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.

Head Down!

Have you ever thought Gee, this would be a lot easier if his nose wasn’t brushing the barn beams! This seems to be a common complaint among horse people.

Here is a super handy little trick to teach your horse for those times when you need to see the top of his head or have access to his ears for clipping, bridling or general checks for overall health:

Standing next to your horse’s head like you would to lead, put a small amount of downward pressure on the lead rope.  Hold this pressure nice and steady until your horse lowers his head and then immediately release.  (I add the phrase “head down” when I teach it, although it is not entirely necessary.)  Even if he pops his head back up, give him a short reward (neck rub, treat, etc) and then do it again.  The first couple times you try this, even the slightest decrease in resistance to the pressure of the halter is cause for reward.  If your horse will consistently give in to the pressure, make it a little more challenging by not releasing pressure until his nose is even lower or give him less time to rest in between.  By asking him to put his head back down immediately when he raises it again, it teaches him that you want him to keep his head down.  GQ, my handsome dude, learned this idea very quickly and now I just give a featherlight tug on the lead and he puts his head down to my eye level and holds it there while I clip his bridle path or fiddle with his ears.

This is one trick that will make your life infinitely easier, I promise you that! Just remember:

  • Be consistent!
  • Remember that horses have a 3 second time limit in which they connect your reaction to their action, so be quick to praise when they are doing well or correct when they are wrong!

The Equine Eye: Monocular vs. Binocular Vision and Focus Issues

I believe that a major part of being an efficient rider is to understand how every part of the horse works.  If you don’t understand why a horse is reacting a certain way, you may end up punishing something the horse truly has no control over or brushing off some uncalled for action that is fully correctable.  One of the biggest issues that really bothers me is when people punish their horse for spooking.  Many of the reasons a horse spooks are found in his biological makeup and cannot be altered.

The equine eye is the largest orb found in any land mammal.  Therefore, the horse has the capacity to take in a large amount of visual information at once.  It also means that a horse’s retina (the part that transfers information to the brain via the optic nerve to form images) is much larger than any other land mammal and because of this any object that a horse sees will look roughly 50% larger to him than it would to us.  This is the first reason many things seem scary to your horse.

Now, as (I believe) is common knowledge, horses are animals of prey.  In the wild, they are the ones that are hunted.   Nature, being the wonderful thing that it is, supplied the horse ways of protecting itself.  One of these ways is having a very large visual field.  While most predators like humans, dogs and cats have 180° vision, horses have almost 350° of sight because of the placement of their eyes widespread on the side of their head instead of close together and in front.  However, the horse’s ability to take in so much visual information at once can also make the world seem like a scarier place.  A horse is made visually aware of something by movement, so trail riding on a windy day can make a horse seem a little more jittery than normal because there is SO much stimulating his sense of sight.

Humans are very used to looking at something and immediately knowing, with clarity, what the object in front of us is.  Our eyes have a sort of ‘auto-focus’ so that whether the object is 10 inches or 10 yards away, we can see it clearly by simply glancing at it.  The simple explanation for this is 2-parted:

  • 1) Our ciliary muscle in the eye is well-developed.  That’s the part that adjusts the shape of the lens allowing us to focus.  It works quickly to let our eye focus immediately.
  • 2) Our retina, like many mammals, is smooth and concave, allowing for even focus in the eye.

The horse has an incredibly underdeveloped ciliary muscle.  This means that it takes much longer for a horse to focus on something than it does for us.  Imagine the speed of using auto-focus on a camera instead of manual focus.  Also, the horse’s retina is concave, but the surface is not smooth.  This means that some parts of the horse’s eye allow for better focus and clarity than other spots, which is why a horse may lower or raise his head, or weave his head side-to-side when he is trying to see something.

