Communication is the exchange of information between a sender and a receiver by means of signals in a medium.
Horses use these media:
Vision: special signals given to others, proposing closeness, distance, play, sex etc.; body language showing emotional state (e.g. alarm, relaxation);
position and angle relative to the other (e.g. blocking, herding)
Sounds, or calls: mostly to change distance between horses
Smells: individual identification and tracking; also pheromones, which affect the hormonal state (and thus the behaviour) of the receiver.
Touch: important in friendly and sexual behaviour
Vibration: for instance from galloping hoofs or foreleg stamp
Invitations to synchrony: positive movement followed by a look behind, to see if the other accepts the proposal
Horses are highly conscious of the expressions, positions and movements of those around them, even when they don´t appear to be. To them, our body attitude, movements and position are also signals or messages even when we don´t intend them to be.
Horses don´t direct each other’s movements by pushing and pulling at their bodies. If we want to communicate with horses through pressure signals, we must learn how to use them effectively and remember to teach the horses how we want them to respond. It´s surprising how many “rebellious” horses have never been taught this basic lesson. See Learning
- Entering another´s individual space in a friendly way; relaxed, low-profile. The mare then rubbed her forehead on the stallion´s belly.
- On meeting, two horses usually smell each other’s noses, establishing identity and contact.
- Friends share individual space. A young stallion between his first mare and the couple´s son.
- Friends touch each other gently. One often passes his head over the head and neck of his friend
- Smell is important in forming and maintaining bonds. Here two brothers enjoy breathing their mother´s smell while they rest.
- Since all in a feral band have chosen to live together, they have no trouble in sharing individual spaces while they rest. The blackest, towards the right, is the stallion.
- Mutual grooming also expresses and fortifies family and friendship bonds. Feral mares mutual groom with the stallion or their foals but not with each other, although domestic mares without families groom each other.
* Approach inviting play:
A colt approaches another with a bouncy step, arched neck, tight mouth and his upper lip drawn down over the lower one. Ears are normally directed at the other but this colt´s keeping one on the photographer.
Many young entire colts want to play with us by nipping, so it´s important to distinguish between this playful face and an aggressive one.
Drives animals apart. Often it´s hard to tell whether an animal is expressing aggression or defence, so ethologists prefer to use the term agonistic behaviour for both cases, to avoid drawing unjustified conclusions about what the animal was feeling.
Horses increase their expression of dislike if the other does not go away:
Irritation threat physical action stronger
They have two ways of doing this: head first or tail first.
* HEAD FIRST
Nose-wrinkling - ears flat back, tail lashing - head thrust - show teeth - charge, bite
- This filly, annoyed by the attentions of the colt trying to court her, wrinkles the rear edge of her nostril in disgust and lashes her tail. The same signals show irritation for whatever cause, like the sight of a painful saddle.
- Why is this horse so irritated? Pain? The anticipation of uncomfortable work or bad handling? His inadequate living conditions? Whatever the cause, it should be found and remedied.
- A young filly flattens her ears, head-thrusts and threatens to bite an unfamiliar (and unimpressed) stallion.
- Infuriated by his ignoring her warnings, she charges and bites. Alarmed, the stallion tightens his jaw and mouth (and goes away).
A stallion ejects his daughter from his band by charging at her. The filly's mouth is tight with fear but the stallion's lips are loose.
* TAIL FIRST
In the same way, there´s an ascending series: Rump presentation - threat to kick - one leg kick - double kick
- Rump presentation. The mare sways from side to side, with her ears and her tail flattened. The black horse gets the message. When a horse turns his rump without bad intentions, his tail and his ears aren’t flattened; his ears may be back, showing his interest in what is behind him, but they´re not flat as this mare’s are.
- A young mare mildly threatens to kick the stallion courting her, showing him her foot. An increased threat would be a one-leg kick, which rarely connects. Kicking might damage a foot, so horses try to avoid it unless it proves necessary.
- Serious stuff: the young stallion paid no heed to the mare´s warnings, so she uses force.
