How to Read Your Horse, Part 1
Unless he’s Mr. Ed, your horse can’t talk to you. That’s why it’s important to know how to read your horse’s body language so you can understand his behavior.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm in The American Quarter Horse Journal | October 29, 2018
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. He talks 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. I like to either work my horses in hand, longe them or work 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.
Horses can be sensitive to where saddles are placed along their back. Download AQHA’s FREE Saddling a Horse e-book to learn the steps to properly saddle up, including finding the right spot for the saddle on your horse’s back.
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.
Learn What to Look For
Ears - First, 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 his 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.
You can start reading your horse while you are preparing to ride. While you’re saddling up, let your horse tell you about any potential problems and download AQHA’s FREE Saddling a Horse report for tips on how to properly saddle your horse.
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.
I have seen a horse swing the tail in an up and down action when you’re working with them. I’ve found that those horses often don’t have good, trainable attitudes.
Horses often 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.
In Part 2 of this series, learn how to read your horse by watching his mouth, eyes and skin.