Horses are a social prey animal that live in groups. As a result, quick, easy and often silent communication is essential so that they can keep themselves safe. They are constantly assessing their environment for any signs of danger. Horses need to be able to communicate any potential threats to their companions quickly and have developed a complex communication system through their body language. This often involves using very subtle cues to communicate.
Humans generally find it easy to identify the big behavioural signs that horses display such as rearing, bucking, biting, kicking, but we may not be so adept at recognising the smaller, more subtle signs. When we don’t recognise or respond to our horses more subtle signs of communication it results in them having to ‘scream’. Of course, horses can’t actually scream, so they use big behavioural explosions to do this instead. Where big behaviour explosions happen there will always have been many small, subtle signs of communication that came before. If these are ignored the horse is left with no option other than to escalate their behaviour. Horses are communicating with us constantly during every single interaction we have with them. They will also be constantly learning things from our reactions and responses, whether we intend for them to or not.
Horses have the same five senses as us – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. However, their ranges and capacities differ from ours which means that horses may perceive the world differently to how we do. They have a much wider field of vision than we do which means that they have a lot more visual information to process. Visual input for horses is in a wide but vertically narrow strip which means they can easily and clearly see the horizon, but they don’t see especially clearly above and below this. As a prey animal who evolved to live on open grassland this makes sense and means they are able to detect predators from a considerable distance away.
Typically, horses will only use vocalisations for communication if they have exhausted other methods or if there is no other way for them to communicate. It is dangerous for a prey animal to be noisy as it will draw attention to themselves. However, horses do have very good hearing and this means that sometimes they can hear things that we cannot hear at all. The funnel shape of the equine ear also improves the acuity of equine hearing. This is all worth bearing in mind next time you feel your horse is reacting to ‘nothing’. It is much more likely that he or she has heard or sensed something that we simply don’t have the capacity to do. Behaviours that people claim have ‘come out of nowhere’ will usually have a perfectly understandable explanation.
Horses have a good sense of smell and gain lots of information about their environment using this sense. They can gain a lot of information about other horses through sniffing their droppings, such as their age, sex, reproductive status and health status. For this reason, scent swapping – where you swap the droppings of individuals and allow them to investigate in their own time – is a great activity to do before introducing new horses to one another and may help to reduce any negative reactions. ‘Scentwork’ for horses is becoming an increasingly popular enrichment activity and helps to engage this important sense to provide mental stimulation for the horse.
Horses are tactile, sensitive animals and they use touch for a variety of communication purposes. Mutual grooming is an important part of their behavioural repertoire and helps to promote social cohesion, calmness and reassurance. Finding your horse’s favourite scratchy spot is an absolute must if you want to improve your relationship together! There are several studies which have found that scratching the wither area of horses can help to lower their heart rate. This can be utilised both when handling from the ground and also during ridden work.
Horses use their whole bodies to communicate with us and we have to try to ensure we see and respond to as much of this communication as possible. Within the face alone there are lots of different areas that we can observe for any changes that may help us to identify when our horses are becoming worried about a situation or when they are in pain. The ears, eyes, eyelids, nostrils, chin and muzzle area and cheek muscles may all change when a horse begins to feel anxious. If we can recognise these changes in tension, we can more quickly adapt what we are doing to help them to feel more secure and help them to gain confidence. During situations where a horse becomes worried, some of the differences you may see include:
- triangulation of the upper eyelid
- increased wrinkles around the eyes
- whites of the eyes showing
- flaring of the nostrils
- tightening of the chin (in some horses this causes a flattening of the chin, in others it causes the chin to become more triangulated)
- tension through the cheek and jaw muscles
- raised head and neck
The tail can also be a useful indicator of how your horse is feeling. Repeated tail swishing may be a sign of pain or discomfort and is not something that should be ignored. An elevated tail may be a sign of excitement and high arousal.
The whole body is used in communication. People often think of avoidance behaviours as big behaviours, but avoidance starts with subtle movements. It may be that your horse just turns his head away from you slightly or slightly weight shifts away from you or what you are about to do. These are also avoidance behaviours and demonstrate that our horse may not be comfortable with what we are doing with them.
Spending time getting to know what your horse’s behaviour and body language looks like in a completely relaxed setting, such as grazing with companions, is a valuable way to spend your time. By knowing what your horse’s expressions are like when he is truly relaxed you will be better able to identify when this changes and respond appropriately. It is important to look at all body language signals within the context that you see them and not to draw any conclusions from one signal alone. For example, yawning may happen because your horse is tired but if your horse is yawning repeatedly or always at certain times, such as when presented with the tack, this is more likely to be a sign of either pain or anxiety.
Big behaviours never come out of nowhere. It is up to us to learn how to recognise the earlier more subtle signs to prevent our horses from having to shout any louder at us.