Decode Your Horse's Body Language & Read Their Cues

Learning how to understand what your horse's movements and behavior are telling you is a big step toward next-level horsemanship.

Published March 21, 2023
Side View Of Horse Standing On Land Against Cloudy Sky

Learning your horse's body language is an important part of the communication between you and your horse. Understanding how a horse is feeling will help you make better decisions when it comes to training, riding, and caring for your horse. The secret is to look at each part of your horse individually, then put each component together to better understand how your horse is feeling. Although this sounds difficult at first, once you get to know your horse, you will be able to tell how they're feeling from one quick glance.

Horse's Head Placement

This is one of the first things you should notice when you approach a horse. The head can be turned to one side or the other, and it can be raised or lowered.

  • Head down. When a horse has their head down, it's usually because they're relaxed. A horse with their head down is not on alert, and they might be grazing, resting, or even sleeping. Just make sure you don't startle your horse as you approach, so make a little noise to let them know you're coming.
  • Head snaking. If you see your male horse lower their head and swing it back and forth, this is a sign they're angry or feeling aggressive. It's a signal for other male horses, though males also do it to herd mares. Take this as an immediate signal you need to intervene carefully and prevent conflict (while staying safe, of course).
  • Head held high. If your horse has their head up high while standing still, they're keying on something in the distance, or they're trying to find out what's going on. This head position means your horse is on alert, raising their head to see what's going on around them.
  • High and back. When you're riding, watch closely if you see your horse bring their head up or back, especially if they pin their ears or hollow their back. This could mean they are feeling pain somewhere, so get off to check out your bridle and other tack to make sure something isn't rubbing your horse the wrong way.
  • Head bobbing or nodding. Horses nod their heads repeatedly for a variety of reasons, but the most common are that they're excited, they want attention, or they're feeling pain. If your horse bobs their head while you're riding, they might have a toothache or dental issue. If they do it while walking, watch to see if they're favoring one leg.

The Horse's Ears

A horse's ear position is one of the first body language signals young riders learn to interpret. When you're on horseback, you can't see your mount's face too easily, but their ears tell an immediate tale about how they're feeling.

  • Held loosely or drooped. When a horse is relaxed and content, they will hold their ears more loosely, with each ear pointing outward slightly and down from the head, indicating they aren't on alert or are relaxed.
  • Pointed forward. When a horse becomes alert or focused on something, their ears will point forward, sticking up and pointing their ear openings in the same direction. They're listening and paying attention.
  • Pointed back (but not pinned). If your horse has their ears back, but hasn't pinned them, they're probably trying to hear what's going on behind them, or they're feeling frightened or submissive. If you're mounted, your horse may be trying to pay attention to you.
  • Pinned flat back. If your horse pins their ears, they're mad or irritated. It's like an immediate red flag that something is wrong, so tread cautiously here and figure out what's upsetting your horse.
Quick Tip

If your horse pins their ears but also has their head held high, tight, and toward the back, they're showing you a classic sign of alarm. Their eyes may also be wide open in this pose, and they're feeling threatened or upset about something.

The Horse's Eyes

When you're looking at your horse, pay attention to their eyes. These cues are subtle, but you can catch a sign that something is wrong early if you learn to read your horse's eyes.

  • Eyes wide open. A fearful or aggressive horse will usually keep their eyes wide open and look straight ahead.
  • Lowered eyelids. A relaxed horse will lower their eyelids slightly or close them completely when they rest. This is known as "drowsy blink."
  • No Blinking. If a horse is alert but not fearful, then they'll hold their head up and look straight ahead with their eyes wide open without blinking.
  • Eyes fixed. If a horse feels threatened by someone or something, they will turn their head slightly toward whatever is upsetting them, and keep both eyes fixed on it while still watching where they're going. This is known as "fixating."
  • Eyes shooting around. This typically indicates your horse is looking for the exit. It often comes with some head movement. If you see your horse's eyes dart about, they're feeling anxious or stressed.
  • Whites showing. Not all horses give this signal in the same way - some show more of their whites than others - but usually, if your horse is opening their eyes so wide you can see their whites, they've very upset, angry, or terrified.
Quick Tip

It can be really hard to spot, especially if you're unfamiliar with horses, but watch for tense muscles around their eyes. This can indicate they're feeling unsure, fearful, or stressed out.

The Horse's Mouth and Nostrils

Your horse doesn't talk like Mr. Ed (probably), but they can still tell you a lot with their mouth. How they hold their lips and move their facial muscles often reveals how they're feeling.

  • Loose lips. These indicate your horse is calm or feeling relaxed. Be careful, because they might be asleep, so try not to startle them.
  • Raised upper lip. This is a way for horses to take in more smells, and it's mostly something you'll see around stallions who are checking out mares, but any horse can do it if they smell something and want to get a better whiff.
  • Lips drawn back, mouth open. Your horse is exposing their teeth, because they are probably going to bite.
  • Flared nostrils. This behavior indicates your horse is excited, but it could also mean they're upset about something. It can be positive, though, so look for other body language clues about what's going on.

