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Watching horses leaving the paddock, I noticed their ears’ intricate movements. This silent dialogue between them piqued my curiosity. Were they communicating? What were they saying? This post dives into the intriguing world of equine ear communication.
Understanding the subtleties of horse ear positions reveals a hidden language of emotions and intentions. This knowledge, beyond aiding communication, builds a profound bond with these magnificent creatures. Unraveling this secret language is our objective.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a comprehensive understanding of what your horse is trying to communicate through the subtle flicks and turns of its ears. We’re going to demystify the often-overlooked yet crucial aspect of horse behavior.
The Basics of Horse Ear Positions
Each ear contains around 16 different muscles, allowing a range of movements that most animals, humans included, simply cannot replicate. The ears can rotate about 180 degrees, enabling horses to focus their hearing in specific directions without needing to move their heads. This design feature provides them with an advanced warning system for detecting potential threats.
Now, onto the ‘how’ of equine ear communication. Horses primarily use their ears to communicate with one another and interpret their surroundings. Much like antennas, their ears pick up information from the environment, and the positions relay internal emotions and intentions. A horse’s ears will frequently be moving, rotating towards sounds or sights of interest, communicating their state of attention to other horses and to us.
To the untrained eye, the movements can seem random, but there’s a method to this apparent madness. Each position, each flick or turn, has a particular meaning, whether it’s interest, relaxation, or warning of a potential threat. Understanding these positions and what they indicate is akin to learning a new language—a silent, non-verbal language spoken by horses worldwide. In the following sections, we’ll delve deeper into these specific positions and their meanings, helping you become fluent in this unique language.
Analysis of Specific Ear Positions
A. Relaxed Ears (Neutral position).
As the term implies, relaxed ears typically signify that a horse is calm and content. The ears are neither pricked nor flattened but in a neutral, slightly angled position. It’s the equivalent of a relaxed posture in humans. If your horse has relaxed ears, it generally means they feel safe and comfortable in their surroundings.
This ear position allows for the most coverage for hearing approaching danger. If unusual or curious sounds are heard, the head is turned in the direction of the sound for further evaluation. When riding, this is the position of the ears you want to see.
It means the horse is relaxed and listens to you. His ears are comfortable and may bounce with movements, and the horse will naturally direct his ears to focus on the task at hand. However, if a sound of danger is heard, either one or both ears rotate instantly. The horse may also turn its entire body toward the noise with its ears stiffly pricked.
B. Pinned Back Ears
When a horse pins its ears flat back against its head, it’s an unmistakable signal. Pinned ears typically signify anger, fear, or submission. It’s a warning sign to others to stay away. If a horse pins its ears while you’re approaching or interacting with it, it’s best to give it some space and reassess your approach. This position is vital to recognize for safety reasons.
A horse pins his ears when he is threatened and or finds it necessary to exhibit anger, aggression, and dominance. He is getting ready for a fight or attack. Pinned ears refer to a horse flattening his ears back against his head, making them almost invisible. From the side, they are not seen.
Flattened ears are the most aggressive signal a horse makes with his ears. It is an ancient “ear protection” posture used to protect the ears during a fight or attack. By pinning their ears back, the ear was less likely to get bitten or torn off. We have a young horse that pins her ears right before she tries to bite.
C. Pricked Ears
When a horse’s ears are standing straight up, we refer to them as ‘pricked.’ The horse points both ears forward, channeling sound directly into the ear canal. This is a sign of alertness and interest. A horse will prick its ears when it hears something unfamiliar or sees something of interest. It’s a sign they are attentive and focused on something happening in their environment.
When a horse is startled, he pricks his ears, raises his head high, and tenses his body. This is a sign to others to be on alert, and they may have to escape danger. If you see a horse with its ears pricked, approach the animal carefully, the horse could be getting ready to bolt. If, while riding your horse, he pricks his ears forward, he is not paying attention to you but rather is focusing on something else.
D. Swiveling Ears
A horse with swiveling ears is busy taking in a multitude of sounds and sights. This is a sign of a curious, engaged, and observant horse. Their ears might alternate in direction or move independently of each other, like radar dishes scanning the environment. Swiveling ears indicate that your horse is aware of their surroundings and is actively processing information. Horses are herd animals; one way they communicate with each other is through their ears. Mobile ears are the norm; horses will continuously shift the direction of their ears, picking up on new sounds.
Other herd members will watch and turn their attention to their learned behavior. If noise is coming from behind, the ears will rotate backward regardless of the mood of the horse. Horses who have been together learned to interpret the movements of other horses’ ears. They know the difference between a short-term listening notice and a signal to be aware of.
E. Extended Ears
Occasionally, you might observe your horse extending its ears horizontally to the sides, resembling an airplane about to take off. This is known as ‘extended’ ears. Extended ears are generally a sign of surprise or uncertainty.