A horse bothered by flies, or any other discomfort, bother or pain, swishes his tail.
- If a horse swishes or lashes his tail when the rider asks a particular movement, he shows he finds it difficult or uncomfortable. Here his difficulty is not the movement itself – change of leg at canter – but his forced position, which leaves him no liberty to do it.
- This horse lashes his tail and moves away from the vet´s touch, raising his head in alarm: signs of back pain. Similar signals given while saddling or mounting also signify pain.
A recent study (Gleerup, K.B. et al. An equine pain face. Vet. Anaesthesia and Analgesia, 2015, 42, 103–114) described a “pain face” shown when horses had a tight tourniquet or “hot” chili applied to a leg.
a) alert, without pain
b)pain, moving ears to and fro
c) severe pain, ears to ground
Note: the acute angle of the upper eyelid and unseeing eyes; distended nostrils as if breathing heavily; lips pressed together; a strong vertical line running upwards from the mouth
- Horse in pain, from the study
- Horse in severe pain from contracted back muscles, walking with tiny steps. He had been lunged daily in a saddle that terrified him. Finally any movement terrified him, since it hurt so much.
- Severe pain in a mare ridden with too much weight, causing her spine to sag. She shifted from one foot to the other constantly, swishing her tail.
- In more acute pain a horse may lift his upper lip briefly and repetitively. Often seen in belly pain, here it´s a reaction to the spiked noseband and savage bit.
A horse with sand colic. In many cases of colic horses lie down or roll, but these are not invariable signs. This horse is so sunk in pain that he takes no notice of me approaching and touching him. He almost appears to be dozing, but a dozing horse, however tame, would turn an ear to someone nearby. The most difficult signs to detect are those of lack of normal reactions.
Lack of tension is the key to confidence, sensitivity, gymnastic ability and learning.
The commonest cause of emotional tension, reflected as muscular tension, is fear.
In turn, prolonged muscular tension hurts, alarming the horse still further.
Tense muscles resist pressure, so a tense horse appears insensitive and rebellious.
The more pressure is applied, the more tense muscles resist it until fatigue takes over.
At this point, the horse appears to submit – but damage to muscular fibres is inevitable.
Other common sorces of tension are:
Confusion, often given by contradictory aids, e.g. pulling the reins while pushing the horse forward with the legs
Pain in other parts of the locomotory system, which the horse tries to conceal by overuse of certain muscles (compensation)
Signs of tension in an alarmed horse
mouth firmly closed
poll open and stiff
neck raised, inverted and inflexible
Back inverted or rigid
short, high steps
A tense horse concentrates on escaping, not on learning.
Incapable of bending his neck to see something beside him, he rvlls his eye, showing the white
Tension during manipulation shows the horse’s fear, which can erupt into panic.
The handler should stop what he is doing and calm the horse before trying again more slowly. When we appreciate the horse’s fear and treat him with sensitivity he begins to trust us.
Many horses move with tensión out of habit, due to a bad start. Note:
back and neck inverted;
the horse cannot advance his foot and take a good stride;
sweat on the shoulder and neck instead of between the back legs.
Some riders try to lower the horse´s head by forcé (here, rollkur o hyperflexion). Note:
the back remains inverted;
the horse cannot walk with a good stride, so jog-trots;
painful cvntracted muscles in the neck;
he still cannot flex at the poll, so flexes halfway down his neck;
his look of appalled anguish.
Tense muscles prevent free movement or collection
(Fig. 1) In true collection, the muscles in the upper neck and back are lengthened, while the abdominals, psoas and iliopsoas contract. This allows the poll to flex, the neck to arch, the withers to lift, the back to rise and the croup to lower. The horse is round, balanced, and elastic, with his feet placed forwards to support his weight.
(Fig. 2) In false collection, which results from a tense posture, the upper back and neck muscles are contracted, inverting the back and neck and preventing the feet from stepping forward. More weight falls on the forehand. The muscles under the neck move the front legs, jerkily. Tension prevents flexion at the poll. A horse that works like this is uncomfortable, in pain, and finally damaged irreversibly.
