Understanding the basic body language of horses is essential if you want to be safe around them. Knowing when a horse is angry and what he’s likely to do next can prevent potentially dangerous conflicts and accidents.
The main signs indicating a horse is angry are flattened ears, bare teeth, lifting a hind leg off the ground, and general tension throughout the body. If you see a horse displaying these signs, stay well clear and ask an experienced person for help.
Keep in mind that multiple elements are making up a behavior, so you shouldn’t draw conclusions based on just one signal as it can be misleading. Instead, look at the whole animal and assess many different signals, as well as the environment, to get the full picture.
Safety Disclaimer: Be cautious if your horse is exhibiting any of the signs from the list below. If your horse is clearly angry, do not agitate him further. To keep yourself and others safe, seek shelter a safe distance away and call for help.
Here are 10 signs a horse is angry:
There’re many situations where horses might show their teeth. Examples are yawning or the Flehmen response, where horses curl up their upper lip to draw a strange smell into their specialized organ system for analysis. Stallions often perform this behavior around mares or you can trigger it by peeling an orange in front of your horse.
While none of these behaviors are threatening, when horses bare their teeth while rolling their eyes and flattening their ears, it is time to get serious. This is the stage where a horse is ready to fight back and it is a good idea to put some distance between yourself and the animal.
If handled and cared for properly, not many domestic horses will get to this level of anger. However, keep in mind that when an angry horse bares his teeth, it is likely a bite will follow and stay well away.
Also, read our guide on 8 things horses dislike and you should avoid doing.
A horse’s ears have an enormous range of motion and can rotate up to 180 degrees. This allows horses to detect the source of a sound more accurately and receive more information. When listening to a sound coming from behind, horses turn their ears backwards. This can often be mistaken for a sign of anger.
One of the most obvious signs of anger in horses are the ears flattened against the neck. Horses do this instinctively, so they don’t get damaged or torn off during a potential battle. This sign is often displayed together with a tense facial expression and bared teeth, in which case the best thing to do is to stay away.
When you see a horse flattening his ears, be careful. Sometimes this is an expression of denial, and you may reprimand the horse if you know him well. A horse might also flatten his ears to express discomfort or pain, so check the tack and areas of the body to make sure everything is okay.
Tense facial expression
Did you know that the facial expressions of horses are just as complex as ours? Indeed, scientists have identified that they play a vital role in how horses communicate between each other and with humans. In fact, they can easily recognize the emotional value of both horse and human facial expressions!
Similarly to humans, much of how a horse is feeling is written on his face. When the muscles are relaxed and there’re no wrinkles around the eyes and the muzzle, the horse is happy and resting. However, when the opposite is true, there is a high chance the horse might be angry or in pain, so evaluate the situation and proceed carefully.
After a little practice, reading a horse’s mood will come naturally and will greatly improve your relationship!
Pawing the ground most often indicates boredom and impatience in horses. If you leave your horse tied up without any food or company for example, he will soon start pawing to get your attention. Horses might also stamp when trying to get rid of an insect on their legs.
It is not uncommon to see horses playfully pawing in deep water or when exploring a novel object. However, when they’re performing this behavior standing opposite to another horse on the field, it is possible that there’s a conflict. In this case, the horse is threatening to charge.
When a horse is pawning in its stable, this can be a sign of stress or boredom. Without much stimulation, horses can soon get bored and angry about being in their stall all day. See our guide on the best horse stall boredom toys and horse enrich their environment.
The purpose of a horse’s tail is to chase flies and other insects away from the horse’s body. You will often see your horse swishing his tail in the summer months when there are plenty of insects around. Horses also move their tail in excitement, and certain breeds with Arabian blood showcase an extravagant banner-like tail carriage.
However, when a horse doesn’t seem relaxed or excited, tail swishing can indicate frustration, stress, or anger. In the herd, this signal lets other horses know that they crossed the line and might get kicked if they don’t stay clear. As we mention in our guide do horses like being ridden, if your horse is swishing his tail while riding, it is likely to be a sign of discomfort, and you should check if the tack fits well.
Turning to show the hind end
One of the first things every beginner horse rider is taught is never going near the horse’s backside. This is because they have a blind spot directly behind them and might not see you there, which might make them jump and kick out instinctively. You should also know that if a horse turns his rump on you, it means he is mad and threatening to kick.
When this happens, you have two options. The safest thing to do is to make your way back to the horse’s front as soon as possible. The other option is to reprimand the horse for being disrespectful and push his rump away from you.
By exerting pressure and compelling the horse to move away, you’re expressing dominance and becoming the leader of the herd. Beware that this has several risks and only do it if you know the animal extremely well. Always approach a horse from the front where they can see you and never from behind.
Lifting a hind leg
This sign should not be confused with the horse resting his fourth leg while relaxing or taking a nap. A special anatomical apparatus that locks the knee and the hock in place allows horses to stand on three legs for long periods of time to conserve energy.
However, when lifting a hind leg is accompanied by a tense body posture, flattened ears, and a raised head, it is very likely a sign the horse is angry. This behavior might or might not be preceded by the turning of the hindquarters towards the opponent. Either way, lifting a hind leg in this scenario is an immediate threat for a kick and you shouldn’t hesitate to get out of the way.
A wise thing to do when a horse is threatening is to direct his attention towards something else. Ask him to move immediately so he will have no choice but put his feet back onto the ground. If you can, remove the cause of the horse’s anger.
Whites in the eyes
There’re several reasons why you might see the whites showing in your horse’s eyes. Some breeds have this characteristic by default, such as the Appaloosa. Generally, horses will show this sign when they’re afraid, angry, or stressed, accompanied by an elevated head and neck posture.
As the horse rolls his eyes, the surrounding skin will tighten, which causes the whites to show. This can mean many things, so you might want to assess the situation, as well as your horse’s general behavior before you draw conclusions. If you also notice your horse flattening his ears, swishing his tail, and tensing up, there’s a good chance he might be angry, and you should be cautious.
Tense body posture
A rather generic sign of anger in horses is a tense body posture. In this state, you will notice your horse holding his head and neck high, swishing his tail, and moving with tense muscles. While tension in the body can indicate stress, discomfort, or disease, in the right context it can also mean the horse is angry.
A tense body posture almost always accompanies other signs of anger in horses. It creates the look of an uptight horse, and you should investigate the situation to find a solution. As mentioned in our guide on the signs a horse is happy, a happy and content horse will have a relaxed postured.
Please note that anger in horses can stem from long-term discomfort or pain. If your horse repeatedly appears angry in certain situations, for example, while riding, try to find the cause of the problem first. At this stage, a vet, saddle fitter, dentist, or other equine professionals can be a great asset.
At rest, a horse’s muzzle is generally soft and relaxed. You might also see the lower lip hanging loosely with the eyes half-closed. When a horse is pursing his lips and flaring his nostrils, he is most likely stressed, angry or in pain.
A pursed lip can be an early sign that a horse is planning to bite. It is one of the more subtle signs of anger in horses, so you should watch out for other signals such as a tense facial expression, heavy breathing, flattened ears, or uptight body posture. If you conclude that your horse is mad, use your best judgment to handle the situation or ask for help.
Also read: 8 signs a horse likes you