The Horse's Tail

The horse's tail is a very expressive part of their body. The horse can use it to communicate with other horses and with people. It can tell you how the horse feels and what they are thinking.

  • High tail or flagged. The tail is held high when horses are excited. This can mean your horse is anxious, but it can also just be that they're feeling good.
  • Lowered, relaxed tail. Horses with a relaxed tail are feeling OK and content.
  • Tucked under their haunches. This is a fear response, and your horse might be ready to bolt or give a kick.
  • Swinging loosely. Happy horses hold their tails loose, and you'll see them give a little swish with their sashay.
  • Swishing tail. This is usually an indication that a horse is happy and relaxed. They might also be doing this because they're trying to get rid of insects or other pests that are bothering them.

The Horse's Forelegs

Wild Horse in wind on Outer Banks

Your horse's forelegs convey a wealth of information. These signals are often subtle, but they are important to learn because they can indicate when the horse is uncomfortable, anxious, scared, or aggressive.

  • Standing loose. Horses that are relaxed will have their forelegs relaxed, standing loosely, often with the knees bent slightly outward from the body.
  • Stiff forelegs. When horses become excited or tense, they tend to hold their front legs more stiffly and upright, with their elbows tucked close to their sides. Some horses adopt this posture when they're excited because it helps them keep their balance better as they run; others do it as a defensive move when threatened or frightened by something nearby, such as another animal or person walking toward them too quickly.
  • Splayed out. This can indicate your horse is nervous or scared about something and might be considering bolting.
  • Hoof stomping. If a horse is irritated or upset about something, they may stomp their front hoof on the ground because they're frustrated.
  • Hoof pawing or digging. When your horse paws at the ground with their hoof, they're typically tired or feeling impatient. It can sometimes indicate anger, however, so keep an eye on this behavior and correct it if necessary.

The Horse's Hind Legs

The horse's hind legs are the strongest and most powerful muscles in its body. The hindquarters are the engine room of the horse's locomotion, and their body language is very important in determining how a horse is feeling. Most new riders are taught to watch the back legs closely, because that's where kicks come from, so pay attention to your horse's hindquarters.

  • Stiff hind legs. Stiffness in the hindquarters means that your horse is not relaxed; they may be angry, scared, or just under stress from having too much to do.
  • Cocked hind leg. If your horse is cocking their hind leg - slightly raising it and putting the front edge of their hoof on the ground - and this signal is combined with lowered ears and head, your horse is likely relaxing or resting. However, if your horse is not relaxed, but showing signs of alertness, they might be getting ready to kick.
  • Raised hind leg. Your horse may be raising their hind leg to let you know they're feeling irritation or agitation with something or someone around or behind them.
Quick Tip

The back legs are where your horse keeps their power, so you need to pay attention to the rest of their body language if they start raising their back legs. Signs of alertness or irritation, combined with raised back legs, often mean a kick could be coming.

Overall Body Language

Now, it's time to put it all together. In order to determine how your horse is feeling, look at every part of their body and combine the signals from each.

  • Relaxed horse: If you look at the horse's body language, it's easy to see that they are relaxed. Their head is held low and the ears are relaxed. Their eyes are soft and the nostrils are not flared. They are not tense in any way, nor do they appear to be on alert for any danger that might be around them.
  • Irritated horse: If a horse's ears are pinned back and their head is lowered, take that as a sign your horse is upset. If they lower their body and raise their back leg, this is a sign that it's preparing to kick you or run away. The tail can also be used as a warning device. Their overall energy will be heightened, and they will look tense.
  • Fearful horse: When a horse is scared, they will often freeze in place in order to avoid moving and drawing attention to themselves, preparing to bolt. They may also tremble, shake, and look around nervously. If the horse has been startled by something sudden or unexpected, like a loud noise, they may even jump suddenly or spin around with their tail raised high above their back and their ears pinned back flat against their head.

How Horses Assert Dominance

Horses show dominance in unexpected ways. For example, horses may stand taller and puff their manes and tails out in a display of power. They may raise their heads and look down their noses at another horse as a way of showing who's boss. They'll move forward - not away - and push to assert dominance. Swaying heads mean stallions are challenging or looking for a fight. Horses also have certain social signals they use to show dominance, such as biting or kicking out with their hind legs.

Understanding Horse Body Language

Horse body language is important for horse owners and riders to understand. Horses are very aware of their surroundings and can become easily alarmed at the slightest change in their environment. This is why horses often exhibit signs of fear or anxiety when they are faced with new situations or unfamiliar people or animals. However, once the horse has had time to adjust and feel comfortable in its surroundings, they will relax and show signs of contentment.

Decode Your Horse's Body Language & Read Their Cues