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.

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!