How to Read Your Horse

It’s important to know how to read your horse’s body language so you can understand his behavior.

To read a horse, you have to understand horse behavior. For one thing, a horse is a flight animal, so his No. 1 instinct is to run away from something he fears. You can see that when you work with a horse on the ground. When the horse moves away from a person handling him on the ground, that is an act of respect instead of crowding or jumping on top of the handler.

Another very strong instinct is their herding instinct. They’re always more apt to go toward a group of horses. If you’re trying to teach your horse a showmanship pattern, your horse may want to go toward where the other horses are lined up in the ring.

A lot of people fault the horse for those things. But instead of faulting the horse, you have to understand the behavior. It’s your responsibility to learn how to deal with it and control it. Remember, though some things can be minimized with different training, some things may never go away.

A big part of understanding is in knowing how the horse talks to you. Horses talk to you through his ears, eyes, mouth, tail and skin. Reading your horse is interpreting what he says to you through what he does with those parts of his body. Here are some of AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm’s observations to get you started.

What to Do: Work Your Horse on the Ground

First, learn to read your horse and his behavior while on the ground, not when you’re riding. It’s the best way to see how he responds to things and what he thinks, his reactions to commands you give him. You can do this while working horses in hand, longeing them or working them at liberty.

When you’re on the ground, it gives you time to use your eyes to assess and evaluate your horse. Yes, you have assessment and evaluation when you ride him, but you don’t see as clearly as you do on the ground. If you can precisely control the horse on the ground, you see exactly your horse’s needs and his level of understanding.

Getting a good understanding on the ground will help you in the saddle, especially with your own mental attitude. A better understanding of your horse helps you keep a more positive attitude.

Ears

Pay attention to how quickly or slowly the ears move. If they move fast, that typically indicates insecurity, such as alarm, nervousness, worry or panic tendencies. If the ears move slowly, that usually means the horse is more relaxed, accepting his surroundings, confident and attentive to what’s being done with him.

Next, look at ear position. If the horse has his ears forward and the action is really quick, that means that the horse is alarmed: He just saw something and it surprised him, or he’s very aware of something.

If his ears just went forward and not too quickly, it could be that he’s confident, happy and interested in what’s being done with him.

When the ears slowly move back and forth, that’s a very attentive horse. He’s paying attention to what’s going on, what the handler’s asking on the ground or what someone’s asking in the saddle.

We refer to that as “the ears are working back and forth.” They’re forward and then moving back and forth. That’s a horse that’s attentive to what’s going on and confident. That’s expression.

If the ears just stay upright and stay there most of the time without working back and forth, that’s no expression. That can mean the horse is aloof or he’s bored. Or he could be concentrating but still confident and relaxed about what he’s doing.

When the horse’s ears are back, pinned very close to or touching the top of the neck, that’s where you need to be alarmed. The horse is either truly angry or resisting to the maximum.

If the ears go back in a quick action, it’s more anger. But if the ears go back slowly, and they hold them back, it can be anger, but it’s more of a sense of resisting what’s being done.

Tail

A tail is absolutely essential in how the horse talks to you, and it’s a very important balance mechanism for him.

First, when the horse is relaxed, happy and confident in what he’s doing, you can always tell that by how the bottom of the horse’s tail swings. It swings back and forth, making a little “X.” figure. It will do that whether the top of the tail is relaxed, down or even held out.

Next is a side-to-side swish. If it’s a soft swish, that means the horse has had a little overreaction to something. Maybe he has done something that was a little hard for him, or there might have been too much cue from the rider.

If the tail swings side-to-side, and it swings pretty hard like he’s swishing at flies, that’s a real overreaction. He’s upset at what he has been asked to do, it was very hard, or he’s resisting what he’s being asked to do. He’s a little mad.

If the tail swings up over the back, be alarmed; that means the horse is really mad or resisting. It’s more common to see that with an alpha horse in a herd alarming another horse to get away. If the horse is running toward a horse and chasing it off, you might see the tail fling up over the back.

Some horses swing their tails in an up and down action when you’re working with them. Often these horses don’t have good, trainable attitudes.

Horses tend to carry their tails held out from their bodies to help their balance. You also see that in a horse that’s more delicate and sensitive in his temperament.

With a horse that’s really relaxed and laid-back, confident and in correct self-carriage, the tail usually lies right next to his hip. That’s why the practice of altering tails started: to make the horse look really relaxed and accepting, even if he isn’t.

