Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Horse Communication 101

By Jeri-Tallee Dawson

© 2002, Jeri-Tallee Dawson

Horses are often an essential part of the novels we write. They are the chosen mode of transportation in a fantasy novel, a fancy hobby for a wealthy Lady in a science fiction series, or the romantic heroineís closest confidante.   Horses are everywhere in fiction.

As a writer, we should research our backgrounds, but horses are so commonplace that often times they are not researched. The mean killer horse, or horses like "Fury" that understand everything the owner says (a human in horse disguise, so to speak) abound on TV and in fiction. To set some misconceptions straight, this article will give an overview  of basic horse communication, both among horses and between horse and handler.


Saying Hello

When two horses say hello to each other, they can do so from a great distance. The form of communication they use is called a neigh. Stallions (male horses) can neigh so loud itís called a trumpet. Youíre well advised to cover your ears when he does.

Mares (female horses) also call their foals if they stray too far.

Some horses even neigh when their owners come to see them. More often, they use a quieter sound, a nicker, to say hello to their owner. This is a very friendly sound.  Sometimes, though, theyíre really saying hello to the treat the owner is bringing. Many horses bang their hoofs against the stall door to tell the feeder to hurry up.

Neighs are really used as long-distance communication only. You will often hear horses neigh when they are led away from their friends or return to them after a ride. In closer quarters, however, horses use their bodies to communicate.

If two horses meet for the first time in close quarters, they will most likely round their necks impressively and put their heads together. Then they exchange scents by blowing into each otherís nostrils. At least one of them might then squeal loudly, throwing one fore hoof in the air. If both are mares, both may exhibit this behavior.

Horses that know each other will not make a big show of the greeting. They may blow air at each other and then go side-by-side to their favorite grazing spot.


I Like You / I Donít Like You

Most of a horseís mood is easy to see in the way he holds his head and ears and his hindquarter and tail. When heís attentive and friendly, he will turn his ears forward and assume an eager expression. If he has a good rider who demands his attention, he will turn one ear backward in concentration on the riderís signal, while the other is turned forward so as not to miss anything. If the rider works the horse in a ring, and the horse trusts him not to lead him astray, both ears may be turned backwards, because the horse feels safe.

If a horse turns his ears backward and folds them flat to his neck, heís not amused about something. Heís either afraid or may bite. Sometimes you might walk through a stable and a few horses will threaten you like this. They either demand a treat, or are just generally miserable. Itís good advice to stay away unless their handler is present.

A raised hind leg is a definite threat: "Iím going to kick you!" If you go around a horse to feed it or brush it, be sure to let it know youíre there, either by keeping a hand on his croup or just talking to it while you move. Some horses have kicked their caregivers simply because they were startled.

Among their own kind, lower ranked horses are often kept in line by a well-placed bite or kick. Mares mostly kick with their hind legs, while stallions primarily use their front legs and teeth to fight. Generally, though, horses are a non-aggressive species. If they fight, it is usually about rank within the herd, and those fights are often settled quickly. 

Horses who like their handler will be happy to part with the herd when he beckons them from the pasture. This is not as common as you may think. Horses who are not handled well, or do not like their handler, will give him a merry chase. Horses who are fine with their handler, but arenít too keen on working, will just let the handler walk all the way to get him while he keeps grazing and pretending he didnít hear him call.

If the horse is kept in a stall, she may nicker or even neigh when the handler comes to see her. Neighs are more common when the horse knows that thereís a treat in store for her. If the horse likes her handler, she will be eager to greet him when he opens the stall door. She will blow air at him, look through his pockets for a treat, or just present her head in a way that allows the handler to rub a favorite spot.

Horses who are indifferent to someone coming into their stall (as you often have with horses who have many handlers) donít look at their handler until theyíre given a command. Horses who do not like their handler will turn their hindquarters towards the door in threat: "I do not like you! Go away or I might kick you!"

The really vicious horse who screams, snaps his teeth and rears in his stable is extremely rare. Horses who react that way to human contact have been mistreated severely in the past, and may never overcome their hatred for humankind. Resocializing these horses is difficult and dangerous, and takes a very long time, if it is successful at all. No one but very experienced horse handlers should attempt it, and they mostly donít because they fear for their own health, which is their capital, after all.


Stop It! Youíre Hurting Me!

