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Observation is a vitally important requirement for people to safely interacting with horses. Learning their body language and sounds is an important part of that safety process. As a rule horses do not exhibit facial expressions, however they do have clear communication cues or signals some through body language as well as through their vocalizations (sounds). Equine vocalizations and body language (Communication cues) work in harmony with each other (Communication sets) to give a reasonably clear indication of what’s going on in a horses head. An example of a communication set is a horse that is grazing; head down. It hears an unfamiliar noise (a rustling in the bushes). Instantly the horse goes into an alert stance (which is a series of cues or a communication set): head raised, body tense, eyes focused and ears perked straight up and parallel to each other, to hear every sound. If the sound is discontinued the horse will cancel the alert stance and return to grazing. If it continues; depending on numerous variables; including the horse, it may become curious and investigate, dismiss the noise as non-threatening, move away from the noise or in the case of a sudden startling noise in which case the instinctual flee or fight defense mechanism is triggered. The above situation is repeated countless times each day and has little relevance to our safety until we interact with a horse during one of these events. Observation of the communication cues leads to a safe and enjoyable relationship. It is also important to note that the following communications cues vary from horse to horse.
Drooping Head & Eyelids: Drooping eyelids may indicate that a horse is tired. They may also indicate that a horse is ill, especially if it is persistent.
Ear Talk: Ears are one of the more expressive parts of a horses body and can be seen from a distance.
Flehmen (Also known as Flehmen Reaction): This is a primarily male horse reaction the scent given off by mares in estrus. The horse curls his upper lip back, showing his teeth; then opening his mouth in order to draw a large quantity of air across a specialized scent organ located in the roof of his mouth. This aids in analyzing the scent.
Licking Lips: Usually occurs during training and it indicates the horse’s acceptance or understanding.
Lifting Hind Leg: This may only be a horse resting its leg. If displayed with pinned ears it is a challenge which unchecked will lead to kicking.
Pawing With Front Feet: This is a sign of apprehension or of a horse who is bored or hungry.
Rolling Eyes: Usually indicate pain.
Shaking Head From Side to Side: This is a sign of playful rebellion of a horse who wants to play. In association with pinned ears, it can also represent a preemptory challenge; uncorrected this can lead to dangerous behavior.
Stomping Hind Leg: This may only be a horse trying to dislodge ants or flies. If displayed with pinned ears it is a challenge which unchecked will lead to kicking.
Swinging Back End Around Towards You: This is a dangerous challenge and should not be allowed. Uncorrected, this challenge will lead to a horse that kicks.
Swishing Tail (Not at flies): This is a sign of irritation or of a horse who is not feeling well.
Yawning: There seems to be no specific reason for yawning. Some experts conclude that it is a response to breath-holding due to tension. Some feel that it is a way to equalize ear pressure. Others feel that it is an anticipatory response to things like feeding. Yawning may indicate health issues such as tooth or illness such as colic.
Blowing: While blowing the horse sharply exhales through its nose with his mouth shut. The blow is short in duration and does not create the vibrating or fluttering noise that the snort does. The strength of the blow and related body cues that will tell indicate what the horse is saying.
Snorting: The horse usually holds his head high while exhaling through the nose with his mouth shut. The strong exhale creates a vibration or flutter sound in the nostrils. The snort lasts about 1 second. The snort can be heard up to 30 feet away. Snorting indicates danger.
Snorting Responses: A snorting response is based on the horse determining that the object is safe or dangerous.
Nickering: The horse creates a deep vibrating sound with his mouth closed, from its vocal cords. The strength and tone of the nicker vary greatly, and will tell you what the horse is saying.
Neigh or Whinny: The Neigh/Whinny starts out as a squeal, but ends up as a nicker. The neigh is the loudest and longest of the horse sounds. The neigh is not a sound of fear. It is used when a horse is being separated from others.
Neigh or Whinny Responses: