BEHAVIOR—How To Speak Horse: Reading Facial Expressions by Sharon Wilsie & Gretchen Vogel

by Sharon Wilsie, animal trainer & rehab expert and Gretchen Vogel, equine writer

Here’s how to use your powers of observation to gain an understanding of specific facial expressions—the beginning of learning to use Horse Speak in your daily interactions at the barn or in the arena.

I watch a horse’s expressions carefully, because every horse communicates volumes with his face. Humans tend to watch each other’s faces. So do horses. We may not even realize our horses say a lot with their faces. The expressions we see depict their internal landscapes: thoughts, feelings, and opinions. As you explore aspects of one horse’s face, you will begin to unfold a map to his inner world.

The height of the horse’s head, the mouth, nostrils, chin, jaw, eyes, and ears all have stories to tell. The stories get more complex and fascinating when you understand how a horse combines all the facets of his face in order to communicate with other horses and with you. On the pages that follow. I will deconstruct gesture and nuance of the individual parts of the horse’s face and note what each means separately. There may be circumstances when a whole message is a combination of expressions and gestures. Over time you will begin to see how they come together to allow a horse to be more descriptive.

Regardless what a horse is feeling, thinking, or communicating, it may only show on his face for a brief moment because a horse returns to a Neutral or Peaceful expression as soon as he can. Some facial gestures are so fleeting that it took me years to document their meaning.

HEAD HEIGHT

As I approach a horse, the first thing I notice is the height of the head. When a horse has a high head, it means he is on alert. This can be due to tension or even just curiosity—either way his adrenaline is up. A low head means, “All’s well,” and the adrenaline is low. The ultimate goal is for the horse to feel so comfortable that he keeps his head low (fig. 2.1).

2_1
2.1 Zeke shows a medium-high head and perky expression, his eager muzzle reaching out.

MUZZLE

The muzzle can express great intimacy. Horses Groom their friends (horse or human) with loose lips and a relaxed muzzle. They use their lips to ask other horses if Grooming can continue before they engage their teeth in a harder scratching motion (fig. 2.21. I once met a sweet horse that massaged every person who stood outside his stall with his or her back to him. The gist of it is, if your horse has loose lips and a relaxed muzzle around you, he considers you his friend.

2_2
2.2 A lipping, affectionate muzzle.

LICK and CHEW

Some communications are easier to notice because the horse holds an expression longer. One such gesture is the Lick and Chew (that is, when a horse is not eating). I don’t believe this motion only means the horse is agreeing with you; in my experience, it really means he is thinking things over. He is digesting what you are trying to say. You can mirror the Lick and Chew by pretending to chew gum. It becomes a Conversation: You got that?” and “Yes, that is my understanding, as well” (fig. 2.3).

2_3
2.3 The Lick-and-Chew gesture tells us the horse is thinking things over.

Biting

A horse can defend or protect his personal space with a bite that clearly says, -Go away.” A full bite, however, is the last resort. As we touched on already, horses communicate Go Away in many less harmful ways: ears may go back, the tail may swish, the body may angle a certain way. As the bite gets closer to reality, lips are tight or teeth are bared, eyes get narrow, nostrils pinch, ears flatten back, and a squeal may be heard before the teeth sink in.

When a horse bites a person, it carries the same message as when a horse bites a horse. The horse wants the person to simply get out of his space, Go Away, and leave him alone. It may be the horse believes the person is not listening to his more subtle requests. Bites from a horse can be painful and dangerous. When people watch and understand a horse’s body language more fully, the chance of receiving a full-on bite is greatly lessened.

Tight Lips

Tight lips say, “I don’t like this.” If you take a little time to be curious and observe what is happening in that moment. You can create a better Conversation with the horse. Simply noting when lips are tight or not is important. A tight mouth is holding back and holding onto tension. This can also be evident when a horse is concentrating really hard—he may have a tense mouth, similar to a human who is concentrating while taking a test [fig. 2.4).

2_4
2.4 Tight lips, concentrating ears, and arched poll, show Dakota, intense focus.

