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How Horses Communicate: Understanding Their Language

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As a horse owner, I’ve always been fascinated by how horses communicate with each other and with us. Their language is rich and nuanced, and understanding it can make a huge difference in our relationship with these amazing animals.

Horses communicate using vocalizations (whinnying, neighing, nickering, etc.), body language (ear, tail, head and neck carriage, posture), and touching (nuzzling, sniffing, grooming, biting). Each way conveys different meanings, and it’s important to consider context and the individual horse.

When I first got my horse, I was struck by how expressive she was. Her ears would flicker back and forth, her tail would swish, and she would make all sorts of different vocalizations. But at the time, I didn’t really understand what any of it meant.

In this post, we’ll dive deep into the world of horse communication, and by the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of what your horse is trying to tell you, and you’ll be able to communicate more effectively with them, in turn.

Vocalizations

Horses use many sounds (vocalizations) to communicate with each other and humans. Here are some common vocalizations horses use and what they might mean:

Whinnying or Neighing

Picture of a horse neighing. This is one way horses communicate.

Horses use whinnying as a way to communicate with other horses. The meaning of a whinny can vary depending on the context and the individual horse. Here are a few examples of what a horse might be communicating when it whinnies:

  • Greeting: A horse may whinny to another horse to say “hello” or signal its presence and location. This type of whinny is usually a short, high-pitched call.
  • Fear or distress: A horse may whinny when it is feeling frightened or stressed. This type of whinny is usually loud and prolonged and may be accompanied by other signs of fear or distress, such as flattened ears or a tucked tail.
  • Loneliness: A horse that is separated from its herd may whinny as a way of calling out to its companions. This type of whinny is usually loud and prolonged.
  • Mating: A stallion may whinny to signal to mares that it is ready to mate, and mares may respond with a whinny as well. This type of whinny is usually loud and prolonged and may be accompanied by other courtship behaviors such as nipping or biting.
  • Pain: A horse may whinny when it is in pain; this type of whinny is usually loud and prolonged. And sometimes, it can be accompanied by other signs such as agitation, biting, or kicking.

Nickering

A nicker is a soft, low-pitched vocalization that horses use to communicate with each other. It’s often described as a gentle, blowing sound, similar to a human blowing a kiss, that can be heard even when the horse is at a distance.

YouTube video of a horse nickering

The sound is usually low-pitched and repetitive; sometimes, it can be described as a “whispered whinny” or “cooing,” which is usually a positive, gentle, and friendly message between horses that are familiar with each other.

It can be described as a soothing and calming sound; sometimes horses will nicker to people, too; it can be taken as an expression of affection, comfort, or a sign of trust.

Snort

A horse’s snort is a sudden, loud exhalation through the nose, often accompanied by a puff of air. It’s a quick, explosive sound that can be heard from some distance. The sound is often associated with a horse’s sense of smell and its way of trying to clear its nostrils.

A horse may snort when it’s trying to clear its nostrils from dust, dirt, or debris or when it detects a new or interesting scent. Snorting can also be a sign of agitation or nervousness. A horse may snort if it feels threatened or startled by something in its environment.

This type of snort can indicate a heightened state of alertness or a warning signal to other horses nearby. Snorting can also suggest health issues, especially if it happens excessively or is accompanied by nasal discharge. In this case, it is important to consult a veterinarian to ensure the horse is healthy.

Squealing

A horse’s squealing is a high-pitched, sharp vocalization that is similar to a loud, piercing whistle. It’s usually a short, loud, and sudden sound. The sound can be so loud that it can be heard from some distance.

Squealing is a behavior that is more commonly observed in mares, but stallions and geldings can also squeal. Squealing can have different meanings, depending on the context and the individual horse.

YouTube video of a horse squealing.

Here are a few examples of what horses communicate when they squeal:

  • Excitement or play: A horse may squeal when it is excited or playing. This type is usually short, high-pitched, and often associated with playful behavior.
  • Fear or distress: A horse may squeal when it is feeling frightened or stressed. This is usually loud, high-pitched, and prolonged. And it can be accompanied by other signs of fear or distress, such as flattened ears or a tucked tail.
  • Mating: A stallion may squeal to signal to mares that it is ready to mate, and mares may respond with a squeal as well. This squealing is usually loud, high-pitched, and prolonged and may accompany other courtship behaviors such as nipping or biting.
  • Pain: A horse may squeal when it is in pain; this is usually loud, high-pitched, and prolonged.

The Groan

A horse’s groan is a low-pitched, deep, and prolonged vocalization that can sound similar to a human moan. It’s usually a long, deep, and quiet sound; sometimes, it can barely be audible. Groaning isn’t typical but is sometimes observed in mares and stallions, and it is more likely to happen in older horses.

