me and swished his tail. Is this aggressive? I guess so but to me it’s just communication. In 2  1/2 years Jac has never bit or kicked me because when he tells  me 'No' I listen. I stopped putting the gel on, he stopped threatening me. It is his body and if he tells me he doesn’t want the gel on, that’s his choice. Perhaps it stung, I don’t know but he clearly did. On the other hand when Jac had a hoof abscess I HAD to clean it for his welfare. He didn't like this but I broke the process down into small steps and rewarded him genourously with tasty chaff so that it was tolerable for him. We have to find the balance between listening and understanding them and doing what we believe is best for them. As with every relationship it's a compromise.


So you see understanding horses is about so much more than simply observing them, it comes to understanding the horse as a species and what motivates them to act in a particular way. I cannot provide the answers to understand every behaviour right now but 5 simple questions can help you to understand any behaviour you see…

What triggers the behaviour?

What happens inside the body?

What is the outcome?

How does the animal feel?

Why did the behaviour evolve in the species?



Budiansky (1970) The nature of horses, Butler & Tanner Ltd, GB

McGreevy, P (2004) Equine Behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh 

Rees, L (1984) The horses mind, Butler & Tanner Ltd, GB

Simpson, H (2004) Teach Yourself Horse, NAC Library Publication

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