Mouth

If a horse isn’t carrying a bit, and he chews on his tongue, hangs the tongue out or has a lot of action with the mouth doing the same thing over and over, it can say several different things. The horse might be bored, frustrated, aggravated or nervous.

If his mouth is closed and relaxed, it says the opposite: He’s relaxed, comfortable and accepting.

A horse that sticks his tongue out and hangs it out, to me that says he lacks something in intelligence, attitude or temperament. It’s as if he’s sucking on his tongue for a sense of security.

You can assess more when a horse has a bit in his mouth. A relaxed mouth is always your most responsive mouth. It’s not moving, and the lips, nostrils and entire mouth area are relaxed.

The horse that mouths the bit in a fast action, that’s usually a horse that’s very stimulated and keyed up. He might be nervous, afraid or insecure. It could also be in anticipation, like before going to run barrels or a race.

But if it’s a slow movement, if a horse mouths the bit and his tongue is working up and down, that’s OK. He may be readjusting the bit or keeping saliva moving. He could be working the bit slightly if he’s doing something that’s slightly more difficult, but he’s still accepting.

If a horse mouths the bit frequently, even though it’s slowly, that can indicate other problems. It could be a sign of aggravation or resistance: that he’s doing something hard, and he’s confused and doesn’t understand. It could also mean he’s got a mouth problem, such as his teeth need floating, he needs wolf teeth taken out, or he needs to shed his caps (baby teeth).

If the action goes to another degree of quickness, then I might need to go backward in the severity of bit, or I need to let the horse wear the bit more and learn how to hold it more. It could be that the horse is aggravated by the rider’s hands, and something needs to be corrected in the rider.

If a horse gapes and holds the mouth open, he has learned how to either evade the bit or how to use the mouth defensively and avoid harshness through the reins.

Eyes

There’s nothing better than a large, dark, kind eye. It’s very relaxed. It says a horse is smart, intelligent and confident.

When the eye gets larger, that means the horse is alert about something. When a horse is very alarmed, worried or concerned, the eye will get even bigger, especially toward the top of the eye. The eyelid goes up more, and you can see the top of the eye.

If you can see the top of the eye in a horse that’s standing relaxed, and he has a bug-eyed look, that’s a horse that tends to be sensitive and will fly off the handle, an explosive kind of horse.

When a horse gets mad, interestingly enough, the eye will get smaller. It’s something that you don’t see too often. You see it a little more in stallions and horses that fight. If the facial skin underneath the lower lid wrinkles, beware; that horse is mad.

A horse with very small eyes, known as “pig-eyed,” cannot see well. These horses tend to be insecure, spooky and overreact to their surroundings and sounds.

Skin

When a horse has fine hair and thin skin, that almost always indicates a sensitive horse. If the horse has coarser hair and thicker skin, he tends to be a more docile, laid-back horse.

A sensitive horse will really talk to you with his skin: He will often twitch it as if he had a fly on it. If he twitches the skin, that means he is overreacting, resisting or resenting what the rider is asking or doing. If the skin is relaxed, then the horse is relaxed and accepting.

How to Apply to Training

Once you’ve learned how to see these things, then you can look for patterns in the way your horse expresses them. How is the behavior, or the way he presents these signs, repeated? When you can determine a pattern, then you can plan what to change and improve your horse.

Example: A spur is a good tool, but it’s an artificial aid to assist the rider’s natural leg aid. If riders don’t have good leg positions or don’t know any better, they cue their horse from the spur alone.

If just the spur is used to, say, cue the horse for a lope, this is often the reaction you’ll see in the horse: You see or hear the tail swish immediately, then the ears pin just a little, flinch back and then there’s just a little gap with the mouth and the skin moves. You can tell the horse hates his rider right at that moment. The horse is giving an overreaction to the spur.

That’s the pattern: Spur as cue, horse does “x”; spur as cue, horse does “x.” Once you see the pattern, then you can come to a conclusion as to what needs to change: the rider’s leg aid.

Example: Some says, “My horse always pins his ears.” You have to find out what “always” is first. Does he pin his ears in a downward transition from the lope? Maybe the equipment doesn’t fit him quite right, and the saddle is pinching him at that moment. Does he do something with his mouth at the same time? Maybe the rider has poor rein aids and is too strong with his hands at that point.

In Summary

You’ve got to look for the pattern. When you find it, you can usually find a solution. It all starts with learning to read your horse.

Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association