Horses: What Does It Mean?


I’ve had several people ask me for a post about horse behavior to go along with the horse appearance post. So, here it is.

First off, forget what you see in the movies and on television. Horse don’t whinny and rear up all the time. They just don’t.

Horses are prey animals. That means they are food for predators. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads. That’s your first clue as to whether an animal or bird is prey or preditor. Their first instinct is flight to escape danger. Horses have the fastest response time of any domestic animal. They process that dangerous newspaper fluttering by a lot sooner than you do and react. Hopefully, you either have trained Spot not to spook at things like this or you have a deep seat. Otherwise, you’ll probably be on the ground when he blows straight up, straight sideways or back at a remarkable rate of speed.

Horses typically will run rather than fight. I say typically because there are always exceptions. My ex-husband worked for Beutler Brothers Rodeo. Beutler’s had a big saddle bronc who hated people. Whenever they sorted horses, they had to make sure and keep other horses between him and themselves because he would hunt you down. Some horses are just born mean and it isn’t because he was a rodeo horse. He was a rodeo horse because he was so mean and he bucked. No one could put up with his dangerous ways.

World Champion Quarter Horse stallion Hard Twist was notoriously ill-tempered. His owner recounted one time about going out to Hard Twist’s when the horse was older. They climbed the fence and walked out into the pasture to look at him. Hard Twist promptly came to them, teeth bared, and put them right back out of his pasture.

Champion Go Man Go could buck during a race and still win his race. His trainer, Walt Wiggins, Sr. said, “He was just mean as a bear most of the time.” He passed the trait on to many of his offspring. Dynago Man barely ran a race where he didn’t buck.

Some horses are just more aggressive than others.

Certain traits are often inherited for good or ill. Animals may have a pleasing, willing attitude, or, as previously discussed, a more aggressive personality.

Some people who have prize cattle herds are now putting guard donkeys with them. The donkeys bond with the cattle and will fight off predators rather than let them get close to the calves. Donkeys aren’t as prone to flight, nor are they as forgiving as horses.

Even though horses are naturally flight animals, they can be trained to overcome their fears. Read the story of Sgt. Reckless sometime. She was a remarkable little Korean mare the Marines taught to carry supplies. They’d show her a route two times and she had it figured out. During the battle of Vegas, she made 51 solo trips carrying ammunition under heavy fire even though she’d been wounded twice.

Horses are a lot quieter than what the movies portray.

1. Nickers are soft, throaty sounds. Mares will nicker to babies. Horses might nicker to owners, especially at feeding time. They might nicker to each other if a stable mate is returning. This is an individual thing. Some horses are very quiet and others are vocal. Most of ours used to talk to us whenever someone walked out the door. They thought we should be reminded they needed a butt scratching.

Some nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d get dressed and go walk in the arena. We had a very large arena and kept the mares out there instead of in the stalls. Most of the mares would just raise their heads to see who it was, recognize me, and go back to sleep. Skidboot, our little yellow mare, nickered at me and then followed along behind me, making every step I made and occasionally nudging me in the back with her nose if she didn’t think I was going fast enough. It was a soft hey-glad-you’re-here nicker. A greeting.

2. Squeals are louder and more high pitched. They are often part of a threat or warning, but could accompany mating, also. A stud will talk to a mare, nickering at her and she might very well answer with a squeal. Horses might squeal at each other when a new horse is introduced to the herd. Stallions will squeal at each other before they fight. Horses might squeal when they’re frightened or hurt.

3. Whinnies or neighs are probably the most common sound. Horses whinny to each other to let them know where they are. This is louder than a nicker.

In 2011 Jaci Rae Jackson and some friends stole a rope horse named Credit Card and four other horses, several saddles and a horse trailer from Southern Arkansas University rodeo team members. They killed Credit Card and cut him up. The other horses they tied to trees and left without food and water. The authorities knew the area the horses might be in, but hadn’t been able to find them. The rodeo coach felt time was running out for them and decided to take two stable mates to the area and see if the horses would respond to a stable mate’s whinnies. It was dark and storming when they got there. They weren’t sure it would work and almost turned back. He decided to try anyway.

They took two horses out and separated them. One of the horses named Cotton Candy, apparently was known for her separation issues. She started whinnying at the other horse and one of the stolen horses heard them and responded, also. They followed her by her whinnies and rescued her and the other four horses who were near death, but it was too late for poor Credit Card.

It seems like something straight out of a movie. It was actually a man who understands horses very well.

4. Snorts are usually alarm sounds. It can also be an alert or a playful excitement sound. A rolling or repeated blowing snort is often referred to as, “he’s got rollers in his nose.”

Horses in a herd environment are fairly quiet.

