What is my horse’s muzzle telling me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his muzzle to tell us how he is feeling.

Relaxation

Relaxed, droopy lip

Relaxed, droopy lip

When your horse is very content and relaxed, you may see his lower lip sag.  I see this a lot when I give GQ a nice long rub down with a rubber curry.  He loves the way it feels and he often lowers his head and his lip droops.  This can also happen when they are napping, so if you aren’t actively working with your horse and you see this, make sure to let him know you are there so you don’t spook him! You will also see their lip sag if they are sedated by the vet for anything like dentals, sheath cleaning, etc.

Tension 

Tightening of the lips can be a sign of stress.

Tightening of the lips can be a sign of stress.

Sometimes this is a very subtle change, which is why its important to know what is normal for your horse.  If you happen to notice your horse tightening the muscles in his muzzle or pursing his lips, it could be a sign of agitation or stress.  If you see this happening, try to give him something else to think about so that the action doesn’t progress into something more severe, like biting or kicking.

Concentration

When your horse is working the bit in his mouth, it may create foam from excess saliva.

When your horse is working the bit in his mouth, it may create foam from excess saliva.

When your horse chews without having food in his mouth, it is often a good sign.  In training it can mean that he is relaxed and concentrating on the task you have given him.  If he is working the bit in his mouth, it will encourage saliva production, which is desirable.  Sometimes this can cause his mouth to foam, even if he isn’t working too hard.

Flehmen

Yes, this goofy looking action has a name and a purpose!

Yes, this goofy looking action has a name and a purpose!

When a horse lifts his lip up over his nostrils, he isn’t just being silly.  He is trapping a strange scent in his nostrils to assess what  it is and get more information.  Oftentimes you see stallions flehmen if they are determining if a mare is in heat and ready to breed, but any horse will do it with a scent that is unusual to them. There is a structure in the nose called a vomeronasal organ (VNO) through which scent particles travel and help the horse assess what they are smelling.

Nervousness

Flared nostrils can indicate fear or nervousness

Flared nostrils can indicate fear or nervousness

When a horse flares his nostrils (and he hasn’t just exerted himself excessively), it can be a sign of nervousness or being startled.  It is often accompanied by a raised head and sometimes tension in the eye and/or muzzle (notice the pursed lips in the above picture).   It is usually a fairly quiet action, but it is best to divert him from it by giving him a different task to focus on so that it doesn’t escalate into something more serious.

Pain, aggression

This horse is about to bite. BEWARE!

This horse is about to bite. BEWARE!

Gaping can sometimes indicate pain

Gaping can sometimes indicate pain

Be wary of choke.

Be wary of choke.

A horse gaping his mouth open with teeth showing can indicate a number of things.  It can be a sign of extreme aggression, as in the first picture.  A horse who is this angry has often given several more subtle signs of agitation before resorting to biting, which is why it is important to notice the small things! If your horse is gaping with a bit in his mouth, it might indicate pain.  Check to make sure that your bridle is put together properly and that your bit fits your horse’s mouth and isn’t pinching.  If that’s all okay, schedule a dental exam to make sure his teeth aren’t hurting.  Finally, if you every see your horse gaping with his neck outstretched when he’s eating, he might be experiencing choke, which means his esophagus is obstructed.  Take away any uneaten food and call the vet right away.

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What are my horse’s eyes telling me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his eyes to tell us how he is feeling.

Content and alert

A bright eye that is content and alert

A bright eye that is content and alert

When your horse is happy and aware, his eyes will be bright and focused. They will move often, but not frantically, to take in his surroundings.  When this is the case, his ears will usually be attentive as well, moving casually to tune into what is happening around him.

Nervous or tense

Know what is normal for your horse, so that if he is ever nervous you can pick up on it.

Know what is normal for your horse, so that if he is ever nervous you can pick up on it.

