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What do Horse Ear Positions Mean?

Written by Rachael Kraft

Horse ears can tell you a lot about how your horse is feeling and what they are thinking. Different horse ear positions can communicate stress, attentiveness, interest, annoyance, and much more. Being familiar with your horse’s specific horse ear meaning can help you train your horse more effectively and understand what your horse is feeling and trying to tell you.

a black and white photo of a horse's head, focusing on their earsGrowing up around horses, you learn how to read their body language – especially their ear movements. For instance, my quarter horse mare was quite the character and she was very expressive. Whenever another horse got too close, her nostrils would go flat and her ears would be pinned to her head. This was usually accompanied by a squeal and a kick to let the other horse know she wasn't going to tolerate any nonsense. Her pinned ears sent a clear message that she was ready to defend herself and was not in the mood for fun and games.

Looking at your horses ear positions is probably the fastest way to check how they are feeling. Horses can say a lot with just their ears. That’s why it’s so important that you know how to read your horse’s ears so you can understand the emotions your horse is communicating.

You may also be interested in: Understanding Horse Body Language While Loading Onto the Trailer

Horse Ears Are for More Than Just Hearing

Horses are very expressive animals. They whinny, nicker, squeal and puff out air to communicate with sounds, they move their tails, heads, and bodies to express themselves using body language, and they use their ears to let you know how they feel.

Horse ears are designed to locate and funnel sound. Horses can rotate their ears up to 180 degrees to try to find where the sound is coming from and recognize whether it’s dangerous or not. Horses don’t have super hearing, and while they can hear a wider range of frequencies than humans, the sounds that they can pick up on are basically within the same range as humans.

And, like humans, horses can experience hearing loss as they age. But, it’s not as common a problem for horses as it is for humans.

Horse Ear Positions and What They Mean   

Since horses can’t talk to tell us how they are doing, we have to look at their ears for clues to what they are thinking and feeling. What does it mean when a horse's ears are back? Why does my horse sometimes have one ear facing forward and one ear facing backwards? What makes my horse flicker his ears?

Most people say that when your horse’s ears are pinned back, it’s a sign of aggression, and when your horse’s ears are pricked forward, your horse is happy. But actually, your horse’s ears can tell you much more than that. Here’s a quick guide to everything your horses ear positions are trying to tell you. 

a photo of a brown horse standing in a grass fieldNeutral Ears  

Relaxed horse ears are ears that are loosely perked up, facing slightly forward with the openings to the side. This ear position means your horse is calm and comfortable in his surroundings. When you are riding, this is how you want your horse to feel and how his ears should look.

This neutral position lets your horse scan his surroundings for sounds and easily hear your commands. It allows your horse to give you his full attention and respond quickly to cues and commands.

Droopy Ears

When horse ears are fallen to the side, it means that he is tired, worn out, or tuned out and not listening to you. This can happen when your horse is exhausted after a long training session or very sleepy (your horse’s ears are usually in this position when he is asleep).

This ear position can also be a sign of submission. If you see your horse’s ears like this in a group setting with other horses, it could be that he feels inferior to the rest of the horses. If you are riding and your horse’s ears start drooping, it’s a good sign to call it a day – your horse is exhausted and probably isn’t going to hear your commands.

Ears Facing Backwards   

What does it mean when a horse’s ears are back? When a horse has his ears propped up and facing backwards, it means that his complete attention is focused on something behind him, usually the rider. While this might seem like a good thing, it can mean that a horse is afraid of his rider and worried that he’ll receive harsh treatment.

If you are teaching your horse something new and your see that his ears are in this position, this means that you have his full concentration. His ears pointing towards you mean that he’s listening for the next command and that you are in control.

Pricked Ears Facing Forward 

When your horse suddenly pricks up his ears forward, he probably heard something and is focused and alert trying to figure out what sound it was. If your horse senses a dangerous sound, it could mean that your horse is startled. Once he figures out what the sound is or where it came from, the ears will return to the neutral or previous position.

