Interpreting Horse Body Language

May 13, 2024

two horses

May is Adopt a Horse Month, and we’re celebrating HORSE POWER — the qualities that make equines uniquely special. There is one great horse power that equines have in common: they are excellent communicators. Without saying a word, a horse’s body language tells us exactly how they are feeling. In the spirit of Adopt a Horse Month, it’s the perfect time to learn horse body language or brush up your interpretation skills! 

Saddle up — Kylie McGarity, ASPCA Equine Transition and Adoption Center (ETAC) Training and Behavior Specialist, gives the lowdown:

Happy Horse

a happy horse

Getting a good back scratch feels so good! We can tell this horse is enjoying it — his eye is drooping, and his ears are relaxed to the side. Note how his lips are pursed. That’s because of a mutual grooming instinct. When horses get that just-right itchy spot scratched by another horse, they have an instinct to groom the horse who is scratching them. Likewise, when a person finds that perfect spot to scratch, horses will sometimes reach back and nuzzle them with their upper lip to return the favor. 

Alert Horse

an alert horse

Horses aren’t natural predators; they are prey animals and will most often choose to flee if they sense danger. Therefore, they are constantly aware of their surroundings so they aren’t caught off guard by something that could threaten them. Something in the distance has caught this horse’s attention. His head is held high, and his ears are pointing toward the thing of interest. He is keeping a cautious and watchful eye. 

Curious Horse

a curious horse

Lucky just received a new toy, and he is curious! Curiosity is a good thing for horses — once they’ve determined they don’t need to be afraid, being curious helps them gain confidence and learn new things through exploration. We can tell that he is eager to approach his new toy because he is leaning toward it and touching it with his nose while his ears are forward. 

Relaxed Horse

a relaxed horse

Aside from making a funny picture, licking and chewing is a normal response for horses when transitioning from a slightly stressful environment into a calmer one. Allie is taking a break to relax during a training session at ETAC. She has soft eyes, alert ears and her head is elevated but still in a neutral position. 

Neutral Horse

a neutral horse

It is important for horses to be in a neutral state at points throughout the day — it allows them to save their energy for when it’s needed most. Here, Comet is displaying neutral body language with his relaxed eyes, relaxed nose and jaw, and his head height (not too high, not too low). His ears and his head are pointed toward something interesting, but he has deemed it as non-threatening, so he slightly relaxes a hind leg and remains calm. 

Nervous Horse

a nervous horse

Sometimes when horses first arrive at ETAC from stressful situations, they are nervous. New surroundings, new people and new routines can put a horse on high alert and be the source of anxiety. This horse’s body language tells us she is nervous and under stress. The white parts of her eyes are showing (this is called “whale eye”), her head is held high, her muscles are tense, and she is focused on the person next to her. When horses are nervous around people, it’s important to act calmly and with understanding so the situation doesn’t escalate or cause them more stress.

Angry Horse

an angry horse

Even though horses are more likely to run away than to charge, when a threat is imminent, they will do what they can to protect themselves. Meadow perceived a nearby dog as a threat (even though the dog is friendly and gets along well with horses). Meadow’s ears are laid back and flat and her eyes have direct contact with the dog. She is leaning forward, her mouth is tight and tense, and she is communicating “Don’t come any closer.” Luckily, the dog understood her behavior and walked away so Meadow was able to relax. Because Meadow showed us she was uneasy around dogs, we made sure to spend training time safely introducing her to dogs and helping her become more comfortable.

Very Fearful Horse

horse fearful of touch

When Pearl first arrived at ETAC, she was fearful of human touch because she had received very little handling throughout her life. In this photo, she had whale eye, a tense jaw, her head was held high, and her nostrils flared. As a species that naturally tends to choose flight over fight, Pearl was backing away from something scary, in this case the person, and she was preparing to escape. It is important to calmly, methodically help horses overcome fear of people so they can have a happy, healthy future.

Happy Pearl

Pearl made great progress at ETAC and is now thriving in a new home where she genuinely enjoys her person!

Finding Your Right Horse

a curious horse

Now you know how to tell what a horse is feeling by reading their body language. If you’re curious (like this horse!) about equine adoption, visit My Right Horse to browse hundreds of adoptable equines today!