Wrinkled upper eyelids and worried looks can be signs of tension and nervousness

Wrinkled upper eyelids and worried looks can be signs of tension and nervousness

Tension in the corner of the eye and wrinkles in the upper eyelids can be signs of nervousness, fear or discomfort.  Make sure you are familiar with how your horse looks when he is happy and content so that you can pick up on these changes if and when they occur.  Sometimes the change is subtle, but if you are able to see it, you can prevent something more extreme or dangerous from happening. If your horse’s eyes begin darting back and forth frantically, it is usually a sign of fear and he is probably looking for the best way to make his escape from the scary situation.

Fearful or aggressive

Extreme fear and aggression can be expressed in the eyes.

Extreme fear and aggression can be expressed in the eyes.

Fear and anger can both make a horse frantic

Fear and anger can both make a horse frantic

In some horses, the sclera(white of the eye) is visible all the time.  This is another reason to know what is normal for your horse.  If your horse is worked up enough that the whites of his eyes are showing or more exposed than normal, he is pretty upset.  If it is paired with with pinned ears, its usually a sign of anger.  Paired with snorting, it can indicate fear.  In any case, it takes quick thinking and confident handling to distract him from whatever is making him react so negatively.

Closed

Nap time!

Nap time!

If his eyes are closed, your horse is probably resting or napping.  Make sure you talk to him before getting to close so you don’t startle him and make him spook.  If only one eye is closed though, or he seems agitated, he might have done something to his eye.  If there is an eye injury, call the vet immediately.

What Are My Horse’s Ears Telling Me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his ears to tell us how he is feeling.

Alert and Erect

Alert ears

Alert ears

Ears which are forward and pricked upright, as shown above, indicated a horse who is focused and aware of his surroundings.  He is ready to react to whatever comes his way, or whatever he thinks is coming his way.  If your horse is this focused on something, it might be difficult to divert his attention.  Try to turn him elsewhere or give him a job to do if he seems to be getting tense.  When your horse is alert, you must be as well because you don’t know how he might react to whatever has his attention.

Relaxed

Relaxed ears

Relaxed ears

Here is a horse who is completely at ease with his surroundings.  He is aware of what is going on around him, but is content to simply munch his grass. When you view a horse whose ears are a little floppy, you’re viewing a horse who is comfortable with his environment and whatever is going on around him.  This is something that I love to see when I ride, because I feel like my horse and I are truly connected.  If my horse is relaxed enough around me to let his ears flop a little, I feel that true trust has been established between us.  One thing to be aware of when your horse has his ears relaxed is that he might be napping.  If he’s by himself and seems relaxed, make sure you talk to him to let him know you’re there so he doesn’t get spooked or taken unaware when you get to him!

Attentive

Attentive ears

Attentive ears

These are ears which are attentive to what is going on, but in a way in which will keep the horse responsive to you as well.  Unlike the alert ears in the first example, this is something you will see when a horse is focused on you.  Often times, if you talk to your horse from the saddle, or as you walk along beside him, you will see one or both of his ears twitch in your direction.  It is good to see him respond to you like this. Its a good way to know you have his attention.

Unhappy

Unhappy ears

Unhappy ears

When ears start to tilt backwards, you’re getting into unhappy behavior.  Sometimes your horse will give you a warning that he is uncomfortable or unhappy with an action.  You may also see his ears twitch rapidly back and forth which could be a sign of uneasiness or tension.  Pay close attention to ears that start to go back and adjust what you are doing or stop altogether and do something new.  If ignored, this signal could lead to more aggressive behavior, like biting or kicking.

ANGRY!

Angry ears - pinned

Angry ears – pinned

Beware of a horse who has his ears pinned! This is an aggressive behavior which is often the precursor of a bite, kick or charge.  Pinned ears equal an angry horse.  Stop whatever action you are doing immediately and if he does not calm down, get out of his way.   If you are riding and he has his ears pinned, he may be showing signs of pain, if the action doesn’t cease when you change your activity.  Check to make sure there is nothing poking him from your tack, make sure everything fits him properly and if he’s still pinning his ears, have a vet out to check him over — he might have back pain or something else causing him discomfort.