When something unexpected occurs, or a horse encounters a new object or situation, it may extend its ears while trying to comprehend the situation. It’s a bit like our own response when we hear an unexpected noise – we pause and try to figure out what it’s originating from.
However, much like drooped ears, if your horse persistently holds its ears in an extended position, it could be a sign of discomfort or unease. Pay attention to additional behavioral cues and their overall health status. Always consult a veterinarian if you suspect your horse may be unwell.
When riding a horse with relaxed ears, you should feel pretty happy. Relaxed ears indicate that you and the horse are comfortable with each other and have a genuine connection. But be aware a horse can sometimes drift off just like a person, so approach him with care. Always make a noise or speak to him before reaching out because you can startle a relaxed horse.
If you happen to startle your horse, keep your cool and try to ease your animal. Talk calmly and remain in control; horses feed off your emotions; if you become tense or anxious, you can further aggravate the animal.
A study on the language between humans and horses revealed some interesting results. The title of the study is A Language of Their Own: An Interactionist Approach to Human-Horse Communication.
F. Drooped Ears
Sometimes you might notice a horse with its ears hanging to the sides, slightly downwards – this is referred to as ‘drooped’ ears. This position could indicate a few different things, depending on the situation.
In many cases, drooped ears are a sign of deep relaxation or sleepiness. You may see your horse in this state after a good workout or during a peaceful moment. It’s akin to us sinking into a comfy chair at the end of a long day.
However, persistently drooped ears can also be a sign of illness or depression in horses. If the drooped ears are accompanied by other symptoms such as lethargy, lack of appetite, or changes in behavior, it’s crucial to seek veterinary advice.
Hence, while drooped ears can be a sign of a content horse, it’s also important to be observant and ensure it’s not a sign of a health issue. Understanding these nuances can go a long way in ensuring the well-being of our equine friends.
G. Ears Turned Back
This is when the horse’s ears are rotated backward but not flattened against the head. The difference between pinned ears and ears turned back is important to note as they convey different signals.
When a horse’s ears are turned back, it usually means they are listening to sounds behind them. Horses have an extraordinary ability to rotate their ears independently, allowing them to keep tabs on what’s happening in all directions. If you’re riding or walking behind a horse and it turns its ears back, it’s likely just keeping track of your location.
However, ears persistently turned back could indicate that the horse is annoyed or mildly irritated. It’s not as severe a warning as pinned ears, but it’s a signal that should not be ignored. Monitoring the situation and giving the horse space might be beneficial to avoid escalating its discomfort.
As with all ear positions, context is crucial. Understanding your horse’s individual temperament and usual behavior will help you correctly interpret these signals, enabling clear communication and mutual respect.
When we visited New Orleans, I noticed most of the horses and mules that pull tourist carriages keep their ears turned back toward the carriage drivers. Their ear position tells me they are under the tutelage of a strict trainer.
H. Flickering Ears
Flickering ears are a common sight in horses, characterized by a rapid movement or twitching of one or both ears. Flickering ears typically signify that a horse is processing multiple pieces of information from their environment.
Horses have an impressive auditory range and can distinguish various sounds simultaneously. If your horse is flickering its ears, it’s likely actively listening to multiple sounds and assessing their importance.
However, in some cases, constant flickering may be a sign of discomfort or agitation, especially if accompanied by other signs of stress or nervousness. It’s essential to consider the context and look for other behavioral cues to accurately understand what your horse is trying to communicate.
Remember, horses are highly attuned to their environment and sensitive to changes in their surroundings. Monitoring ear movements like flickering can give you insight into your horse’s attention and emotional state, helping you build a more empathetic and understanding relationship with your equine companion.
Below is a YouTube video about how horses use their ear to communicate.
I. Drugged Ears.
Certain drugs are illegal to use in competitive horse events and can be detected by paying attention to the horse’s ears. Their ears will move in an unusual motion. The two most common drugs in use are varieties of stimulants or depressants. Stimulants are medications or drugs which stimulate the central or peripheral nervous system.
When a horse has been given a stimulant, his ears often will go completely rigid. On the other hand, if a horse has been given a depressant, you may notice a horse with ears drooped out sideways, but otherwise, the horse will remain active.
The ears will flop while he walks as if his muscles are no longer controlling them. Depressants are drugs that depress the central or peripheral nervous system, circulatory system, or respiratory system of horses.
When you see this odd behavior, it is likely the horse has been drugged. We often attend horse auctions and notice many of the horses led into the sales ring are drugged. It’s a horrible practice but an effective way to trick unknowing buyers into believing a horse has a calm temperament and is suitable for beginner riders.
Typically, when the drugs’ effects wear off, the horse is an anxious wild animal that is not good for riding.
Reading Ear Positions in Different Situations
Understanding the context in which a horse’s ear positions occur is crucial for accurate interpretation.
