Horse Behaviour: Learn to Read the Signs

The horse is a large herbivore that lives in a herd when in a natural environment. The highly social nature of this animal is the foundation from which we can start understanding its behaviour around humans and other pets. Horse owners, breeders and trainers are all committed to really learning how to handle and communicate with this equid when it is part of a domestic setting. Keep reading to get an insight on the equine behaviour and how to build a safe and healthy relationship with your horse.

Horse Behaviour

Horses are social herd animals that would never choose to live alone in the wild. This instinct is essential as living in large groups can be a form of protection from predators. A solitary horse would have lower chances of survival in a non-domestic environment.

Because horses are prey animals fueled by a strong fight-or-flight instinct their first reaction in a threatening situation would be to flee the scene. The physical attributes of a horse enable it to reach high speed when escaping from dangerous circumstances so it is essential that your pet is kept in a secure environment, away from any possible attack from other animals such as wolves or foxes.

Despite having been domesticated by humans for thousands of years, a horse still retains some of these natural instincts to some extent. So, when thinking about purchasing or adopting a horse we must keep in mind that it will need constant interaction with us and/or other horses as well as a safe shelter in order to feel comfortable and safe in its surroundings.

Being able to read into the signals sent by our horse is vital to build a trustworthy relationship while keeping our pet and ourselves safe.


Horses communicate in a number of ways and it is the handler/owner responsibility to thoroughly understand the message they are trying to send.

For starters, many of us may think a horse doesn’t resort to vocalisation as much as a barking dog yet this equid will actually use different kind of sounds to express a number of feelings: nickering, squealing or whinnying.

Due to their social nature, a horse will often be seen using touch to communicate with other horses through mutual grooming or with their human through nuzzling.

Body language, however is probably the most utilised mean of communication in a horse. By using a combination of ear position, tail swishing, foot stomping, and neck and head height your horse will send clear messages to the people and other animals around it. 

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Horse Body Language

By truly understanding a horse's body language we can pick up on a multitude of feelings and physical conditions ranging from happiness, anger, hunger, sickness, discomfort and many more. Here are just some of the main signals you should recognise when handling a horse:

  • A horse ear positioning is the most obvious behaviour noticed by people. Generally, your horse will direct the ear towards the source of the stimulus that catches its attention. Forward ear positioning indicates your horse is alert; if one ear is forward and the other back then the horse is probably listening to a sound; a relaxed horse will have ears folded backwards; when your horse is upset it will tense and flatten the ears.
  • Due to the nature of a horse vision (narrow binocular as well as strong monocular), the positioning of the head is often a clear sign of where your pet’s attention is. For example, if the head is raised up high your horse is most likely focusing on something in the distance while if the head is almost in a vertical position it is an indication that the horse is looking at something on the ground or close-by.
  • The appearance of the eyes of your horse can give you an insight on what it is feeling physically and emotionally. Anger and discomfort are usually displayed by rolling the eyes to the point where the white is showing. Bright and alert eyes are usually a sign that the horse is observing and taking in the surroundings.
  • Tail motion is another indicator of how your horse is feeling at that moment. Horses will often swish their tail as a tool to remove biting insects however it the movement is aggressive or if the tail is tightly tucked against the body it may indicate pain, discomfort or anger. A relaxed horse that is playing or happily galloping will keep a high tail.
  • Although it is not used as much as other body parts, a horse mouth can provide you with an idea of how it is feeling. The curled lip Flehmen response is when your horse curls the upper lip exposing the teeth and breathing in a particularly attractive scent through the nostrils. A very relaxed horse will often have a loose lower lip and chin. Bared teeth instead are a sign of aggression and intention to bite. 
  • Keep an eye on how your horse moves its front legs as they can convey a number of different feelings when combined with head and neck position. Pawing the ground for example can be a symptom of impatience, an attention request or even hunger if the head is held in a medium low position as if it was begging for food.

Horse Sleeping and Eating Behaviour

It is a known fact that horses can sleep both standing up and lying down. Dozing into a light sleep while standing is part of the natural condition as prey animals that need to be ready to flee in case of an attack from predators. The ability of resting while standing is given by the stay apparatus in their legs which is allows them to relax their muscles without collapsing.

The fact that a horse can get the needed resting time without having to physically relax also allows them to go without a long and continued sleep time: these equids will actually take multiple short naps. In fact, although standing resting time averages between four to fifteen hours a day, the actual deep sleep time in your horse will range anywhere from a few minutes to two hours. A unique aspect of a horse sleeping pattern is that it will only require a few hours of REM sleep every few days and this state can be reached solely when the horse is lying down.

Because of their herding status, horses are more likely to relax and sleep well if living in group as they tend to take turns by always having some of them on alert-mode.

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Horses are known for being “trickle eaters” which means they must always have access to food in order to keep their digestive system functioning correctly. If you own a horse you’ll quickly notice signs of anxiety and impatience when there are long periods of time between meals. As many other pets, a domesticated horse will need a regular feeding schedule in order to avoid discomfort and weakness. Owners of multiple horses should be mindful as these are herd animals that follow a hierarchic structure in which higher-ranking individuals will eat and drink first. So ensure all of your pets have access to forage and clean water. 

This article may provide you with more useful information on a horse eating pattern.

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Horse and Humans

Wild horses will generally view people as potential predators however, a domesticated horse with a little exposure to humans will most likely display curiosity and affection for its handler. Nevertheless, we must always be alert and gentle when working with these large animals as they all retain somewhat of a wild instinct that may become dangerous to both the horse and the owner.

As they are creatures of habit, horses require consistent training as an essential part of their life. Based on their herding nature, horses will always prefer to be among others in a herd as this is the best way to survive an attack from a predators. This principle is in fact the foundation of many horse training techniques which suggest that the owner is accepted by the horse as the dominant member within the herd. 

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Horse trainers and handlers constantly work on building a relationship based on trust where their pet sees them as a responsible leader. The first challenge faced by a horse trainer is to reduce or completely remove any of those wild instincts that are not acceptable among humans which would normally bring a horse to flee when in front of a predator, bucking off an attacker that jumps on its back or even biting while playing with other horses.

There a myriad of advantages you can gain from properly training your horse but the most valuable benefit will be the strong bond you’ll be able to build with your beloved pet.

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Author Marino
Author: Marino Tilatti
Member of PetsForAll Editorial Stuff
Posted in these categories: Breeder, Trainer, Vet, For Sale, For Adoption, For Stud, Wanted, Horses, Horses

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