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I was watching some horses leaving the paddock and noticed their ears moving in different directions; it seemed as though they were communicating. It made me wonder, are they sending signals to each other, and if so, what message are they sending, I did some research to find out.
The positioning of a horse’s ears can indicate comfort, fear, anger, and danger. Horses send multiple signals based on the positioning of their ears. Ears pinned back, ears forward, and ears flopped down all send different messages.
You may think you can guess what these positions mean, but there is actually a lot of information being conveyed by the positioning of a horse’s ears.
Horses’ ears in a neutral position are a good sign.
Neutral ears are the central position of the ear. It’s held loosely upward, pointing forward, so the openings are outward. In this position, they can scan the surrounding area.
It 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.
Horses prick their ears when startled.
Pricked ears could signal the horse is startled, vigilant, alert, or interested. It is not uncommon to see pricked ears during frontal greetings.
But if he stays with his ears stiff, he is likely agitated. If he is communicating interest only, he will prick his ears and swivel them toward the subject, keep his body relaxed, and may turn his body as well.
Approach a horse with its ear pricked cautiously.
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.
He is temporarily deaf to anything you ask of him. Something else has his undivided attention now, and it doesn’t include you.
Horses with their ears extended are relaxed.
A horse may have his ears extended out with the openings facing downward to the ground. When horses extend their ears and let them fall toward the side, it’s usually a sign of a relaxed horse, but it could indicate he is tired or lacks interest in the world around him at the moment.
He may be just standing in the pasture, eating grass without any worries. This ear position signals the opposite of pricked ears. Extended ear positioning is sometimes referred to as airplane ears because the ears look similar to the wings on a plane.
Horses that extend their ears are comfortable.
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.
Droopy ears are a sign your horse is tuning out.
He could be exhausted and sleepy, or he may be suffering from pain. Drooping ears are when the ears extend down on either side of the head of the horse. It signifies that he is trying to switch off the outside world.
Droopy ears can also be a sign of inferiority in a herd situation. It conveys to the dominant horse that he has no interest in battling, and you are the boss.
Just like pricked ears, riding a horse that has drooped his ears means he is no longer listening to you. He has gone temporarily deaf to his riders’ requests and probably has fallen asleep.
Ears turned back are an indication of fear.
Turned-back ears are typically a posture indicative of a brutal owner. Sometimes when a horse is being ridden, you will notice that his ears are drooped and turned back with the openings toward the rider.
This will indicate that the horse is afraid of the rider. The lower posture of the ear suggests submission, and the turning of the opening towards the rear means the horse doesn’t want to miss any sounds made by the rider.
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.
Drooping backward-turned ears are also used when opposite sexes are near each other. A mare will sometimes take this submissive ear posture to convey to her male counterpart that it is safe to approach her.
He will understand that he doesn’t have to fear a brutal kick from her if he elects to flirt.
Flickering ears are a sign of stress.
When you notice your horse’s ears flickering, it signals stress or a heightened state of anxiety. Flickering ears typically precede stationary pricked ears when the fear turns to panic.
We had a new horse whose ears flickered whenever we approached him with a lead rope. We had to walk him for a while to get him settled before tying him from grooming.
After a couple of weeks, he became too comfortable, and the ear flickering stopped. But if we ignored his ears, they would become stiffer and start to flicker and twitch irritatedly.
We recognized that he was on the verge of bolting. At this point, we would calmly talk to him, walk him for a few yards and talk to him again. If you are riding a horse and he begins to flicker, his ears take action to calm him.
This may include moving him away from other horses and dismounting and walking him. You have to be aware that he is in a position to make a move that could result in injury to you are him.
Takes steps to calm a horse with flickering ears.
If he is not being ridden, then you should check his environment for causes of the flickering of his ears. Sometimes overstimulation can lead to this agitation, such as too much noise or an irritating smell.
If you think sensory overstimulation may be the cause, try locating and removing the sight, sound, or smell that’s irritating him. This could help calm him rather quickly.
Pinned ears are a sign of aggression.
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.
Pinned ears are a threat signal to other horses.
This posture has continued up to the modern-day but is not only used when fighting but also as a threat signal to other horses that he is ready to fight.
The horse on the receiving end of the message could back off or pin his ears back as to say ok, I am prepared to fight too. Some people have suggested that horses believe humans stay angry because our ears never flop or seem relaxed.
If you are riding a horse and he pins his ears back, try to remove him from the situation. There is an increased risk of injury to you and your horse.
Once moved to a safer area, try to remain away from the source of the tension, the other horse. If they get close to each other, things could get out of control quickly, and they may start biting and kicking.
Below is a YouTube video about how horses use their ear to communicate.
Drugged ears move in an unusual motion.
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.
Mobile ears are normal horse behavior.
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.
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. (click here to read about horse intelligence.)
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.
How Good Can a Horse Hear?
When trailing riding, my horse often notices a sound before I do. This made me wonder how well a horse can hear, so I researched the issue.
Human hearing and horses are similar, but horses hear sounds over a broader range of frequencies. Humans with good hearing have a frequency range of 20 Hertz to as high as 20,000 Hertz and horses hear in the frequency range of 55 to 33,500 Hertz, with their best sensitivity between 1,000 and 16,000.
On the other hand, dogs can hear frequencies as high as 45,000 Hertz and possibly higher, while elephants hear much lower frequencies and only to about 10,000 Hertz on the high-frequency end of the spectrum.
Horses primarily use their hearing to perform three functions, detect sounds, determine the location of the sound, and provide information that allows the horse to recognize the identity of the sounds.
Using this anatomical feature allows the horse to quickly focus on the direction from which the sound is coming, isolate it, and run the other way.
Horses have good hearing, but it is questionable how much better than humans a horse’s hearing is.
Can Horses Lose Their Hearing?
I recently went to see a young racing prospect, and in the field with him was an old mare that acted like she couldn’t hear us approaching. Her failure to move made me wonder if she was deaf and if it’s a common occurrence in horses.
A horse can lose their hearing for various reasons, including age, the effects of drugs like antibiotics, ear mites, and genetic disorders. It seems that age-related hearing loss is most prominent in horses aged 15 and up and affects high frequencies the most often.
If you suspect your horse has hearing loss, clap your hands loudly and watch his reaction. Clapping is not a surefire method to test hearing loss, but his reaction can give you clues to decide if he needs further testing.
There is a test called BAER that a veterinarian can perform to provide a better picture of your horse’s hearing. Most horses that have sustained some hearing loss have learned to adapt well and live healthy life.
Horses’ ears need attention.
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.
If your horse’s ears are being bothered by flies and other insects, check out some of these useful products to protect your equine partner:
- Fly masks with ear covers; Mask helps stop head tossing and reduces the stress caused by insects on the trail. This is a nice mask made of lightweight and breathable material that’s easy to put on and take off.
- Repellant creams are also effective in deterring insects. Simply apply the repellant to your horse’s ears or other areas that attract insects.
- Fly, and insect repellants are useful, although they need to be reapplied every hour or so depending on your horse, the climate, and the insects in your area. Click here to learn how to make a homemade fly repellant that works.
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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.