Not only does the horse have to work hard to focus, he has to figure out what exactly he needs to focus on.  The human eye sees with binocular vision, meaning that our brain gives us 1 single picture from the information that both eyes take in.  A horse has a small binocular field of vision, but roughly 270° of a horse’s sight is monocular.  This means that the horse’s brain is receiving two images at once because each eye is sending a different picture.  Imagine watching side-by-side television and trying to focus on both pictures at the same time.  It is nearly impossible to clearly see one picture or the other without turning your head to look directly at it.  This is the way a horse’s vision works.  His field of binocular vision begins about 6 inches to a foot from his forehead and extends in front of him.  Keep in mind that those 6-12 inches are a blind spot, which is why a pat between the eyes may elicit a flinch or even full-fledged spook.  His monocular field of vision surrounds nearly the rest of his body, except for a small blind spot just next to his flanks and directly behind him.  By turning his head he can eliminate the blind spot on one side or the other.

The basics of how a horse sees

Knowing how a horse sees affects the way that we work with them.  Don’t get mad at your horse for spooking at something because even though you recognized it right away, it may have taken your horse by surprise and looked scary and fuzzy to him.  Always work from both sides of your horse so that he is used to a motion being performed on each side of him.  Because of monocular vision, an action done on one side will become an entirely new experience on the other side because the brain is getting a whole new set of images from the opposite eye, so don’t expect your horse to be perfect as soon as you change direction or sides.

Patience is key when it comes to effective work with horses.  You and your horse are capable of great things if you take the time to understand him!

Stretching is Fun!!

Stretching is one of those things that is not an absolute necessity, but if you do it regularly, it can help keep your horse limber and willing to work.  There are a couple of stretches which you can do with your horse that are quick and easy and help maintain a supple back and topline.

The first kind are “Carrot Stretches.” The term ‘carrot stretch’ seems to be one that gets thrown around quite a bit, but tends to confuse and baffle many people.  These stretches primarily target the neck and back and are great to do every time you see your horse.
To do a carrot stretch, grab a treat (anything is fine, as long as its something your horse will gobble readily!) and stand near your horse’s flank.  You will do this on both sides, so it doesn’t matter which side you start on.  If you aren’t sure your horse will stay put and you want to hold onto the lead rope, just be certain to give a gracious loop for him to move.  Offer the treat and draw it back from his shoulder to his flank, right across the middle of the barrel so that your horse bends his neck around to take it from you.  When you are just starting out with this stretch, keep in mind that your horse may not be particularly flexible yet, so if you need to hold the treat away from his side a foot or so, or not bring it all the way to his flank, that is perfectly fine — he can work up to the full stretch.  Do a few of these on each side of the horse’s body.  I tend to alternate back and forth, doing two on one side, two on the other, then repeating it, so he gets about 8 little treats total.

Another fun way to get your horse stretching is by teaching him to bow.  Press your chin to your chest.  Do you feel the stretch in the back of your neck?  This is the stretch that we are simulating by teaching a horse to bow.  It will loosen up their neck and topline, plus give you a fun trick to show off to your friends! =D
To teach the bow, grab a big handful of nibbles, because its going to take a lot of repitition (but hopefully not a lot of time) to teach this one. The ultimate picture you want to see is your horse with his head down, between his knees and one leg bent, resting the toe on the ground next to his cheek (that part is just for the look of the bow!).  Start easy, by offering your horse a treat low to the ground in front of his hooves by standing or crouching next to his front leg.  It doesn’t matter which side, since everything will be centered anyhow.  Then move on to offering it a little bit further back, just between his front legs and still low to the ground.  The higher up the treat gets when you pull it back, the harder the stretch becomes, so start low to the ground.  When you offer the treat, you should be reaching between his legs and asking him to put his head between his legs.  Add the voice command, “bow.” Once he willingly reaches between his legs for the treat, begin pulling your hand back a little further before releasing the treat to him, which will force him to (eventually) bend a leg, (which makes the bow look more debonair!) It may take a few sessions, but if you have a horse who is easily motivated by treats, this should be pretty easy!  I taught this concept to my horse in about 30 minutes.

“I’m not crossing that! It might eat me!”