What horses communicate when they groan varies based on the context and the individual horse. A prolonged low-pitched groan accompanied by other signs of relaxation, such as a lowered head, closed eyes, and a relaxed tail carriage is a sign your horse is comfortable.

However, if your older horse returns from a long work and groans, it’s letting you know it’s exhausted. Horses can also groan when they are in pain. You need to take their vocalization in context with other signals to be certain of what your horses communicate with groaning.

The Sigh

This is the sound I wait to hear. A horse’s sigh is a soft, low-pitched, prolonged exhale that sounds similar to a human sigh. I like to see them lick their lips and let out a slow breath when I work with a horse.

The sound is usually low and quiet; sometimes, it can be barely audible. The sound is created by the horse relaxing the muscles of its diaphragm and allowing air to escape from the lungs.

The meaning of a horse’s sigh can vary depending on the context and the individual horse but typically indicates a relaxed and content horse.

The Scream

A horse’s scream is a loud, high-pitched, and prolonged vocalization that can sound similar to a human scream. It’s usually a loud, sharp, and sudden sound.

The meaning of a horse’s scream can vary, but it’s usually a sign of fear, distress, or pain. They may also scream when it’s being forced to do something it does not want to do, this type of scream is usually loud, high-pitched, and prolonged.

Roar

A horse’s roar is a loud, deep, and prolonged vocalization that can sound similar to a lion’s roar. It’s usually a loud, deep, and prolonged sound. It is not a common behavior among horses and is usually associated with stallions displaying aggressive or territorial behavior.

Horses roar is usually a sign of aggression or territoriality. For example, a stallion may roar to signal its dominance or to assert its authority over other horses or animals in its territory.

This type of roar is usually loud, deep, and prolonged and may be accompanied by other aggressive or territorial behavior such as biting, striking, or chasing. In addition, a horse may roar when it feels threatened or when defending itself or its herdmates.

Note: Every horse is unique, and therefore, it is essential to get to know the specific vocalization of your horse. This way, you can better understand your horse’s communication better and respond accordingly.

Body Language

Yes, horses also use body language to communicate with each other and humans. Here are a few examples of the types of body language horses use and what they might mean:

ear.position edited scaled

Ear Position

Ears are something I pay close attention to, especially with one of our horses. She has a mean streak, and if you notice her pin her ears, you better watch out because she is will strike out.

Ears can communicate various emotions and intentions. Here are a few examples of how horses communicate with their ears:

  • Attention: A horse with ears that are forward and facing directly forward or towards a sound or movement indicates that it is alert and paying attention. Ears that are pricked forward show a level of interest and curiosity.
  • Confusion or uncertainty: A horse with ears that are facing in different directions or pinned back, but not necessarily against the head, indicates a level of confusion or uncertainty. The horse may be trying to process and make sense of multiple stimuli.
  • Fear or aggression: A horse with ears that are pinned back flat against the head can indicate that the horse is feeling threatened or aggressive. This can be accompanied by other signs of aggression or fear, such as squinting or raised hackles.
  • Relaxation: Ears that are tilted back, relaxed, and slightly apart indicate the horse is feeling relaxed, calm, and at ease.

Tail Carriage

Horses use their tails to communicate. The tail can convey a wide range of emotions and intentions. Here are a few examples of how horses communicate with their tails:

  • Excitement or happiness: A horse that carries its tail high and swishes it back and forth can indicate that it is excited or happy. This can be accompanied by other signs of excitement, such as pricked ears or a high-stepping gait.
  • Fear or submission: A horse that tucks its tail between its legs or clamps it down can indicate that it feels fearful or submissive. This can be accompanied by other signs of fear or submission, such as flattened ears or a lowered head.
  • Aggression: A horse that carries its tail high and twitches can indicate that it feels aggressive and dominant. This can be accompanied by other signs of aggression, such as squinting eyes or raised hackles.
  • Relaxation: A horse that carries its tail in a neutral position, not overly high or low, and not swishing back and forth, can indicate that it feels relaxed and calm.
head.carriage edited 1 scaled

Head and Neck carriage

The position and movement of a horse’s head and neck can be an important form of communication, as they can convey a wide range of emotions and intentions. Here are a few examples of how horses communicate with their head and neck carriage:

  • Curiosity or interest: A horse that holds its head high, with the nose extended and the poll (the top of the horse’s head) level, can indicate that it is curious and interested in something. This can be accompanied by pricked ears and a forward-facing gaze.
  • Submission: A horse holding its head low can signify the horse is submissive. This can be accompanied by flattened ears and a relaxed body posture.
  • Aggression or dominance: A horse holding its head high and arching its neck can indicate that it feels aggressive or dominant. This can be accompanied by other signs of aggression or dominance, such as a raised tail, squinting eyes, or a high-stepping gait.
  • Relaxation: A horse that holds its head in a neutral position that is not overly high or low and has a relaxed neck and jaw indicates that it is comfortable and calm.
Picture of my horse turning to me.

