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Dear Dana: What is my horse’s body language?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - September 6th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: I have heard people refer to body language from time to time. What exactly are they talking about?
— LeeAnne, Elk Grove

DEAR LEEANNE: Great question! It doesn’t matter what event you ride in or what you do, knowing how to read your horse’s body language will help you. It can be a key to developing the wonderful relationship with your horse that we all seek.

Each horse has its own personality, style, and sensitivity level, but they all share a common body language by using their ears, tail, or by pushing or leaning with their body. Horses in the wild will tell one another to get out of their space by backing up to the horse while swishing their tail and pinning their ears. If the other horse doesn’t get the message, they may be kicked. Or, they may pin their ears back flat and lunge at the other horse, baring their teeth.

Because most of our horses have been handled and worked with, they have learned that this aggression doesn’t work with humans — they would be severely reprimanded. We can’t take that for granted, though, and a human’s safety is paramount. If you are a novice rider, then most likely you are riding a well-trained horse that respects humans. If you ever encounter any aggressive behavior, then seek the help of a professional.

With all that said, here’s five tips to better understand your horse’s body language:

Tip #1Assess your horse’s energy level.
If your horse is extremely fresh he may not want to pay attention to you while you are riding or training him. When a horse is too fresh or has too much energy, the situation you encounter is magnified. He may overreact to your cues. He may snort or blow through his nostrils. He may throw his head up in the air. He may spook at something that normally is no big deal. He just may not pay attention to you. Sometimes it becomes a losing battle, and your best bet is to get off and lunge or turn him out and allow him to get out his energy.

Tip #2 – His ears show where his focus is.
If he has his ears forward on something and he is a spooky horse, he may spook. If you are riding by another horse and his ears are flat back, he may be angry at the horse next to him — his ears will clearly show his focus. If he is mad at your leg cue, he may pin his ears back. When I am riding or training my horse and my horse is listening to me, his ears are usually up and attentive to me while still aware of what’s going on around him.

Tip #3 – He speaks volumes with his tail.
When horses are fresh or afraid, they will often pick up their tail. If they are irritated at flies, they will swish their tail. If they are downright mad, they will wring their tail. If your horse swishes his tail as you apply your leg cue, he is telling you that he is a little irritated with your cue.

Tip #4 – Lean through the body.
Remember, as I described horses’ body language in the wild, one way they had to move away from another horse was to lean into or push on them. As riders, we teach our horses to move away from pressure, such as a side pass away from our leg. If your horse is too fresh or just plain old resistant to your leg, then he may not move over off of a rein or leg cue willingly. He may push back into your cue. If you are convinced that you are giving your cue correctly and that he understands your cue, if he leans back into your cue or refuses, he is resisting your cue.

Tip #5 – Nickering
If your horse nickers when you come to his stall or eagerly puts his ears up when he sees you he is welcoming you and excited to see you. He may whinny or nicker in excited anticipation at his feed.

These are the five most common ways that a horse communicates through body language. As you learn to identify them, you can learn about your horse. I encourage people to be mindful and aware of their horse’s response to their cues, as their response will tell you a lot. When I am riding and training, I am asking for high levels of collection and acceptance, so I take all of these responses and go to a deeper level. For example, if I ask my horse to give his face, I am mindful as to if he gave it willingly or with fear or resistance. Or, as I move my horse’s body over off of my leg, I pay attention to whether or not he runs off of it — as in fear or frustration — or if he willingly moves over a step at a time.

It is an exciting journey to become a great, attentive, mindful rider and to learn to understand your horse. It is very important to me to have a willing happy team member in my horse. I spend a lot of time and thought in making and developing a horse that loves his job, and tries for me.

Good luck to you, I hope this helps!


Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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