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Talking to Your Horse: Understanding Body Language

Working with horses can be dangerous business, especially if your horse isn’t exactly a team player.  Sometimes, training problems are due to poor habits learned before you and your horse ever met each other or bad experiences with former owners, but at other times it’s simply a lack of communication.  Learning how to read your horse’s body language will make training much simpler; whether you’re teaching him to prance and show or simply to back into a two horse trailer.


Get to Know a Relaxed Horse 

What you want to see when you’re working with a horse is that he’s relaxed and receptive.  If he’s calm, he’s ready to learn something and won’t be prone to sudden, unexpected behavior.  His whole body will radiate with confidence, here’s what it looks like:

Overall, your horse will look relaxed -- his muscles and skin lay smooth on his body.  His eyes are soft and blinking or averted in a sign of submission and his ears will be neutral or at half mast.  His legs are relaxed, sometimes he’ll cock a back leg casually.  A horse with a soft mouth is calm, but don’t panic if a younger horse is licking or chewing -- he’s only thinking things through.  His neck will be down or level, and his tail held low, casually swishing or just hanging in place.


The Curious Horse is Ready to Learn

A really relaxed horse may be too tired to learn much, but if you can get his curiosity raised with a treat or favorite short activity, he’ll perform much better for you.  You’ll know he’s ready to do some real learning once you’ve got his full attention -- this is the best time to try to teach more challenging tasks.

Your curious horse will look similar to your relaxed horse, he should be more alert, but not tense.  Subtle changes in his body language will be obvious if you know where to look.  His eyes will be bright and attentive; he may look right at you, but not with a penetrating stare.  Ears that point forward toward you are another sign you’ve got his attention, along with a mouth that may be pursed or moving or nostrils that are sniffing or blowing.  You’ll want him to be standing slightly stiff, but not tense, with his tail up.


Stressed Horses Need a Break 

Horses that are starting to show signs of stress have been working too hard or are having trouble with the task at hand.  If you push this horse any further, you’re both going to end up frustrated.  Give your horse a break and do something fun if he’s showing signs of stress.

A stressed out horse will start to back away from you or resist your attempts to control him.  His ears may be pinned back or he may swish his tail and grind his teeth.  Overall, he’s getting stiffer and his lips are tight.  He may lift his head high and paw or stomp as his frustration increases.  Take care with a horse showing this kind of body language, he could easily injure you if you continue to try to push him. 


These Behaviors Bear Watching

If your horse is afraid or aggressive, you’re going to need to find some professional help before you try to work with him.  These types of horses are the most likely to hurt their owners, especially when they’re asked to do things they don’t want to do.  Even the best horse may suddenly show signs of fear or aggression if they’re sick or injured, though, so always keep an eye out for these signs:


  • Your horse may become anxious if he’s been in an accident or mishandled in the past, he’s going to need gentle handling and coaxing when he encounters things that remind him of his past trauma.  Sometimes, you can break his fear with slow exposure and heavy rewards over time, but you’ll have to be patient.


  • Watch for a horse with wide open eyes that are showing the whites.  An anxious horse may toss his head high or grind his teeth -- his muscles will be tense.  Your horse’s tail may be clamped down to his rump or tucked between his legs and he may dance around.  A scared horse may snort or flip his ears a lot, or attempt to stare down the source of his fear.  Scared horses sometimes unexpectedly bolt, so be cautious when this behavior starts.


  • When your horse is trying to take control of the situation, bully you or demonstrate his dominance, he’ll pin his ears back and curl his upper lip as he stares you down.  His challenge may also include a hard swing from the hips toward his target, and he may pace back and forth or hold his tail high and swish it aggressively.  

Using Your Horse’s Body Language

Working with a trainer can help you learn to move your anxious or aggressive horse into a relaxed state where he can be taught more acceptable behaviors.  Over time and with patience, these horses can be just as easy to handle as a horse that starts out receptive, but you must deal with them carefully because even one little mistake can cause you serious harm.

A less problematic horse should be managed in much the same way, moving from relaxed to receptive and leaving them in a state of relaxation at the end of the training session.  After all, if your horse always feels frustrated or anxious after spending time on a task, he’s going to begin to resent it and fight.  Wrap your training sessions up with activities that he’s already mastered so you can end on a high note and load him up on treats.  The bigger the reward, the more likely he’s going to be to want to do more things to please you down the line.

Whether you’ve got one horse or twenty, communication is vital to their well-being.  Knowing exactly what your horse is trying to say to you will help as you teach him how to load into horse trailers, too.  An easy loader is the dream of every horse owner -- armed with these tools you’ll be able to transform your hesitant horse into a confident traveler.

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