Help With My Horse

Understanding Horse Behavior: A Comprehensive Guide

When watching a horse’s behavior you have to look at the totality of the situation, ears, head, neck, body posture, etc. One part of the body can be interpreted in one way and another part interpreted in another way. Understanding horse behavior is crucial for anyone involved in the equine world. Whether you’re a seasoned horse owner, a trainer, or someone who enjoys spending time around these magnificent creatures, recognizing the signs of positive and negative behaviors can significantly enhance your interaction with horses. In this article, we will delve into the various behaviors exhibited by horses and how they change depending on the environment and circumstances.

1. Positive Behaviors in Horses


Chart of Positive Behaviors
FollowingIndicates trust and willingness to be led.
Interpreting Positive Behaviors

Understanding positive behaviors in horses is essential for building a strong, trusting relationship with your equine companion. Let’s delve into the nuances of each positive behavior to gain a comprehensive understanding.

  • Following: Following behavior is when the horse willingly walks behind you, maintaining a respectful distance, without being led. A horse that willingly follows you is displaying trust and a willingness. This is a positive sign, especially during training sessions. It’s a significant milestone in the training process and in building a relationship with a horse. You should ensure that the horse is following you out of trust and not because it’s being enticed by food or other rewards. Genuine following behavior is a sign of a strong bond.

2. Negative Behaviors in Horses

Chart of Negative Behaviors
KickingIndicates fear, aggression, or defiance.
Interpreting Negative Behaviors

Recognizing and understanding negative behaviors in horses is crucial for ensuring the safety and well-being of both the horse and the handler. Let’s delve deeper into each negative behavior to understand its implications and underlying causes.

  • Kicking: Kicking is a forceful extension of the hind legs, directed at a person, object, or another horse. Kicking indicates fear, aggression, or defiance. It poses a significant risk to anyone in the vicinity. Kicking can occur for various reasons, including territorial disputes among horses or as a reaction to pain or irritation. Understanding the context can help in addressing the root cause effectively.


3. Ambiguous Behaviors in Horses: Context is Key

I only listed 1 each positive and negative behavior that is always or near always positive or negative. Understanding horse behaviors is complex and most of their behaviors individually are more ambiguous and require a totality of the situatio to interpret.

Chart of Ambiguous Behaviors
WhinnyingCan indicate excitement, distress, or social communication.
PawingMay signify impatience, boredom, pain, irritability, or a need to relieve stress.
Shaking HeadCould be a sign of irritation, dominance, a health issue, or simply shaking off flies.
Lowered HeadIndicates relaxation and submission, or a dominant herding posture.
NuzzlingA gentle touch with the nose, often a sign of affection or curiosity. Often turns negative and dangerous with aggressive pushing.
SnortingA sign of curiosity or excitement in a non-threatening way. Snorting is often used when analyzing for a possible threat.
Tail SwishingA sign of irritation or discomfort, also for balance when doing things with effort.
RearingIndicates fear or resistance, also a playful or aggressive activity. 
BitingA sign of aggression, discomfort, or mutual grooming.
Relaxed EarsA sign of contentment and ease, disinterest, or trying to ignore.
Pinning EarsA sign of irritation or aggression, sometimes a sign of doing a job with expression.
Interpreting Ambiguous Behaviors

Horse behaviors are not always black and white; most fall into a gray area where the behavior could be interpreted as either positive or negative depending on the context. Understanding these ambiguous behaviors requires keen observation and a deep understanding of individual horse personalities. Let’s explore some of these behaviors in detail. Pain can cause many negative behaviors. The blog article, Horse Issues, Separating Symptoms from the Root Cause, will help you understand the causes of behavior issues.

  • Whinnying: Whinnying is a vocalization that horses make, which can vary in pitch and length. The context is crucial here. Whinnying can indicate excitement when a horse sees a familiar face, but it could also signify distress or loneliness. In a herd setting, it might be a way to communicate with other horses. The context in which a horse whinnies is crucial for interpretation. 
  • Pawing: Pawing involves the horse scraping its front hoof against the ground. Pawing at the ground can signify various emotions, impatience, boredom, pain, irritability, or a need to relieve stress. However, it can also be a way for the horse to explore its environment or indicate that it wants to move. If a horse paws while tied up, it might be showing impatience or stress. If it paws near a water source, it could be exploring or attempting to clear debris.
  • Shaking Head: Head shaking involves the horse moving its head up and down or side to side. While often just a way to shake off flies, repeated head shaking could indicate a health issue, discomfort, or even behavioral problems. It can also be done when one horse is trying to move another horse or person. Head shaking can also indicate pain in the ears or teeth.
  • Lowered Head: A lowered head often indicates that the horse is relaxed and submissive, which is particularly positive during training or when introducing new tasks. A lowered head can also be a herding posture used when moving another horse, often seen when a stallion is herding his mares but also displayed in other circumstances. A lowered head, where the neck is relaxed, and the head is held below the withers, is a common posture. This position often indicates that the horse is relaxed, submissive, and comfortable in its environment. A lowered head can also be a sign of fatigue or illness if accompanied by other symptoms. Always consider the overall context.
  • Nuzzling: Nuzzling is a gentle touch with the nose, often directed towards a person’s hand, arm, or even face. When a horse nuzzles you, it’s often a sign of affection or a request for attention. This behavior is generally seen in horses that are comfortable around humans. While often a sign of affection, nuzzling can sometimes be a way for the horse to investigate for treats or even to push boundaries, especially in younger horses. If the horse nuzzles while you have treats, it might be more interested in the food and lead to aggression, than in showing affection. On the other hand, spontaneous nuzzling when no food is present is more likely to be a sign of affection. While nuzzling is generally positive, it’s essential to read the situation and be aware that if the horse is nuzzling for a reason other than affection, it often leads to aggression. 
  • Snorting: While snorting can sometimes signify alarm, in a relaxed setting it often indicates curiosity or excitement in a non-threatening manner. Snorting involves the horse forcefully exhaling through its nostrils, often accompanied by a “snort” sound. In a relaxed setting, snorting often indicates curiosity or excitement in a non-threatening manner. It can signify that the horse is interested in its surroundings or in you. Snorting can also be a sign of alarm or irritation, so it’s crucial to read the situation correctly. Often a horse will snort when analyzing a new object when deciding if the object is to be considered a treat. In this situation, the snort can be followed by flight or another negative reaction. Look for other body language cues to interpret this behavior accurately.
  • Tail Swishing: Tail swishing involves the horse moving its tail side to side. Excessive tail swishing often indicates irritation or discomfort, possibly due to flies, tack issues, or health problems. While often a sign of irritation or discomfort, tail swishing can also be a simple reaction to flies. Tail swishing is also a way to express excitement. This is often seen when a horse is doing an activity it enjoys. A horse might express excitement while running freely in the pasture or under saddle. A horse will also swish its tail as a means of balance when running or doing movements like jumping or lead changes. This is also seen both in the pasture and under saddle. Tail swishing can be a reaction to flies or other pests, but it can also indicate discomfort with tack or even underlying health issues like skin infections or gastrointestinal problems.
  • Rearing: Rearing involves the horse lifting its front legs off the ground, often standing on its hind legs. It poses a risk to the handler and can lead to falls or other accidents. Rearing can occur during training sessions, when a horse is spooked, or when it’s resisting control. Rearing can also occur when horses are playing or fighting in the pasture. When 2 horses are rearing together it is not always in a negative intent, so special care needs to be taken because a horse can rear with a non-negative intent with a person, causing the person to become injured when the horse just intended to play.  
  • Biting: Biting involves the horse using its teeth to grab or nip at a person, object, or another horse. Biting can be a sign of aggression, discomfort, or affection. It may also indicate health issues like dental problems. Horses will often bite at each other in a grooming situation. This is another behavior that a person can get hurt when the horse had positive intentions. 
  • Relaxed Ears: Relaxed ears are held in a neutral or slightly forward position, not pinned back or overly perked. Ears that are held in a neutral or slightly forward position can indicate that the horse is relaxed and content. This is a good sign during most interactions. While usually a sign of contentment, relaxed ears can sometimes indicate that the horse is simply not focused on anything in particular, which could be a concern during training sessions. If a horse has relaxed ears during a training session where focus is required, it might indicate a lack of engagement or interest in the task at hand. Relaxed ears can also mean that the horse is trying to ignore something in its surroundings.
  • Pinning Ears: When a horse pins its ears flat against its head. It can be a warning that the horse is unhappy with the current situation and may escalate to more dangerous behaviors if not addressed. Pinning ears is often seen as a positive thing when performing certain jobs like working cows. Pinning ears can be used in similar ways as tail swishing, a way to express excitement.  Pinning ears can become dangerous quickly, so quickly recognizing the complete situation is essential.

4. Totality of Behavior

When watching a horse’s behavior you have to look at the totality of the situation, ears, head, neck, body posture, etc. One part of the body can be interpreted in one way and another part interpreted in another way. This is where much of the confusion comes in when interpreting equine behavior. Many people focus in on one or two specific indicators and fail to see the totality of the situation. For example, you see a horse standing in the pasture, He is shaking his head up and down and striking at the ground with one front foot. Just those two indicators can mean he is irritated by flies, he has been standing in ants, he is colicing, he is trying to get another horse to move to show dominance, he has an itch that he can not reach. If you fail to recognize the totality of the situation, you might not notice that your horse needs your help, or you might get in the middle of a pecking order dispute. It is important that you see what is in front of you and perceive the actual situation and not see what you want to see. You and your horse’s life can depend on it. This play list of youtube videos is of a horse named Denali. He started out very aggressive and dominant then with the correct interaction became a very willing and nice horse to be around. This video will help you to understand the interaction of learned and instinctive behavior with a horse. Understanding this interaction is imperitive in understanding and interpreting horse behaviors. 


5. Conclusion

Understanding horse behavior is not just about recognizing individual signs but also about interpreting them in context. The setting, the horse’s overall mood, and its relationship with humans and other horses all play a role in shaping its behavior. By paying close attention and adapting our own behavior and approaches, we can foster more positive interactions with these incredible animals. For an in-depth guide to how to act to elicit desired behaviors check out the article,  Equestrian Action and Reaction: Interactions With Your Horse

If you need professional help with this with your horse a great option is an Equestrian Virtual Lesson with Tim Anderson. This way he can give you personalized instruction for you and your horse. All of the valuable information I have learned through 25+ years of horse training and showing, I share with you to help you to improve your equestrian knowledge. Thank You.

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