Curling the Lip

Curling of the upper lip is another gesture easily recognized—we know it as the Flehmen Response. Horses may do this in the presence of strong odors, like coffee or cigarettes. Stallions do it before they breed a mare in order to carry her scent deeply into their nostrils. This same curling of the upper lip can also indicate pain (fig. 2.5). There is a point between the center of the nostrils that is the pressure point for the limbic system. It extends from the center point between the nostrils all the way through to a corresponding point under the upper lip at the gum line. Massaging either location stimulates the release of endorphins, so by curling his own lip when he is in pain, the horse is self-medicating.

2_5
2.5 The curling of the upper lip known as the Flehmen Response can indicate pleasure or pain.

CHIN

A horse that is very tense or fearful will often go beyond tight lips and pucker up his chin, as well. A relaxed chin, on the other hand, is a sure sign of confidence.

NOSTRILS

The nostrils change shape and size as the horse uses different Breath Messages. Generally, relaxed nostrils mean a calm horse, and hard, small, tense, or puckered nostrils that look as though the horse smelled something bad) show he is having negative feelings (fig. 2.6). Sometimes you can change the proximity of items in the horse’s environment and notice if your efforts cause him to relax his nostrils. You can also gently stroke the nostrils, pulling gently on the edges to soften them.

2_6
2.6 A Hard Eye, pinned ears, raised head, and tense nostrils signal displeasure and aggression.

JAW

The jaw of the horse is located directly under the eye—you can easily detect its circular shape. Just like us, a horse can clamp his jaw, which means the horse is having tense feelings or bracing or may be holding his breath. We discussed how the Yawn can be a Breath Message and tension reliever—it is a way for a horse to release and relax his jaw (fig. 2.7).

2_7
2.7 This Yawn shows a release of tension.

EYES

Eyes subtly communicate emotion. Here are some of the ways you can read them:

  • A calm horse has a Soft Eye because the muscles around the eye are relaxed. Watch when a new dog or cat comes into the stable. You can see curiosity in your horse’s whole face (mouth soft, ears forward, nostrils flared) but the eye is relaxed (fig. 2.8).
2_8
2.8 A low head, perky ears, chewing, open nostrils, and reaching lips mean the horse is asking to come closer.
  • Wrinkles or puffiness under the eye tells you the horse is in physical or emotional pain. If the upper eyelids are wrinkled or tented the horse is becoming extremely distressed.
  • When the eyes are wide and showing whites, the horse is panicked.
  • Tension around the eyes says, “I don’t like this.” We often see this when the vet or farrier arrives.
  • One horse may give the horse next to him something I call a Hard Eye, which says, “Move over.” As humans, we joke about giving someone “stink eye,” like an old-fashioned gunslinger’s look. It is the same idea. A horse can gain some space using just “eye pressure”—it is enough to move another horse. When an eye is not enough, he may add an ear and arch his poll—note that the horse that arches his poll, no matter how subtly, is willing to take the Conversation to the next-level.
  • I have observed horses turning each other using what I call Laser Beam Eye. This when they look each other right in the eye with one intending to change the other’s path of travel. I have seen many horses redirect the eye path of another horse, which then redirects where that horse’s body goes. You can mirror Laser Beam Eye: Look a horse right in the eyes and imagine a beam of light shooting out of your eyes and blocking his forward momentum.

LASER BEAM EYE IN PRACTICE

Once I was being charged by a severely damaged horse at a clinic I was attending. I was on my own in the round pen, waving my crop, and making my short body as large as I could, but this horse kept coming at me. So I looked him right in the eye and imagined a beam of light cutting across his path in order to change his direction. It worked. The clinic participants wondered how I had done it.

Not long after my first Laser Beam Eye experience, I was consulting at a rescue and there was a band of rowdy geldings in the next pad-dock. I couldn’t make any progress with the horse I was talking to with all this acting-up right next door. So I decided to watch the group for a moment. The leader of the pack was easy to pick out, and I applied my Laser Beam Eye on him, cutting him off from the rest of his group. After I did this, he came up to the fence and looked at me as if to say, “Where on earth did you learn that?” He knew I was now in charge.

