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Horse Sounds: Why They Neigh Plus 7 Other Verbal Signals

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When I was recently watching some horses work at the training track, I noticed one horse found it necessary to neigh each time he passed me. I wondered if he was trying to tell me something? So I decided to do some research on horse sounds to find out.

When horses neigh, they broadcast to their herd, “where are you? I’m over here.” Horses use simple sounds to communicate, snorts, squeals, neighs, and nickers, to convey mood changes, greetings, and warnings. There are eight main horse sounds.

Most horse owners are aware of the sounds horses make but don’t grasp the meanings. For people around horses or those intending to be, it’s essential to understand horses’ language.

Horse Sounds

Horses make verbal noises to convey a message, it may be a freindly hello or a stern warning. Their ability to communicate is a key to how they’ve survived for thousands of years.

The range of verbal cues a horse makes is not expansive or appealing to the ear, but function well enough to convey its meanings. There are only eight sounds a horse uses to communicate, but these sounds contain a lot of information.

Neigh

When a horse neighs it’s asking “where are you?”

The neigh is sometimes referred to as a whinny. It will start as a squeal and then end up as a nicker. It can last on average 1.5 seconds and can be heard for over a half a mile away.

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This is the equine equivalent of the canine howl, given when one horse becomes isolated from its group, or when it spots one of its companions in the distance. It is also used when a horse is being separated from others.

When the message is sent to another horse, they will likely respond with a neigh to indicate, “I’m over here” Research has revealed that horses react more strongly to the sounds of neighing members of their own groups than to strange horses. And mares are more responsive to their foals than to other your horses.

Neighs from horses of the same herd have common sounds.

This shows that each neigh is learned as belonging to a particular individual and is a means of personal identification. It can be compared to speaking patterns of humans, accents from different regions.

Listening closely to different neighs it soon becomes clear that they do in fact each has its own special quality. There are even breed differences in addition to individual ones.

And it is possible to tell a male neigh from a female one by the little grunt that stallions add at the ends of their calls. Some people erroneously believe that neighing or whinnying is a sign of fear and panic, but this is a complete misunderstanding. It is a request for information, not a cry of alarm.

Snort

Horses snort when danger is nearby.

When a horse snorts, he is warning you, “Hey, watch out this person might be dangerous.” The snort is a forceful exhalation of air through the nose, with the mouth held shut. The sounds last about one second and has an audible fluttering pulse created by the vibrations of the nostrils.

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The head is usually held high, as is the tail, with the whole body of the horse showing a state of high excitement and readiness for fleeing. A horse will snort when it is experiencing a conflict between curiosity and fear. It detects something that arouses its interest, but which makes it slightly wary.

A snort readies the horse for action and alerts the herd.

By snorting the horse is doing two things, he is clearing his breathing passages, readying himself for action, and he is alerting the other members of the herd of possible danger. The snorting horse will face the direction the possible threat is coming, allowing the other horses to focus on that direction as well.

A snorting horse can be heard up to 40 feet away. Which allows it to be heard by the herd without giving notice to the predator who may be still in the distance.

There are other theories on why a horse snorts: It represents excitement, it’s a greeting, it expresses curiosity or hesitation. It can be used when one stallion challenges another, or to clear its nose.

Squel

When a horse squeals they are saying “stop it.”

She is telling you to stop pushing her, “stop it”, “Ouch, that hurt”. When you check a horse’s feet with hoof testers and you squeeze that sore spot, expect a squeal.

A flirting mare being approached by a stallion will squeal as an objection to his advances. Sometimes a mare will give mixed signals with her squeal, she will be saying stop it to the stallion, but don’t leave.

Some accompanying signs with a mare may include pawing of the front hooves and arching of her necks. The male horse will usually hold his head and tail high when he squeals, letting all know something isn’t right.

Horse’s squeals can be heard for long-distances.

The sounds of a squeal can be heard as far as 100 feet, and they vary considerably in length and intensity. Some may last as long as 1.7 seconds or as short as .1 of a second.