Let’s pretend you’re writing a story about a beautiful, virgin in distress. Said virgin has been stripped naked, revealing her voluptuous curves and is about to be assaulted by Lord Lewd. Damsel somehow manages to escape his clutches, but he’s right behind her. How ever will she escape? Yes! There’s a Raging Black Stallion in the stable no one has ever been able to tame. She’ll take him. So, she jumps on his back, titian locks flying in the rain and races through the cobblestone streets. No one can catch her because Raging Black Stallion is the fastest horse in the world.

Umm, yeah. Don’t do this.

If Raging Black Stallion has never been ridden, he’s not going to allow you to ride him just because you’re a beautiful, naked virgin.

Gaining a horse’s confidence takes time. Remember the first paragraph? Horses are flight animals.

When I was on the ranch, we had a horse pasture with three horses in it. Two black draft horses and a tall, Thoroughbred-looking sorrel horse. I asked my stepdad about the sorrel and he said they had turned him out as a five-year-old. I asked if I could trade six months no pay for the horse.

He agreed and brought the horse in. Cowboy was wilder than a deer. Bud assured me they used to ride him, but every time I’d go into the hay corral where I kept him, the horse flew to the opposite side, trying to get as far away from me as he could.

I started going out in the morning after I finished checking artificial insemination cows and putting out a small pile of grain near me. Then I would lean back in a haystack and read aloud for as long as I could until I had to go do some other chore. Cowboy wouldn’t come up to me, but he’d watch. He’d come eat the grain after I left. I’d repeat this in the afternoon. It took a couple of months, but he would finally let me handle him. He even started nickering at me when I got up in the morning and I knew I needed to go drop him off some grain and pet him a bit before I did anything else.

Then, one day, the mare I’d been riding to check cows was lame, so I saddled Cowboy and took him. The folks were in town at the time. Bud asked me later why the mare was in the barn and I told him she was lame, so I put her up. Then he asked me how I checked cows and I told him.

“Did you have any problems?”

“No, why?”

“I turned him out because no one could ride him and people got tired of getting bucked off.”

I didn’t say it, but maybe it was because the guys you had hired at the time were idiots. They had ruined the horse’s mouth. No wonder he didn’t want to put up with them.

Horses have remarkable memories. They seldom forget. That’s both good and bad. If you teach them something wrong, it’s twice as hard to correct what they’ve learned and teach them how to do it correctly. Fortunately for humans, they are forgiving, also. So, a horse like Cowboy can learn to trust again.

If a horse is frightened they will often jump. It might be straight up, sideways, forward or backward, but they’ll jump unless they’re well trained or unusually calm. Sometimes they snort along with the jump. They might finish off the jump by bucking.

Horses don’t rear up often unless they are spoiled and do it to unseat a rider, they’re trained to, or someone is jerking on their head and they’re trying to escape the pain. Fighting or playing horses might rear at each other. They certainly don’t do it as often as you see it in the movies and on television.

You’ve heard that the eyes are the windows to the soul? Well, the ears are the radar to a horse.

You can tell a lot about a horse by watching their ears. A relaxed horse will have their ears pitched forward or straight up. They might even have one forward and one sort of backward. It’s easy to see they are relaxed. Not much is bothering them. Ears pricked forward means something has his attention. He’s listening to something or watching something that has him alerted or interested. He may be getting ready to leave in a hurry.

If a horse’s ears are simply turned back, he may be just listening to something behind him. There’s a difference between pinned and turned back.

Ears pinned back usually means he isn’t happy. This is often aggressive. He’s getting ready to attack or kick something. If a horse has his ears pinned back, don’t walk behind him. He’s irritated.

Note I said usually. Watch a race horse. When they’re running, their ears are normally pinned back. I don’t know how many trainers I interviewed who would talk about a colt who was running with his ears pricked. He was lollygagging. He hadn’t really taking racing serious yet and was busy looking around instead of bearing down. Look at pictures of race horses. If a horse is running full out, they’ll back their ears. They’re bearing down and focused on running.

You can also tell a lot by their eyes. If they’re relaxed they’ll often droop their eyelids as anything will. Whites around their eyes may mean they’re upset, nervous, or frightened. Some horses, like Appaloosas, might have naturally occurring sclera (white around the eye) you can see.

Tails. Have you ever watched a dressage horse and noticed the way they gently swish their tails seemingly to the music? They’re often swishing the tail when they change leads. Watch closely in this video of Blue Hors Matine. She’s a beautiful example of an ideal dressage horse in my opinion, not that I know much about them. Note she has about the most active tail I’ve seen, but she’s a relaxed horse. It’s just her being her. (The lead is the dominant leg they are stepping out with.)

Frequently, though, if you see a horse wringing its tail, they aren’t happy about what they’re doing. Watch their body language. They may be under stress or nervous.

If a horse clamps its tail tightly it’s nervous, angry or upset. Look at this sketch by Charlie Russell called The Initiation Of The Tenderfoot. Boy, can you tell a lot about what’s going on.

