Being able to read body language in animals is of the utmost importance being that they, obviously, cannot carry on a normal spoken conversation with us. Why is body language important, how do you read it, what can it tell us? By reading the horse’s eyes, ears, muscle tone, body and tail carriage, nostrils, and overall body presentation we can in essence “listen to” our horse.
For me, properly reading body language is not only an advantage but a necessity. Not only does it tell me which path to take with a horse in their training but it can, and has, saved my life. It can tell us what a horse is feeling emotionally; fear, frustration, confusion, irritation. It can tell us if a horse is in pain or uncomfortable. It tells us when we can push harder or we need to let up. It is extremely useful in conveying to us what our horse is feeling and we can respond accordingly.
Reading body language is an art form that takes many years and many encounters with horses of all temperaments and personalities to become good at. There are some generalities that we can make about body language that I can cover here, though. Remember, these are just ROUGH GUIDELINES and there are many other variations and subtleties that come into play!
- Forward and pricked = interested and alert in something in the surroundings.
- Cocked back and flicking = listening and attentive to its rider/handler
- Pinned flat back = upset, agitated, defensive, uncomfortable with the situation or in physical discomfort.
- Bright and alert = healthy, attentive, eager.
- Dull and droopy = fatigued, ill, bored.
- Excessively wide, seeing whites, rolling around = highly upset, agitated, nervous.
- Furrowed brow = confused, wary, uncertain, possibly slight physical discomfort
- Quiet and relaxed = At ease, happy, healthy
- Flared associated with physical activity = normal
- Flared and blowing with no physical actively = upset, agitated, excited, possible physical problem.
- Relaxed muscles, quiet body = At ease, receptive, willing
- Rigid and upright body posture = nervous, upset, tense, physically uncomfortable
- Tail flagging and boisterous movement = excited, energetic
- Tail flagging and stiff/guarded movement = physical discomfort, uneasiness
Your horse will tell you what you need to know, you just need to pay close enough attention and LISTEN!!!
Another important note…
Knowing when a horse is going to blow….
Occasionally, for various reasons, horses will “blow up” in certain situations if their body language is not read and responded to properly. This is the circumstance when reading body language has saved the life of myself and others. When a horse “blows” it reacts volatilely to its situation with little to no regard for its own safety or that of its rider/handler. This usually occurs when a horse is put into a situation it is not physically or mentally capable of handling at the moment. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, as in an accident with a fence, on the trail, etc.…. but usually it is because the horse is being restrained, confined, or pushed in a way that makes it highly uncomfortable. Recognizing this potential and diffusing it is of the utmost importance.
Signs a horse may blow:
Extremely braced and rigid body posture, reluctance to move at all. Upright head and neck, locked jaw, planted feet, tail clamped, tight/rigid muscles. This horse will look and feel like a coiled spring. Wide and wild eye expression, flared nostrils, heavy breathing, furrowed brow. Occasionally when being physically forced into a situation their eye will half close, become dull, right before a horse blows.
Diffusing the situation:
If possible relieve the stress level on the horse. If training, back-off a level or two. The horse is telling you it’s not ready yet or that something’s wrong.
If confining/restraining the horse in some way, give it more breathing/movement room. Remember the horse is a flight animal so when they feel trapped they may feel the need to flip the panic switch.
If the horse is in a predicament/trapped: speak calmly and comfortingly and try to reassure the horse while keeping yourself and others in a safe situation if the horse does blow.
Lastly, if your horse does blow, get out of the way, once the stress is gone the horse will settle and you can assess damage after that. You CANNOT restrain a horse that is blowing. The horse will take you out, along with anything else in its way, fencing, vehicles, etc.….
Please people, pay attention and listen to your equine friend. They can and will tell you what is going on with them if you just listen. If you’re not sure, consult someone with more experience for an evaluation. You’ll be happy you did!!