Most of the so-called "bad habits" of horses are in truth a call for help. The bit thatís too sharp; the nose band thatís so tight the horse can hardly breathe; strapped in some kind of "aid" to force the horse into the "right" shape for dressage riding; a tight, broken or otherwise unfitting saddle; saddle sores, mouth sores, a rubbing girth, a fold in the saddle pad that hurts the horse: there are a million seemingly minor mistakes that can make the horse become crazy with pain or fear. If you ever heard a horse cry out, I can tell you, you will never forget it - and too often, riders and/or handlers blame the horseís unwillingness to cooperate on ill will. In three out of four cases, thatís just plain wrong. Here are some of the behaviors that indicate that the handler or rider is hurting the horse:

  •  head is in the air, whites of eyes are showing

  •  back is pressed down, head raised

  •  open mouth

  •  rearing, shying, bucking

  •  tail is tucked in

  •  horse is sidestepping / stepping back hastily.

Indicators of past hurts are when the horse has a hard time trusting a new handler, white spots on withers (saddle sores), at its flanks (spur sores), under the saddle girth (girth sores) or on his nose (most common in Spanish horses from the use of a bitless bridle called a Serrata). Another red flag is when a horse starts sweating, rolling his eyes, and trying to run away as soon as it sees a whip.


Feed Me / Scratch Me / Ticklish Spots

Horses who like each other spend a lot of time grazing side-by-side. Oftentimes you will see them head to tail, swishing away at the pesky flies in the otherís face. It is also common to groom each other. A horseís favorite spots to be groomed by a peer are the withers (the bony protrusion where the neck meets the back) and the croup (the top of their butt, so to speak). Horses use their front teeth to scratch other horses or themselves. Sometimes they will turn their necks and snap at a particularly pesky fly.

If you want to do your horse a favor, scratch her withers or croup for her. And donít be surprised if she wants to reciprocate! You may want to discourage her gently from gnawing at your jeans.

Other favorite rubbing spots can be behind the ears (but some horses are very touchy about their ears, often because of rough handling). You can safely scratch your horseís chest, too. Ticklish spots are the underside of the belly, mostly towards the hind legs.

If your horse wants you to give him a treat, he will most likely bump you with his nose and look for treats in your pockets. Also, many horses beg for treats by pawing the ground.


Iím Bored / Sleepy / Depressed

Sleepy, dozing horses are easy to recognize. They rest on hind legs, head hung low, often with droopy eyelids and lower lip. Horses only sleep lying on the ground with their eyes closed if they know that one of the other horses is watching out for them, or where they feel absolutely safe. Itís a special show of trust if a handler can approach a sleeping horse without the horse rising from its position immediately.

Horses who are kept in stalls for most of the day, or even days on end, will develop habits out of boredom. They may put their front teeth on any protrusion in the stall and start swallowing air or step from front foot to front foot in a swinging motion. What some people call bad habit is mostly an expression of boredom and frustration. Horses should live in herds, or at least have the company of one more horse, so they can socialize and get some exercise outside. Kept in a stall with no one to "talk" to, they either give up on themselves or they get very irritated and hard to handle outside the stable. Human handling and company is no substitute for the safety and social life of an equine herd of at least two.


Showing Off / Iím Feeliní Good / Bouncing with Joy

Horses who are just feeling good - especially stallions - will prance along the fence, nose high in the wind, mane fluttering and tail raised. Other frolicking may include galloping with head low and shaking neck, bucking and racing other horses as well as getting into playful scrapes with them.

Another expression of well-being and feeling safe is when horses lie down to roll onto their backs. They will often do so after riding, to scratch their sweaty hide and to get rid of the human odor.

If rider and handler have a good relationship, the handler can often lead the horse onto a sandy spot and the horse will lie down to roll in his presence, which is another great expression of trust.


Advanced Horse-Handler Communication

As mentioned in the beginning, this article can give only a crude overview of the most common and easy to spot communication codes among horses and between horse and handler. As with every animal-handler relationship, subtler methods of communication may soon develop. One learns to interpret a flick of an ear or a shaking head as either an invitation to play or a sign that something is wrong. Some handlers do have a horse communication sense, and others donít. At the same time, some horses have a lot to say, others donít "talk" much at all. For example, I once cared for a Haflinger gelding who seemed to comment on every signal I gave him. I told him to walk a certain path, and his whole body told me, translated: "Why are we going down there? The path isnít leading anywhere!" And of course he was right. In contrast, another gelding I cared for would just stop and not cooperate any more if he wasn't feeling like it. He had been going through a lot of hands and had obviously given up on communication. He simply refused everything I offered.


Communication among horses and between horse and handler is rich enough to provide ample opportunity for the writer to include into their tales without having to recourse to "cute" and inaccurate storytelling.