Communication signals among horses can be:
  • Visual - signals using all parts of the body.
  • Acoustic - sound signals
  • Tactile - touch
  • Chemical - smells
  • You will see all combinations of these used in different circumstances.
Visual signals
  • There’s a wide range of visual signals in the horse using most parts of the body.
  • Because of acute vision, horses can pick up slight changes in these signals.
  • They are associated with other body signals - all interacting.
Face signals
  • Snapping
    • Opening and shutting the mouth, sometimes making teeth contact.
    • Used a lot by foals to denote submission to the mare.
    • It’s a stylised grooming signal.
  • Biting mood
    • Aggressive mood with clear intention to bite
    • Jaws and teeth held open.
    • Teeth fully exposed.
    • Stiff lips
    • This is opposed to soft lips which shows relaxation.
    • Shows tension but less violent.
  • Flehmen response
    • Top lip curled up and head raised high.
    • Characteristic of stallions smelling mare’s genitals and urine.
    • Can be seen in mares smelling other mare’s urine.
  • Nostrils
    • Can be wrinkled showing disgust.
    • Are flared in excitement or fear.
  • Eye
    • Closed in pain or when exhausted.
    • Open wide in fear.
    • Shows whites of eyes when angry or terrified.
    • Half closed in peaceful relaxation or submission.
Neck signals
  • Head shake
    • Sideways shake suggesting stress.
    • Sharp upwards head toss showing annoyance
    • Head jerk - upwards and backwards showing annoyance.
  • Head bobbing
    • Ducks head down and back repeatedly.
    • Used to increase range of vision.
  • Head wobble
    • Nose moves with top of head still.
    • Indicates horse is ready for action
  • Head thrust and lunge
    • Pushes head forward in assertive move.
    • Threat or indication of aggression.
    • The next action will be biting.
  • Nose nudge
    • Attention seeking.
    • Warning to take notice of me.
  • Head snaking
    • Used by stallion to round up mares.
    • Side to side wobble.
    • Biting threats often accompany it.
  • Head weaving
    • Common in boxed horses with little mental stimulation.
    • Seen in bored caged birds.
    • Same problem in horse - boredom.
  • Head circling
    • Horse stands making circular neck movements.
    • Shows intense stress.
    • Found in boxed horses with no mental stimulation.
Ear signals
  • Pricked
    • Shows alertness
    • Horse is paying attention
  • Airplane ears
    • Held out to the side with openings downwards
    • Horse is psychologically low
    • Lost interest in things
  • Drooped
    • Horse is dozy or in pain
    • Showing feelings or inferiority
  • Drooped backwards
    • Seen in ridden horse
    • Showing submission to rider
    • Sign of brutal owner
    • Mare approaches stallion often in this pose
  • Twitching and flicking
    • Sign of a stressed horse
    • Sign of confusion
  • Pinned ears
    • Flattened back
    • Shows aggression
    • Provides protection when fighting
Tail signals
  • Tail high
    • Sign of excitement
    • Sign of intention to play among young horses
    • Seen when stallion approaches mare
    • Shown by mare when ready for service - hold tail to the side.
  • Tail low
    • Sign of submission.
    • Sign of exhaustion
    • Sign of illness
  • Tail straight out
    • Seen in very aggressive horse.
    • Stallions ready for battle
  • Swishing tail
    • First sideways then up and down
    • Shows horse is ill at ease, anxious or confused.
    • Increased power of side flick in real rage.
    • Flicked high in air and slapped down hard is warning that kicking will follow.
Sound signals
  • Snort
    • Sign of anxiety
    • Horse sensing danger
  • Squeal
    • Defensive signal
    • Don’t push me signal
    • Varies in intensity denoting degree of concern.
  • Greeting snicker
    • Low pitched and guttural
    • A salutation
  • Courtship snicker
    • Long low pitched snicker
    • Mares do this when stallion approaches.
    • Stallions have personalised courtship snickers
  • Maternal snicker
    • Soft and barely audible to humans.
    • Mare’s message to foal
  • Neigh and whinny
    • Starts as a squeal and ends as a snicker.
    • The loudest and longest call.
    • Isolated horse uses it for security like wolf howl
    • It’s a request for information rather than alarm.
  • Roar
    • Shows intense rage of a fighting stallion
    • Contains a fair element of fear too.
  • Blow
    • Sign of wellbeing
    • An enquiry sound - what’s this
    • Remove dust from nose when feeding.
  • Grunt or groan
    • Sign of exhaustion - when overloading pack horse
    • Sign of excess exertion
    • Boredom
  • Hoof stamping/kicking
    • These sound can be heard over long distances
    • Seen in stressed or bored horses in stables
    • Some horses kick the walls in boredom
  • Flattus (passing wind)
    • Can be slow release of gas when horse relaxed.
    • Short sharp burst when anal sphincter under tension in fear or stress.
Touch signals
  • These are a very common means of communication.
  • Seen when horses meet - nose to nose.
  • Mares use nudges to direct foals to udder and away from it.
  • Foals use it to warn the mare they are going to look for the udder.
  • Handlers use it , along with the voice, to warn a horse of where they are.
  • Aggression is all about tactile communication - pushing and biting.
  • Touch is used by riders to direct the horse.
Chemical communication
  • Horses have an excellent sense of smell.
  • It’s important in meeting and greeting, they smell noses, breath, flanks and genital area.
  • Smelling continues to dung and urine.
  • Smell is used in foal recognition by the mare as well as visual clues.
  • The foal to locate the udder using smell.
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