The Basics of Horse Behavior (Part 1)

Horse are similar to humans in several ways. For example, the lovely creatures can communicate using all five senses of hearing, taste, sight, touch and smell. Moreover, the animals effectively communicate with humans, using body language such as posture, movements and other fascinating expressions that indicate love, fear, anger, sadness or illness, among other emotions. Horses’ body language provides reliable clues to what they are thinking, feeling or desiring at any point in time. Therefore, a good understanding of equine behaviour is a necessity for enjoyable horse-human interactions.

While some equine communications are not always clear, you might guess correctly when the animal whinnies and nickers on sighting forage being served in the barn. But when it cocks the hind hoof or flits the ears back and forth – of course, the first noticeable horse expression is the ear movement or how it positions them — chances are pretty good that someone without proven knowledge of equine body language can never guess it right. It is even more difficult to guess because horses mostly work independently and are always in motion regardless of their body weight, size or shape. This article provides a brief explanation on the basics of horse behaviour.

The ears

When a horse tilts its ears forward, it shows attentiveness which, in most cases, comes as a result of happiness, appreciation or affection.

Ears to the side indicate relaxation. If it is saddled and in motion, this is a sign that the animal is relaxed, focused and dedicated to service.

However, if the horse is standing still and its neck bent (low or middle) with eyes dimmed (i.e. half closed), this could be a sign of tiredness and resting – especially if its hind foot and ears are also bent to the side.

At times, it is possible that one of the horse’s ears tilts backward. That indicates the animal is listening to sounds. However, horses can keep their ears in constant movement for a period of time, especially when they hear something interesting. This excitement is often accompanied with bright eyes and a high neck carriage.

There are also times when the horse ears are flat back, a sign which shows hot temper and burning anger. When in this red-alert mood, they usually swish their tails and might position one or two of their hind legs forward. This is a sign of aggression which may end with a bite, kick or lunge.


Horses are herd animals. They can sleep standing or lying down but usually for few minutes. However, when domesticated or feral horses are seen with eyes wide open and bright, it signifies alertness. The animals are always interested in knowing what transpires around them – good, bad or ugly.

Eyes half shut is a sign of tiredness or dizziness. This may include a droopy bottom lip. In this condition, it is possible that the animal will have its ear to the side, recline its head mid to low, and rest a hind leg.

When the eyes are completely shut, it is obvious that the horse is getting its dose of sleep.

In some situations, particularly when the animal is facing health challenges, it is common to have one eye shut. A closer look would be required to confirm if the animal is weeping or having any discharge from the eyes. If any of these signs are seen, contact a vet immediately for treatment or advice.


Understanding a horse’s body language requires great experience. It is more so because the animals’ body parts and expressions often present clues which are best deciphered when examined in context. According to Dr. Camie Heleski, who holds position as the coordinator of Michigan State University Horse Management Program and senior lecturer for My Horse University’s online Horse Behaviour and Welfare Course – not owned by Michigan State University, ‘Lots of accidents occur in human-horse interactions because most people cannot understand equine body language.’

Dr. Heleski explained further, ‘These accidents happen because most people don’t know we are working with a very large animal that still considers itself, primarily, like a creature of prey…This highlights the importance of learning a horse’s body language and being observant.

‘Body language among animals is most common with horses, hence, we should consider this when dealing with horses than any other animal.”