Confidence is Key

It is natural for every horse person to feel slight apprehension at doing something on or with their horse which has previously not had a pleasant outcome.  However, what many people don’t realize is how strongly our apprehension can affect our horse and the performance they give us after that point.  For example, say you are a trail that you have ridden on without incident more times than you can count, but one day something unforeseen scares your horse and he leaves you sitting in the dirt while he high-tails it home.  It is only normal that you would feel a little timid at that spot or throughout your ride the next time that you are out on the trail.  Unfortunately, if you get tense, so will your horse.  It is very important to look at each ride or time spent with your horse as a fresh start.

Your horse will react to your emotions and feelings.  That is because your body automatically (and sometimes involuntarily)  conveys your mood and emotions.  If you are nervous, your muscles tense and your body curls in on itself ever so slightly to create a barrier  against the thing causing the nerves and to give you a “safe” space.  Your horse will be able to feel that defensive position that you are in and become tense himself, since [clearly] there is something to be nervous about near him.  So if you are nervous when you go back out on that trail, fixing the problem from last time will be infinitely more difficult than it should be since your nervousness will likely cause an unwelcome reaction, which could in turn just make you more nervous.  Thankfully, the opposite is also true.  If you are relaxed and confident, your posture will straighten and your muscles will relax. A horse will be much more willing to cooperate when he senses this confidence.  If you go back onto that trail with the mindset that it is a new day and this is a new experience, your horse will be harder pressed to find a reason to balk.

One of you has to be confident in order to accomplish any task.

Most of the time, the confidence is left to you since you are the one capable of thinking through a situation all the way to the outcome(s) and acting on a continuing train of thought.  So how will you know if you are ready to go back to that scary trail? After a scary, unnerving or traumatic experience, go back a few steps in your training and skill set.  Either go back to the arena and work on something you can do well to build your confidence back up or handwalk your horse out to that scary spot and work through the issue from the ground where you may feel more comfortable and more at ease in handling him if he gets snorty or spooky. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to give yourself a pep talk before returning to the scary obstacle and focus on breathing deeply and steadily to keep your muscles relaxed.

Remember, each ride is entirely new, even if its a ride you’ve done a hundred times before.

Think about the times before that you’ve done that particular thing successfully.  If you’d never attempted it before, the give yourself a pat on the back for trying and take what your learned from the experience to make it better for the next time.  I guarantee that when you get past the nervous bump, the personal reward of accomplishing the task successfully will be the thing that sticks with you for the long haul!

Training isn’t that scary!

Many people think that training is something that they could never do themselves. What many horse owners don’t realize is that every single thing you do with your horse is teaching him something.  You are a trainer, whether you want to be or not! That is an intimidating idea for some people, so I am (hopefully) going to make it seem a little less scary with this little concept:

Effective training gives your horse two options.

Option A: Your horse does what you are asking him to do and is rewarded by not having to work too hard in getting that reward, which may be release of pressure, a treat, simply letting him stand still, etc.

Option B:  Your horse does not do what you want him to do immediately and therefore has to work much harder to come by the reward, until he figures out that Option A is SO much easier for him. For example, you want your horse to lead politely next to you instead of dragging you all over the barn, so you ask him to walk next to you, then stop, which he doesn’t think is something he needs to do immediately, and he yanks you several more feet before deciding to stop.  Your response should immediately be to turn around, become large and in charge and make him walk backwards briskly to the spot where you wanted him to stop, then release pressure and let yourself relax to let him know “this is good”.  Backing is hard work that requires a lot of muscle, so it is a good way to discipline your horse through hard work without being mean or overbearing.  He might pull one or even a few more times, but after this harder option occurring, each time will get better until he does what you want [Option A].

Horses are very smart and very reward driven, so when he figures out that Option A gets a quicker reward, it will become the standard instead of the exception.

  • Just remember that you have to respond to anything he does wrong (or right, for that matter!) immediately! Horses have a 3 second window during which they will connect your reaction to their action.  After that, anything you do serves no purpose.

Welcome to 15 Minute Horse Fix

My name is Kristen Wieland.  I have been an active Equestrian for almost 10 years.  In the last year and a half since I graduated from University, I have delved into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of horse behavior.  It is something that has always fascinated me and this is a place where I hope to pass on tips and training methods that I know of and have used successfully. Enjoy!!