Figs. 1 and 2 are traced from actual photos:
muscles contracted and shortened
muscles lengthened but active
When starting the youngster, we take particular care to eliminate tension completely at every step. Relaxed and confident, our horses learn quickly and move with the fluidity that allows them to find their balance under a rider. This formerly nervous Thoroughbred can now be ridden without a bridle after re-starting her with our techniques.
- Free forward movement develops from a relaxed start
An active but tension-free walk, with a relaxed mouth, flexion at the poll and stretched back that allows the mare to step well under herself with impulsion. The extra effort due to the rider´s weight means she uses her abdominals to help lift her back, which in turn lifts her forequarter more than the relaxed chap behind.
- The relief of tension: signs of relaxation
On relaxing after a period of tension, a horse loosens the tense muscles in a series of typical stretches that recover their circulation.
He loosens the huge masseter muscle that closes the jaws, by making soft munching movements as if eating.
He loosens the poll by shaking his head as if dislodging a fly
He bends his neck from one side to the other
He stretches his back by lowering his head almost to the ground.
We should let him do these stretches to make himself comfortable – when riding, by giving him a completely loose rein at walk from time to time, to see how much he needs to stretch.
A state akin to depression, caused by unavoidable discomfort or random inescapable pressures, during which the horse learns that he can do nothing to improve his life. He loses all will to try, seeming insensitive to all but brute force.
This horse has
a crank noseband so tight he cannot move his jaw or swallow his saliva;
an uncomfortably tight drop noseband;
an uncomfortably high snaffle;
an expression of pain and despair.
Learned helplessness may be seen wherever horses are forced to endure repeated abuse (in beginners’ classes in bad ridjng schools, for instance). Unfortunately it may also sometimes be seen in hippotherapy horses, thought suitable because they are “bombproof”. Compare these two photos:
On the left is a relaxed horse, comfortable, cheerful and interested, stepping well forward with his back foot. His handler accompanies him without pressure. Note the synchrony between the men´s strides and the horse´s in this harmonious team.
On the right is a stiff-backed horse (his back foot does not reach forward like the first horse´s), possibly in pain, being dragged along by constant uncomfortable pressure. He looks miserable, but nobody notices.
- Horses are acutely aware of others’ position in relation to them. Here a small foal stops his mother by blocking her before going to suckle.
- A common error is that of blocking a horse unintentionally (and compounding the error by calling him stupid). A person at the level of the horse´s shoulder blocks him; when at the level of the croup, the horse will go forward.
Since horses mistrust anything unknown, investigation is their way of knowing it and making sure it´s safe. They examine it with each of their senses in turn.
They begin with looking with both eyes, to judge size and distance, their ears pricked at it, often smelling it from a distance and even snorting to see if it reacts.
- Approaching it in zig-zag, they look with one eye then the other. This mare, between 1 and 2 metres away, is too close to see me with both eyes.
- Too close to see, the youngster dares to step forwards and smell the bag. Note his mouth, tight with tension.
- Passing the whiskers over an object gives detailed information about its shape, indentations, texture and elasticity. After whiskers comes gentle examination with the lips (hence possibly taste), then rougher pushing and wiggling with the upper lip, and testing with teeth.
- Finally, front feet, especially in youngsters.
We should remember this sequence, especially the zig-zag approach looking out of the side of the head, when we want a horse to examine something and lose his fear of it. It takes time and he needs to use all his senses to know it to his satisfaction.
Pawing uncovers grass under snow, water under ice; quits prickles from thistles, stones from rolling places. It accompanies the emotion of wanting something but not achieving it yet: thus, frustration, as when horses paw at stable doors to get out.
Flehmen is the way of using the vomeronasal organ, a blind sac above the palate specialized in receiving pheromones. Here a colt tests whether a mare´s urine contains the pheromone that shows she is in season. He takes a good whiff, lifts his head, blocks his nostrils with his upper lip to prevent the smell-laden air from escaping, and pumps it into the sac.
Horses sometimes do Flehmen to investigate a new smell or taste.