When a Horse is Alone: When a horse is alone in a stable or field, its ear positions might vary based on its level of comfort and alertness. Pricked ears often indicate curiosity or alertness to sounds or sights. Relaxed or drooped ears typically suggest that the horse is at ease, possibly even dozing. Constant flickering, however, might hint at restlessness or anxiety.
In a Herd: Among a herd, horses use their ears to communicate extensively. Swiveling ears indicate active engagement with the environment and other horses. Extended ears may show surprise or uncertainty, often during moments of establishing hierarchy or encountering new herd members. Pinned back ears can signify dominance or aggression during disputes.
While Being Ridden: A rider should pay close attention to a horse’s ear positions. Pricked ears can mean the horse is attentive and responsive, potentially excited or eager. Ears turned back towards the rider often indicate that the horse is listening to the rider’s instructions. However, if the ears are pinned back, it could suggest discomfort or irritation, and the rider should reassess their approach.
In Stressful or Unfamiliar Situations: During times of stress or in unfamiliar environments, horses often show heightened alertness. Their ears might prick more frequently or flicker rapidly as they take in their surroundings. Extended ears suggest uncertainty or nervousness. Persistent ear pinning in such situations could indicate fear or distress, signaling the need for interventions to ease the horse’s discomfort.
Recognizing these subtle cues across different situations can vastly improve your understanding of your horse’s emotional state and needs, leading to better care and a stronger bond.
Why Do Horses Signal with Their Ears?
When watching a group of horses socialize in a pasture, I noticed they were communicating, some with body movement and others with sound to get their message across. Their communication skills made me wonder about the evolution of ear signaling.
Horses’ ears worked as a scanner system for the world around them in the wild. They picked up on the smallest clues of impending danger. Once they picked up a sound of endangerment, the movement of their ears provided a warning to the others in the herd.
They were prey in the wild and had to be able to evade predators quickly. To survive, they had to hear the sound of danger approaching, communicate this to the others, and have enough time to escape an attack.
A horse’s ears serve dual purposes: receiving sound and conveying visual signals. A horse can tell the emotional condition of another horse by looking at the positioning or movements of the other horse’s ears.
Equine cues are very noticeable because of the positioning of the ears on their heads. Most hooved animals have horns that tend to hide their ears’ movement. Not so with the horse. Their ears are easily visible even from a distance, and each ear can rotate 180 degrees using ten different muscles to pay attention to a sound without moving its head.
By doing this, they can single out a specific area to listen to and orient themselves toward the sounds to determine what is making the noise. Ear communication played an essential role in the survival of horses.
When you’re riding a horse, it is essential to pay attention to the signals your horse gives you with his ears. A horse will direct his ears to where his attention is being focused; this allows you to check on what he is paying attention to, or you may be able to anticipate a spook of the horse.
Successful equine event riders form a bond with their horse and read their horse’s body language, including their ears’ placement. The movement and placement of a horse’s ears give can also indicate a horse’s mood. To read a research study on the body signals sent by horses to event riders here.
Ear Care for Your Horse
If your horse has ear problems, he will likely let you know by frequently shaking his head and may rub his ear on anything in his vicinity. You will want to check his ears for discharge if you notice this behavior. Call your veterinarian if you see blood or notice unusual fluid.
If your horse doesn’t have an ear problem, then you should not fool with his ears. Ear problems in horses are not common, and horses generally do not like to have their ears handled. Horses have hair inside their ears. This is nature’s way of protecting the ear from dirt and insects.
Only trim the hair inside the ear at the direction of s veterinarian. If there is no problem, do not cut the hair inside the horse’s ear. We recently bought some neglected horses, and each had ear mites.
I mentioned this to an old horse trainer I knew, who advised me to clear their ears of the infestation and wipe the affected area with a banana peel daily. I began this routine a couple of weeks ago and have seen a marked improvement in each of them.
Understanding horse ear positions and their meanings is a valuable skill for horse owners, riders, and enthusiasts. By deciphering the subtle language of ear positions, we gain insights into a horse’s emotions, intentions, and comfort level.
This knowledge allows us to foster better communication, build stronger relationships, and ensure the well-being of our equine companions. So, take the time to observe and learn from your horse’s ears and embark on a journey of deeper understanding and connection with these magnificent creatures.
How Good Can a Horse Hear?
Horses have excellent hearing, superior to humans. Their hearing range is between 55 Hz and 33.5 kHz, allowing them to detect both low-frequency rumbles and high-frequency sounds. Their ears, containing 16 muscles, can rotate 180 degrees for pinpoint accuracy in locating sounds, enhancing their overall auditory perception.
Can Horses Lose Their Hearing?
Yes, horses can lose their hearing. This could be due to old age, trauma, infection, or certain genetic conditions. A sudden change in behavior or responsiveness could indicate hearing loss. If you suspect your horse has hearing issues, it’s recommended to consult with a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
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I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.