Charlie Russell

The horse has half a dozen brands. That’s a dead give away he’s a problem horse. His tail is clamped. He isn’t the least bit happy. His hind legs are drawn up under him and he has a hump in his back. Yup, he’s getting ready to buck. His nostrils are flared. His ears are pinned and his eyes are narrowed. Though it’s hard to see in a drawing, his muscles are tensed. This is the absolute picture of a wreck about to happen even if you don’t look at the grin on the cowboy’s face. Every single signal that horse could send out, he has.

Horses have been bred to have certain traits. Cutting horses will often “work” something on their own. Our horses were all cutting and race bred. We leased some pens from some people once and they were a little concerned their dog might bother the mares. The dog went out to the pen to check the mares out and they all surrounded him immediately. Every time he’d try to get out of the circle, a mare dropped her head and danced back and forth to block his way. None of them had been trained for cutting. It was just a natural instinct. I’ve watched them “working” a paper bag or a tumbleweed that’s blown into the pen with them. We finally had to walk out and make the mares let the dog go.

Many race horses simply love to run. Even when they’re turned out, they’ll throw their heads up and take off running for the sheer joy of it.

Horses are herd animals. They’re very social. You know the movies where you see the gleaming white stallion leading his band to safety? Yeah, it’s usually a lead mare that’s leading the band. The stallion will normally bring up the rear nipping at stragglers and keeping the herd together. The dominant mare is often the one who dictates the herd behavior.

On the ranch, Bud’s gray mare was the leader of the pack. Topper loved to sun bathe. If it was a nice, sunny day, she was stretched out, soaking up the rays. Most horses sleep standing up. A horse has to be really relaxed or sick to sprawl out. When we’d buy a new horse, they’d continue sleeping standing up for a while, but it wasn’t long before Topper rubbed off on them and convinced them it was safe enough to relax completely. Even though we were used to seeing the horses sprawled out, it was still a little unnerving to come over the hill and see horses laid out all over a corral like someone killed them.

Babies pick up attitudes from mamas. When I worked for Graham Farms, my title was babysitter. My job was to take care of the brood mares for two weeks before they foaled, take care of the babies when they foaled all the way up to the ones who were getting ready for training.

The best way to get the trust of the new babies was to gain the trust of the mamas. So, I started carrying a little squeeze bottle of molasses and a brush. I’d go through the mare barn every morning, halter the mares and brush them. Once they let me brush them, I’d squeeze some molasses on my finger and rub it on the inside of their lip and move on to the next one. The mares started looking forward to my visits. With few exceptions, even the most protective mamas didn’t mind me messing with their babies when they were born. The babies were haltered the day after they were born and soon learned to look forward to being handled also.

One filly would raise her head to see who was coming in the run. When she recognized me, she’d just hold her head up so I could put the halter on then go back to sleep.

Doing just about anything with a horse is a lot easier if they trust you. Watch them when you walk toward them. They’ll stand at alert with their head up, ears pricked forward. Wait for a minute. Let them process everything. Once they’re comfortable, they’ll drop their head. They’ve submitted. You’ve established a certain amount of trust with them.

There’s probably a lot of stuff I’ve missed, but that will give you some basics.


  1. I wandered over from the Shark Tank where I lurk under the coral reefs and stretch my writing muscle with your posts and the others who leave comments there. I joined the SubClub at your suggestion. Thank you for all the great horse detiails. The first few chapters of my ms are set on a rodeo circuit in the 1930s. I’m going to go back and check some of my details like did I use nicker when it should have been a whinny. my MC’s horse Satn Dancer is also a character in my novel. Write what you know? I’m afraid of horses. All I know about horses has come from books. I can feel you rolling your eyes, but wanted to say thank you anyway.

  2. I loved this one, too. I used to do healing. I just was born able to. I worked with animals and humans. I had the privilege of working with horses a little bit when I lived in guatemala. I was helping one pregnant momma and she had been very badly treated by her previous owner. I certainly don’t know as much as you do about horse behavior but I guess part of healing is just paying very close attention to behavior and other things of course that maybe aren’t so obvious. I could tell she was scared and in was too because she was enormous and I need to touch her in ways i never have touched a horse before. So I did what I could do, then wasn’t called back. When the baby was born, I had been back in the states. That winter i went to guatemala again and visited my friends with the horse club. I was walking out in the field and this beautiful but still really pretty big baby horse came running at me. I don’t know why I didn’t run away because I felt like I was about to be head butted by the thing, but it stopped in time and did all sorts of lovey greetings. I really didn’t know what to think but also, I am used to odd responses from nature and people. My friend just laughed because that was the baby who had been in her mommas tummy when I had done the healing. Somehow, she knew me. That moment is a real keeper for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *