Horse Body Language

A visual guide to equine emotions and facial expressions.

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A horse communicates how it is feeling at any given moment through his body language. A horse’s mood is evident through various signs expressed, so as long as you know what you’re looking for, you can determine how your horse is feeling.

Afraid, Anxious, or NervousAn illustration of an anxious, afraid horse's body language

When a horse is feeling afraid or anxious, the head and neck are typically held high, and the muscles are tensed. The whites of the eyes may be showing, and the horse may be quivering or trembling. The tail may be tucked tightly against the hindquarters. The horse often can’t stand still and may try to bolt. He may also grind his teeth.

An illustration of an alert, focused ArabianAlert or Focused

An alert or focused horse’s body language is reflected in ears pointed in the direction of where the horse is looking (ears may flick back and forth if a lot is happening in his surroundings). The head and neck are held up; there’s a bright, attentive look to the eyes; and the tail may be elevated.

Content or AcceptingAn illustration of a content horse's body language

This body language shows a basic, happy attitude of the horse. There’s a soft look to the eye (normal blinking, not staring), and the muscles are relaxed overall. A horse will slightly lower his head, the ears may be forward or neutral (not focused in any particular direction), the mouth relaxed, and he may sigh and lick his lips. One hind leg might be cocked in relaxation if the horse is standing still.

Annoyed, Sour, or StressedAn illustration of an angry palomino

A horse may pin his ears, wring or swish his tail, and have a hard look to his eyes. He may grind his teeth, toss or fling his head, and open his mouth or elevate his head to avoid a rider’s hands or the bit when under saddle. There is usually an overall stiffness to the body.

The body language of a relaxed horse

Relaxed

This horse is completely at ease. The eyes may be partially or totally closed, the head lowered, and muscles relaxed.

Dominance or Aggression

The horse will pin his ears and may curl his upper lip.An illustration of an aggressive stallion He may swing his hindquarters toward whomever he’s trying to control and have a hard, staring look to his eye. Everything about the horse’s expression and body language says, “Get out of my way!”

Read more:
How to Speak Horse
A Glossary of Equine Vocalizations
Form a Bond with Your Horse

 


This article about horse body language originally appeared in the 2011 issue of Horses USA. 

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