Blinking

You rarely see a horse with his eyes completely closed. Sometimes, when I am rehabilitating a horse, I will nod my head and Blink slowly while looking at his eyes. I am gratified when he Blinks back. I believe Blinking is a sign of thinking (like Lick and Chew) and it tells me he is taking a moment to mull things over. I often use the saying, “Blinking is thinking.” Slow Blinking can also shots affection. When you experience this sweet gesture, take a moment to slowly Blink back. Blinking at horses helps them to relax around you (fig. 2.9.)

2_9
2.9 Blinking, low heads, soft ears, looking right at the camera says, “I feel fine, how are you?”

EARS

We tend to watch horses ears more than other facial features because ears move and attract our attention. The ears indicate where the horse’s mind is going; what the horse is paying attention to.

  • One ear, or both ears backward toward the rider or driver says, “I’m paying attention to you.” One can back and the other ear forward at the same time says, “I’m also attending to the work at hand” (fig. 2.10).
2_10
2.10 In this photo we see one ear focused ahead, one behind, and a Hard Eye: the horse is chewing it over, thinking, “Do I stay or do I move?”
  • If the ears are predominantly forward but one is twitching forward and backward, your horse has Curious Ears. These ears are combined with other characteristics of a curious expression, such as the eyes discussed above. A curious face looks a lot like the face of a horse begging for a treat.
  • A horse that has Airplane Ears is relaxed and confident: this flat-sideways ear position also draws or Beckons another horse or human (fig. 2.11).
2_11
2.11 Airplane Ears, low head, and a soft muzzle are welcoming.
  • There is a gentle state of mind I call Inward Ears: ears held softly backward and a little downward (fig. 2.12). These ears communicate that the horse is not really paying attention to much of anything on the -outside.” Mares may hold this Inward Ear position while they are nursing. Notice if your horse has Inward Ears when you walk next to him. It indicates a quiet or peace within, usually evident in times of unity or friendship.
2_12
2.12 Inward ears plus Lick and Chew mean the horse is quietly lost in thought.
  • Scouting Ears are held straight up but only for moments at a time. The Sentry horse in charge of looking for danger in a herd, will have Scouting Ears when a threat is perceived. Scouting Ears also indicate the horse is ready to go on the offensive. A stallion challenging another has Scouting Ears and an elevated poll to demonstrate he is a “big, bad horse,” compared to his foe. Horses working cattle show Scouting Ears just before the ears are laid back into “attack” mode to move the cattle. You can also often see this ear shift from Scouting to -attack mode” right before a horse takes off over a jump (fig. 2.13).
2_13
2.13 Scouting ears with “tented” eyes that bulge indicate extreme alertness.
  • Horses “let go” of stress by shaking their ears (as they also do by Yawning. A horse may shake his ears like a dog shakes off water. When he does this, he is literally shaking off a disagreement or a disagreeable event (fig. 2.14).
2_14
2.14 A horse might “shake out stress” by shaking his ears the way a dog shakes off water.
  • I’ve seen horses play and be silly all by themselves, and their ears -talk- while they do this. Watch two horses eating hay out of each other’s mouths, for example. Their ears will twitch and twirl. I believe this is the equine equivalent of laughing (fig. 2.15).
2_15
2.15 When horses eat hay out of each other’s mouths, their ears often twitch and twirl—the equine equivalent of laughing.
  • No matter what emotion you see in the face of your horse, he will always return to a state of calm and peacefulness as soon as possible: Neutral Ears (fig. 2.16).
2_16
2.16 Here we see relaxed, Neutral Ears.

LEARNING TO READ

Now that you have the tools you need to mad a horse’s facial expressions, including the height of the head, scuttle, chin, nostrils, jaw, eyes, and ears, you are ready to take the next step in learning to use Horse Speak (figs. 2.17 A & B). You can observe and read, and now we’ll examine how to respond in a way the horse will under-stand. This is the beginning of Conversation.

2_17a
2.17-A The mare’s clamped jaw, concentrating ears, Hard Eye, and tight nostril say, “I am stressed and not sure what to do”
2_17b
2.17-B When her jaw unclamps with ears sideways and eyes more present, then it is, “I know what to do now, I am okay”
Excerpt from "Horse Speak: The Equine-Human Translation Guide" 
Reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books
Copyright © 2016 Sharon Wilsie & Gretchen Vogel

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