Riding

How to Read Your Horse, Part 2

Learn to read your horse by watching his mouth, eyes and skin.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

“Expression is when the horse’s ears are forward, and the ears are working back and forth,” Lynn Palm says. It shows the horse is attentive and communicating with the rider. Journal photo.

In Part 1 of this series, you learned how to read your horse by watching his ears and his tail. Now, let's discuss how to read your horse by also keeping an eye on his mouth, eyes and skin.

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).

Knowing how to read a horse can come in especially handy when you are looking to buy a horse. For more information about things to look for when considering buying a horse, download AQHA’s Buying and Owning Your First Horse report.

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 tells me 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.

If you’re buying your first horse, knowing how to read a horse’s body language is very useful. For more helpful advice on what to look for in a horse, download AQHA’s Buying and Owning Your First Horse report today.

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.

Look for a Pattern

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.

For example, I see this a lot. 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 I 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. I 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.

I often hear people say things like, “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.

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.