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When Horses Pin Their Ears Back, What Are They Signaling?

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We had a horse that pinned its ears back anytime a person approached it. This action prompted my daughter to ask, “What does it mean when a horse pins its ears back?”

A horse pins his ears back when threatened, angry, or to display dominance, and it’s the most aggressive sign a horse transmits with its ears. Horses readying for a fight or an attack flatten their ears against their heads.

The position of a horse’s ears signals comfort, fear, anger, and danger. Horses send various signals with their ears; ears pinned back, ears forward, and ears flopped down all send different messages.


Horses signal with their ears

Horses have survived thousands of years because of their instincts and ability to communicate with each other. And the horse’s capacity to transmit information with their ears effectively played a vital role in horses’ existence.

Horses are prey animals, and their ears not only work to hear approaching danger but also convey visual signals. A horse expresses its emotional state by the positioning or movement of their ears. The cues are easily noticeable because unlike other hooved animals, a horse’s ears are not shielded with horns or antlers.

A horse pins its ears to prepare for trouble

Flattened ears are the most aggressive signal a horse transmits with its ears. It is a mechanical act of “ear protection” used to prevent the ears from being bitten or torn off during a fight.

Pinning of the ears is not only used when fighting but also as a threat signal to other horses of readiness to attack. Horses receiving the message could back off or flatten their ears as to say ok, I am prepared to fight too.

Mare pin their ears when defending their foals

Mares inherently pin their ears when defending their foals from people, particularly strange people. A protective mother may also kick, charge, or bite anyone who comes too close to her baby.

Horses pin their ears when they are sexually aggressive. Mare will do this when resisting unwanted sexual advances of stallions, stallions flatten their ears when competing for mates, and mares do it when competing with each other to get close to a stud. 

It’s been suggested that horses think humans are in a constant state of anger because our ears are always flat and never flop or relax. If you notice your horse pin his ears when you’re riding, try to move him away from the source of his agitation.

A horse pins his ears when threatened.

Horses flatten their ears when they perceive a threat. The threat can be real or learned and triggered by other animals or humans. But it’s most commonly a reaction to events that occurred in their past.

Horses broken under a rough hand, or abused are the most likely animals to pin their ears when approached by a person. They associate people with pain and mistreatment and respond aggressively when approached. The issue can run deep and takes time and patience to fix.

Some horses feel threatened when other horses roam near them while they’re. They pin their ears to assert ownership over food. This type of behavior is more prevalent in older horses, but the aggressiveness is not age restrictive.

Horses pin their ears when their hurt

Aggression is also seen in horses with arthritis, muscular stiffness, or an injury. Any physical limitation that reduces their mobility often causes a horse to get defensive and convey a “keep away” message by pinning their ears.

If your horse’s aggression increases suddenly or gradually, have it checked by a veterinarian. Chronic pain could be the cause. If the behavior is not curtailed, it often escalates.

When a horse lashes out with ears pinned, and other horses move away, an association between bad behavior and retreat develops in the mind of the aggressor.

Picture of a horse with its ears pinned.

A horse pins his ears to display dominance

Horses display aggression against others to establish and maintain their social position in a herd. The leader will often flatten his ears back and lower his head to warn a lower-ranking horse to back away.

Adding a new horse to a herd upsets the hierarchy. Horses in the group will show aggression to the new horse and each other to establish their positions.

Horses will try to dominate people

A horse may display dominant behavior toward people to improve their social position the same as they would toward a herd member. For example, when you arrive with a bucket of feed, a stabled horse may pin back his ears as if competing with another horse.

Foals learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior from their mothers. When they act aggressively, they are disciplined. If the mother isn’t there to handle the foal, someone will have to take the role of disciplinarian.

Foal allowed to have their way will become unruly as they grow and will try to dominate people by nipping and charging at them.

Whenever a horse is tight and scared, there’s an increased risk of injury to itself, its rider, and other horses and riders. It would be best if you observed your horse’s signals to keep her at a distance from other horses where she feels safe.

If you don’t, this behavior can quickly escalate to kicking or fleeing/taking off when other horses draw nearer.

Below is a YouTube video of a horse that pins its ears and how to deal with it.

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