The loudest squeals are during encounters between stallions and mares. Squeals are performed with the mouth closed, but sometimes the corners of the mouth may open slightly.

Nicker

To understand a nicker, you need to know the context

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Approaching your horse: greeting nicker

Hopefully, this is the most common sound you hear your horse making. It is a friendly, hello, “come here” or “glad to see you”. It is a low-pitched, guttural sound with a pulsating quality.

It is used in close quarters and can be heard up to 30 yards. It is commonly heard during feeding time. To make the sound a horse keeps his mouth closed and uses his vocal cords to keep the sound soft it is usually coupled with a raised head and pricked ears.

Some think it is a horse begging for his food, but it is really more of a general salutation. It is the sound of a satisfied or happy horse.

Nicker when a stud is near: courtship nicker

The courtship nicker occurs when a stallion is approaching a mare, it is still a greeting, but with a specific sexual flavor. He is saying “hello gorgeous”. As the stallion performs this nicker, he often nods his head, keeping the mouth shut and the nostrils wide open.

This kind of nicker is longer, lower, and more broken up into syllables. It is a quiet nicker. Different stallions have different pulse rates in their courtship nickers so that it should be possible for the female to identify the approaching male without even looking at him.

If a foal is nearby: maternal nicker:

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The maternal nicker is expressed by a mare to her foal and is very soft, barely audible from a distance. It is used when the mare is mildly concerned about her offspring’s safety and the gentle, intimate message is “Come a little closer.”

Foals react to this sound from birth, without any learning process. In fact, it is possible to get a newborn foal to follow a human simply by imitating this sound, so compulsive is its response to it. This is thought to be an imprinted behavior with offspring.

Roar

A horse roars when it’s mad.

He is saying in no uncertain terms “I am mad.” It is a sound rarely heard in domestic horses unless they are running wild in a natural herd or are being kept in a large breeding group. It is a really horrible sound.

Horses will make this sound when fighting seriously and are in a savagely emotional mood. It may be intense fear, intense rage, or both at once, that can be the cause of the roar or, at a higher pitch, a scream.

Blow

Horses blow to say “Life is good” or “What is this?”

A horses’ blow is like a snort without the pulsations of fluttering quality in the noise. It is a simple exhalation of air through the nose and carries a similar message to the snort, but with less tension.

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Horses make many other sounds, however, they have very little significance in their general communication. You will hear them snore loudly, grunt and groan with exertion or boredom, sigh occasionally.

In truth, the horse does not have a very elaborate language of sounds and does not use them in a rigid manner. All sounds made by the horse must be taken in context, there are no hard and fast rules just generalities. Equine vocalizations should always be read with this in mind.

Groan

Horses groan when they’re in pain.

Horse, like humans, groan when they are in pain. If you’re riding and your horse groans a couple of times, dismount and see if your saddle is correctly fitted and secured.

If you don’t find any problems with the saddle, check your horse for signs of exhaustion, lameness, and dehydration. The animal is in pain, and something is causing the groaning. Hopefully, it isn’t colic.

If you’re riding an unfamiliar horse, it could be a groaner, but it’s always best to check for any physical causes before continuing your ride.

Roaring in a running horse is a vocal chord abnormality.

The “roaring” horse sound is different than a “roar.” We had a barrel racing horse that made a funny whistling type noise when she ran. This sound is familiar with racehorses; however, I had no experience with it. So we had her examined by a veterinarian.

We learned that “roaring” is caused because the animal’s vocal cord is partially paralyzed. The scientific name for roaring is “left recurrent laryngeal hemiplegia,” and it occurs when the nerve controlling the cartilage on the left side of the throat is damaged.

The damaged nerve allows the cartilage to hang into the airway and leads to poor athletic performance. Our veterinarian confirmed the condition and advised surgery to tie back the cartilage.

We elected to have him perform the surgery. She was able to return to competition after a short layoff.

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