Posture

Horses communicate with their posture, as the position and movement of their body can convey a range of emotions and intentions. Here are a few examples of how horses communicate with their posture:

  • Readiness or willingness: A horse that stands with its legs slightly apart, weight shifted back, and its head held high can indicate that it is ready and willing to move or act. This can be accompanied by other signs of readiness, such as pricked ears and an alert gaze.
  • Relaxation or contentment: A horse that stands with its legs close together, weight shifted forward, and its head and neck held in a relaxed position can indicate that it is relaxed and content. This can be accompanied by other signs of relaxation, such as a lowered head and a relaxed tail carriage.
  • Submission or uncertainty: A horse that stands with its legs close together, its weight shifted back, and its head held low can indicate that it is feeling submissive or uncertain. This can be accompanied by other signs of submission, such as flattened ears and a tucked tail.
  • Aggression or dominance: A horse that stands with its legs spread apart, weight shifted forward, and its head held high can indicate that it is feeling aggressive or dominant. This can be accompanied by other signs of aggression or dominance, such as a raised tail, squinting eyes, or a high-stepping gait.

Horses communicate with their eyes.

Eyes can communicate many things. Here are a few examples of how horses communicate with their eyes:

  • Alertness: A horse with bright, wide-open eyes is likely to be alert and paying attention. They use their eyes to scan the environment and note potential threats or food sources.
  • Fear or anxiety: A horse that is feeling frightened or anxious may have its eyes wide open and show the whites of its eyes (a behavior called “whale eye”). This can indicate a level of fear or nervousness, and the horse may be preparing to flee.
  • Aggression: A horse that is feeling aggressive or dominant may squint or half-close its eyes, which can indicate a level of dominance or readiness to defend itself.
  • Trust and Relaxation: A horse that feels relaxed and trustful around a person or other horse will often have soft and slightly squinted eyes. This can indicate that the horse feels comfortable and at ease.
YouTube video showing horse communicating

Touching

Horses communicate in various ways by touching. One of our horses loves to push his nose into my back whenever he thinks he’s not getting the attention he deserves. Here are some common ways horses use touch to communicate:

  • Nuzzling: Horses use their muzzles to nuzzle or touch other horses to establish social bonds or show affection. They may nuzzle each other’s neck, face, or withers as a way to greet or say goodbye. They also use nuzzling to seek comfort or say, “I’m here.”
  • Sniffing: Horses use their sense of smell to communicate with each other, and they use sniffing to gather information about other horses or their environment. They sniff each other’s faces, muzzles, and bodies to learn more about them; they also use this as a way to investigate new objects or places.
  • Grooming: Horses use grooming as a way to bond with other horses; they may groom each other by using their teeth, tongue, and lips to remove dirt, debris, or insects from their coat. They also use grooming as a way to relieve stress or as a way to show affection.
  • Biting: Horses use biting as a way to assert dominance or to show aggression. A bite can also be used as a way to signal for attention or for food. Biting can be a sign of discomfort or pain, and it is important to pay attention to the horse’s other body language and behavior to understand the meaning behind the bite.

Conclusion

To summarize, horses are highly skilled at communicating using a diverse array of vocalizations, body language, and other forms of expression. Understanding these various modes of communication can significantly enhance our relationship with these sensitive animals.

As we learn about the different ways in which horses communicate, we gain a deeper comprehension of their messages and needs, which in turn can help to foster stronger connections and increase safety in our interactions with them.

It is important to keep in mind that each horse has its own unique form of communication, and what may apply to one horse may not hold true for another. Thus, it is crucial to take into consideration the horse’s entire body language, the context of the situation, and the surroundings to gain a more accurate understanding of its emotional state.

FAQs

What sounds do horses make when angry?

When a horse is angry, it may make a variety of sounds, including snorting, squealing, and roaring. It’s important to pay attention to the horse’s body language, not just its sounds, to understand its emotional state accurately since vocalizations can have different meanings and contexts.

Do horses talk to one another?

Yes, in a sense, horses do talk to each other and us. They communicate using a mixture of vocalizations, body language, and other forms. Horse converse for social bonding, warning of danger, expressing aggression, fear, or pain, and reproduction.