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Horses coexist as herd animals with complex social relationships that depend on visual and auditory cues to tell friend from foe in their environment. Their complicated system of visual cues are a type of body language that keeps them in constant communication with the ever-changing moods of the members of the herd. Subtle cues, such as those of different horse ear positions, are a fundamental form of communication that contributes to maintaining a class system within the herd without having to escalate to a fight for dominance.
When a new horse is added to the herd, the dominant horse will establish his status in the field by asserting his right to eat or drink first. There might be some kicking, biting, charging, neck snaking and circling of the new horse followed by nose-to-nose contact, striking and squeals. The following day, a raised hoof and bared teeth might be enough to serve as a directed warning to keep the newcomer in his place. The new horse will quickly figure out where his place is in the herd with a signal as subtle as pinned ears.
Most horses are very in tune with the body language of the alpha and their herd mates. The subtlety of specific ear positions sends a very clear message to other horses that can easily be interpreted by their humans, as well. Learning the subtleties of equine body language provides you with an important key to successful interaction with horses. You have only to become a keen observer to these visual cues to become aware of the message that they send.
A single flick of an ear can transmit several different messages in unison when taken with other body language cues. A horse cannot communicate without using his ears to convey part of the message. Horses communicate directly through posture, gesture and expressions. Learning to interpret ear positions, and physical postures in general, is not a mystical skill, but an education in observation.
When a horse’s ears are pricked forward, it conveys that he is alert, paying attention, or interested in what is in front of him. He might be saying:
◆ I am focused on something in front of me.
◆ I am happy to see you.
◆ I am interested and curious.
◆ I am on alert.
This is often indicative of a horse that is listening to something in another direction than out front or paying attention to what is being asked of him while maintaining alertness in the direction of travel. He might be saying:
◆ I am listening to my rider.
◆ I am paying attention to something behind me.
◆ There is something that has my interest to the side of me.
◆ I am aware of things in both directions.
This is a well-known sign of dominance or aggression that is usually accompanied by neck snaking, head shaking, drawn lips and bared teeth. Your horse might be
trying to say:
◆ I am going to bite or kick you! Get out of here!
◆ That is my food, go away.
◆ I don’t feel well; leave me alone.
If the horse’s ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it means he is listening to something behind him. If you are riding and his neck is tense, he may be unsure of what you are asking him to do. He may be deciding how to react to the stimuli and whether to run away or turn around and check out a sound or movement. When combined with a swishing tail or other signs of tension in the body, turned-back ears may be a precursor to pinned ears. Your horse might be saying:
◆ How do I react? What is that behind me?
◆ I am unsure what you are asking, or I am confused.
◆ I am nervous.
The horse is asleep, relaxed or feeling lazy. If you are riding your horse, then he may be showing complete trust and relaxation. Your horse could be saying:
◆ I am content or sleepy.
◆ I am just relaxing right now.
◆ I am concentrating or daydreaming.
◆ I trust you.
The horse is in a heightened state of alertness or anxiety. He may be trying to
find the source of an unusual sound or smell or may feel overwhelmed, upset or
anxious. He might be trying to say:
◆ I don’t know what to make out of that strange sound.
◆ I am worried! What is that? How should I react?
◆ Fight or flight? How can I get away quickly?
◆ I may be on the verge of panic.
This article about horse ear position appeared in the July 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Mary Marshall is a freelance equine journalist and the author of Great Breeders and Their Methods: Leslie Combs and Spendthrift Farm. She lives in Georgetown, Ky., with her husband, their Labrador retrievers, a bulldog, and three Paint horses.
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