If your horse’s ears stay pricked up and facing forward, it could mean that he is anxious or nervous. If you are riding, be aware that this could mean that your horse could bolt soon. If your horse is worried about a potential threat, he will not be attentive to your commands and will probably not even hear your instructions.

Read more: How to Easily Load and Unload an Anxious Horse onto a Horse Trailer

One Ear Forward, One Ear Backward 

a portrait photo of a brown horse with white markings on his face, with a human hand touching themHorse ears are amazing because they have the ability to do what scientists call “independent hearing.” That means they can listen to one thing with one ear and another thing with the other ear. So, if you see your horse has one ear forward, and one ear backward, he’s probably listening to two things at once.

If you are riding or training, this is a good sign because it means your horse is listening for things in front of him on the trail and paying attention to where is going, and at the same time, focusing on you and listening for your commands. 

Pinned or Flat Ears Facing Backward

This horse ear meaning is super important to know. If you see a horse with pinned ears, be careful. This is usually how horses show aggression and could mean that your horse is hurt or in danger. Your horse is telling you that he feels threatened and needs to defend himself.

If your horse flattens his ears during training or riding, it could also mean that he is in pain, is angry and wants to be left alone, or is fed up with the training session.

Flickering Ears

When horses flick their ears forward and backward it could mean that they are attentive and paying attention to their rider – constantly switching between listening for cues and listening ahead of them to where they are going.

It could also mean that your horse is stressed or anxious. Maybe he sensed a threat and is trying to figure out where it’s coming from or maybe there’s too much going on and he feels overstimulated. Usually, you can tell the difference because when a horse is stressed, his ears will be stiffer and twitch nervously rather than flicker calmly and confidently.

If your horse is naturally anxious, try adding a calming equine supplement to his diet. 

Training Your Horse Using Horse Ear Positions   

When teaching your horse a new skill, you want to have his full attention so that he can easily understand what you want him to do and how you want him to do it. You can use horse ear positions to help you time when you are going to say a command or when you reward your horse.

For example, if you see your horse’s ears are back and listening for a command, you can give him a treat and reward his focus and attentive listening. This will help your horse listen more frequently and facilitate the training process.

Watch your Horse’s Ear Positions

a side view of someone riding a horseDuring a training session, it’s also super important to monitor how your horse is feeling. By watching your horse’s ears, you’ll know when he’s done for the day (droopy ears), when he’s stressed or anxious (flickering ears), and when he’s calm and focused (neutral ears).

Knowing horse ear positions is also essential for your safety as a rider and horse owner. Now you know that when you see a horse with his ears pinned back, it’s best to be careful and stay away. It’s also good to know when looking for a horse to buy at a horse auction. If you see a horse with active ears, you’ll be able to better read his body language and temperament.

If you see a horse with droopy ears at a horse auction, beware! Some untrustworthy horse sellers drug their horses before showing them to make them seem like they have a mild temperament. Since there’s so much going on at a horse auction, a normal horse will be anxious and alert and have his ears perked up. If you see one with droopy ears, it’s very likely that he’s been drugged.

Is My Horse Listening to Me?     

Getting your horse to listen to you while you are training can be a challenge. Horses can have a mind of their own, but when you can read horse ear positions, you’ll be better able to communicate with your horse and successful train them to accomplish all that you want them to accomplish.     

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do horses put their ears back?

Horses will put their ears back when they are scared or sense danger behind them – they turn their ears towards their rider especially when they are afraid of the rider. This ear position can also indicate focus and concentration, many herding horses will have their ears back when they are working.

What do relaxed horse ears look like?

A horse that is relaxed will have his ears to the side, facing down or to the side like wings on an airplane. This neutral ear position shows that your horse is calm, comfortable and happy. This is the ideal position you want your horse’s ears to be in while you are riding.

Why is horse ear meaning important?

Horses use their ears to communicate how they feel. Knowing what different horse ear positions mean can help you know how your horse is feeling and whether they are picking up on your cues or not. It’s also important to know for your safety as a rider. If you see a horse with pinned ears and an aggressive or anxious body language, you’ll know to be cautious around the horse because you’ll be able to read his ears and know that he’s hurt and feeling ready to attack or defend himself. 



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