How to read horse body language for a happy equine

How to read horse body language for a happy equine

Our horses are always telling us something – whether they’re feeling nervous, scared, relaxed or just excited about life! Are you listening?

Not only do horses rely on body language to communicate with us, each other and the world around them, your horse’s behaviour also holds clues to how they are feeling, both physically and mentally.

As a horse owner, it’s important to read the signs and recognise how your horse is feeling. Just as important as knowing that ‘bad behaviours’ can be a sign of pain or discomfort, and should never be ignored. Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley explains some positive horse behaviour, plus some possible causes for common 'bad' horse behaviour.

Horse body language basics

Look out for these subtle clues to your horse’s mood and general health.

Overall outline

Your horse’s outline can give you an overall sense of how they’re feeling.

  • A soft outline with a lowered head and droopy tail indicates a calm horse.
  • A more alert outline with arched neck, pricked ears and tense muscles shows interest or alarm.

When observing horse behaviour in the wild, herds have been found to rely heavily on reading each other’s outlines as a primary form of communication. Think about the last time you saw a horse notice something in the distance – it probably didn’t take the others long to catch on!


Your horse’s tail gives clear signals that you can easily see from a distance.

  • Flicking or lashing. This shows annoyance or frustration, usually with a fieldmate. Seen during ridden work or while grooming or tacking up, this behaviour can indicate discomfort or pain.
  • Swishing. Slower than flicking or lashing, this is usually a method of fly control!
  • High. An alert or excited horse will carry their tail high. It usually means that the horse’s attention is elsewhere. Mares may also do this when in season.
  • Clamped down. Nervous or frightened horses can clamp their tail down onto their bodies.

Head position and facial expressions

These can be subtle or obvious signs, but they always tell us something about how our horse is feeling.

  • Rapidly raising and lowering head. Generally seen when a horse is trying to focus on something in the middle distance. At this point, your horse won’t necessarily be focused on you, but on trying to figure out what they’ve seen to decide if it’s safe. Maybe it’s an innocent crisp packet or a lion disguised as a sparrow?!
  • Curled upper lip and raised head. This expression indicates the Flehmen response, when a horse is analysing a scent using their vomeronasal organ, located towards the back of the soft palate.
  • Tight mouth/teeth grinding. These signs are a clue that your horse is feeling stressed, afraid or confused.
  • Flared nostrils. Your horse may have been startled or is fearful. Horses’ nostrils will also flare when they are breathing heavily during play or exercise.


Our horse’s ears are a great indicator of where their attention lies.

  • Ears back. Backward-turned ears aren’t always a bad sign, but can sometimes indicate your horse has heard something behind them and is trying to pinpoint the sound.
  • Ears pinned. When a horse’s ears are flattened back, they may be angry or showing aggression.
  • Ears pointing in different directions means your horse is paying attention to two different sounds.
  • Ears soft and turned out to the side. If you’ve ever watched your horse in the paddock on a warm day, chances are you’ll see them in the classic relax mode. Their ears will probably be soft and turned out to the side and their lower lip may be adorably droopy. Their head will be lowered while they rest, and a hind leg may be cocked.
  • Soft ears while schooling. You might notice that your horse’s ears ‘flop’ to the side while you’re working them in hand or from the saddle. Just as we described above, this means your horse is relaxed, but in this case that they are concentrating, too. So, it’s a great sign!

In contrast to a relaxed horse, increased body tension can sometimes be an indicator that your horse is in pain.

Signs your horse may be in pain

Our horses offer us plenty of clues when they’re in pain, but these can be subtle and take a while to recognise. Gil recommends ‘knowing your horse’s normal behaviour and paying attention to any variation from these, which may be as a result of pain’.

You may also notice more obvious signs of pain, including head tossing, discomfort when the girth is tightened or reluctance to move forward. Gil mentions that by far the most common reason for horses to present with behavioural changes, either on the ground or when ridden, is pain.

Some common health problems that cause pain include:

  • Lameness
  • Ulcers
  • Kissing spines
  • Dental issues
  • Laminitis
  • Poorly fitting tack
  • Head shaking

Lameness is often made worse during ridden exercise, due to the weight of a rider plus tack and demands of physical work. This can be very subtle and may need a vet to accurately diagnose which leg is affected. General irritability and head tossing are both common indicators of lameness.

Horse head shaking is different to head tossing and is linked to nerve dysfunction. It usually starts in horses between five and seven years old. While there’s no cure, it can often be managed with medications, nose nets or fly masks.

If your horse does exhibit signs of discomfort or pain when being ridden, including tail lashing or head tossing, don’t be tempted to resort to training aids. ‘Using restrictive training aids at this point would be highly inadvisable,’ says Gil. ‘It may simply prevent a horse from showing signs of pain, increasing the stress they feel.’ Instead, ask your vet to come and assess your horse.

Schedule a vet check

If you notice your horse demonstrating any body language linked to pain, it’s always best to ask your vet out for a full assessment. This will likely include the following checks:

  • Temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing rate
  • Pulse to foot (digital pulse)
  • Assessment of comfort on each limb
  • Response to hoof testers
  • Soundness in hand and at ridden exercise

Your vet may prescribe painkillers and monitor your horse’s response after they’ve been given pain relief.

Pay attention to your horse

Our horses are sensitive creatures, but they’re also pretty good at hiding their pain. Paying attention to your horse’s standard behaviour and body language is the best way to make sure they remain comfortable and free from pain.

Remember, no horse behaviour should ever be brushed off as ‘bad’. It’s simply their way of telling us something isn’t quite right. It’s up to us to listen.