The Scenario: You are out on a lovely trail ride or coming back to the barn after riding in the field and all of a sudden there is a (very scary) ditch/grate/crack that your horse thinks will come alive and eat him if he tries to cross it. This results in a dead stop or backing or something worse.  For my horse, GQ, this occurred when we tried to take a different route back to the barn from the field than we normally do.  While walking along the sidewalk, we came to a drainage grate that seemed like the scariest thing in the world and he stopped dead in his tracks, snorting, and wouldn’t budge an inch towards it.

The Fix: To fix this problem, you have two options. The first is to work through it from your horse’s back.  ONLY do this if you are a strong, confident rider.  The second is to get off, work with him from the ground and THEN get on and tackle it from the saddle.

The most important part of this fix is that you have to be confident, but also patient. Your horse is nervous, so if you are also nervous or timid, nothing will get accomplished.  You need to allow your horse to assess the situation for himself, so get him to a distance away from it where he can focus on it, but he will stand still. When he lowers his head and relaxes his muscles, ask him to take a step forward. As soon as he moves even a step towards the object, stop asking him to go forward and allow him to readjust to the new distance.  Take it slowly — one step at a time and then relax.  If he freaks out and tries to go backward while you are riding him for this, release pressure on the bridle and keep using leg pressure until he stops moving.  If he freaks out and tries to go backwards while you are on the ground, keep light pressure on his halter/bridle and move with him until he stops. (By letting him step back a little and not inhibitting his retreat completely, you reinforce that this is not a scary place.  Allow him to relax, get him perpendicular to the object again and start over. (This is why patience is so important.)

It may take more than day or session to fix a problem like this, or it could take mere minutes for your horse to realize that crossing that drain/grate/etc. is not as scary as they think. The key is to always keep it positive.  Never end on a poor action. For example, you are getting tired of trying, and you get frustrated at your horse which makes him step back and snort.  This would not be a good time to quit because you will just reinforce that this is a scary situation.  End on a note where your horse is relaxed and happy.

If you choose to try this from his back and it ends up being more difficult than anticipated, ONLY get off when he is relaxed and has just done something worth rewarding.  If he flips out and you immediately get off his back, he has won this little fight and now he knows that he can get you off if he gives a little attitude and you’ve just created extra work for yourself.  Instead, ride out the stupidity (as long as it is safe, meaning no bucking/rearing/generally dangerous behaviors) and wait for him to stand calmly, facing the scary obstruction and then get off and try from the ground.

If your horse won’t budge with you on his back, try doing it from the ground.  Many horses will be more willing to try something if they see someone else do it. (Thank God for the herd mentality, right?!)

“Don’t Beg!”

The Scenario: One of my biggest pet peeves with horses is when they are pushy for treats.  If you enjoy hand feeding your horse, like I do, you want them to be polite because it can be dangerous to have a horse who turns into a bully when the treats come out.  When my horse, GQ, (who is spoiled rotten with cookies[!]) began exhibiting signs of bullying for treats, I knew I had to kick that habit before it got bad.

The Fix: I taught GQ “Don’t Beg.” This was actually a very simple fix that didn’t take more than a few minutes each day for about a week until he caught on.  I would hold a treat in my hand.  When he started pushing my hand or shoving me for the treat I would say “don’t beg” and wait for him to turn his head to the side. As soon as GQ turned his head, I would offer the treat. The key to this is that you are teaching the horse to not bully you for treats, so you are rewarding the behavior that is safe for both of you.  When you offer the treat, offer it at arms length away from yourself, which will help enforce that your horse should not expect to get treats if he is too close to you.
GQ has gotten so good with this action that he will actually use it to ask me for treats now.  Occassionally when I am grooming him, he will turn his head away from me and hold it there until he gets a reward (which I usually grant readily since I am a huge sucker for a cute face like his!)

Tricky Trails: Bikes, Runners and Baby Strollers

The Scenario:  You are out on the trail for a nice, peaceful ride and a biker rounds a bend in the distance, heading in your direction.  Your horse spots the biker and his head pops up, he begins to get ansty and as the biker gets closer, he pivots and bolts for home.

The Fix: Regardless of the cause, it is never a feeling that we like to experience when our horse turns tail and heads for home. Thankfully, when this action is brought on by something man-made, it is generally easy enough to fix with a little training.

To deal with a horse who spins and/or bolts when presented with something scary, start in a controlled enviroment.  If you don’t have an arena available, a small paddock will do just fine.

The first step is to get the horse listening to you while you are riding.  Before introducing the scary object or individual, warm your horse up, asking him for leg-yields and haunches in.  If you don’t know how to do these elements, find someone who does and have them give you a short lesson because they will be incredibly useful.  These are good tools to get your horse in tune with and focused on you.

The second step is to introduce the scary thing in the controlled environment from the ground. Starting from the ground, have someone slowly ride a bike, push a buggy or jog towards you and your horse, leaving a wide gap.  If your horse gets too worked up  and makes you nervous from the ground, ask your helper to stop and allow your horse to observe and investigate the scary object.  Give him as much time as he needs to calm down and then ask your helper to continue on, slowly(<–this is the key, if you go flying past the horse, you will do nothing to help him see that the object will not hurt him.) It is important that you give your horse a long rope and that you, yourself, remain calm.  You horse will pick up on your emotions, so if you tense up because you think he is going to react poorly to a situation, it is far more likely that your horse will feel stressed and act out.  When you relax and act like the bike/jogger/buggy is nothing to worry about, your horse may be more inclined to have a calmer reaction. Remember though that you need to remain attentive.  ‘Relaxed’ does not mean ‘inattentive.’ Be ready to move with your horse as he reacts.  Pass the horse as many times as it takes until he has no negative reaction to the object or person passing him on either side.  Then repeat the whole process as you walk alongside your horse.
[Quick tip: If you are standing on the left side of your horse, have your helper also pass on that side.  If you are standing as a barrier between your horse and the scary thing, his reaction may not be as negative.]

Once your horse allows the scary object to pass him with no reaction while you’re on the ground, it’s time to get on him.  While you keep him halted, allow your helper to pass your horse. Hopefully the ground training has helped him realize that the object coming at him is not quite as scary as he thought. This doesn’t mean that he won’t react however, because now you are not there to act as a barrier.  From his back, you can act as a barrier in a different way. Remember the leg yields and haunches in from step one? Now those are coming into play.  As the scary object comes toward your horse, ask him to tilt his nose away from it. Don’t take his eye completely off of it, but don’t let it be the center of his vision. By giving your horse a job to do (turn his head), you are giving him something to think about other than how scary that thing coming at him seems.  When he will stand for your helper to pass with the scary thing on both sides, move him into a walk. With the movement, you can ask him for a haunches in (which, assuming the scary thing is the ‘inside’, will put the thing farther from his line of sight), turn his nose or leg yield away from the object. It is your choice if you want to practice this at a trot, but to make things easier and safer on the actual trail, you should always be walking to pass someone else during the ride.

Once your horse is comfortable in the arena, its time to take what you’ve been working on to the trail. To start, pick a quiet time of day and/or a more secluded path to practice on and have your helper come along again. Have your helper move up the trail a ways and then come back towards you.  Think about the relaxed movements that you used in the arena.  Going out on the trail may seem a little stressful at first, so remember to keep breathing and stay as relaxed, yet alert, as possible in the saddle.  When you and your horse are relaxed on the quiet path, you should be ready to try something a little more crowded.

Just remember:

  • Safety first! Your horse may learn to accept the ‘trail monster’ quickly or it may take a bit of time. Don’t take shortcuts in getting to the end result because it will never give you the results you hope to achieve and can get both you and your horse hurt.
  • Never be ashamed to admit you moved on too quickly.  No step is ever finished.  If you feel you rushed any part, go back a step or two until you and your horse are truly comfortable.
  • You may have setbacks. Things may be going well and then a biker may come flying around a turn and frighten your horse, causing his old behavior to surface to some degree.  Go back to the start and work through it again.
  • For horses, the faster something occurs, the scarier it is likely to seem to them. If your horse is getting worked up, ask him to slow down either within the gait or through a down transition.