Although vocal sounds have their time and place in the equine language, the primary way horses express themselves is through physical communication.
Learning how to read your horse is therefore essential in order to determine his state of mind and wellbeing.
While signs of stress and pain are usually quite obvious, it takes skill to figure out when your horse is feeling good in his skin. Knowing what makes your horse happy is a great start towards developing a close bond and increasing his affection for you.
Here are 15 clear signs your horse is happy!
Horses are strongly emotional animals. They can have happy, sad, angry, afraid, excited… a whole range of feelings.
And just like humans, horses also have their emotions written on their faces. In fact, there are striking similarities between the facial expressions of horses and humans!
According to scientists, this is because the muscle arrangement on a horse’s face is very close to ours. If you look at your horse and think his face looks kinda happy, he probably is!
A happy horse’s nostrils should be round and soft to the touch. If the contour of the nose is thin and rigid with wrinkles appearing on the muzzle, that means the horse is tense.
Diluted nostrils followed by widening eyes and a loud, deep snorting sound indicates fear and stress in horses. This might also be accompanied by ragged breathing.
If your horse twitches or lifts his upper lip slightly while you’re grooming him, that is a definitive sign he’s happy.
Horses usually do this when you scratch their favorite spot. They will often half-close their eyes and lift/tilt their neck while enjoying the treat. Some horses will also lean against your hand to encourage you to keep going.
Finding your horse’s favourite spot is a great way to bond together. Try scratching him just behind the ears, on the neck, below the withers or on top of the tail!
Your horse’s eyes should be clear and inquisitive when he’s happy. If your horse is rolling his eyes with the whites showing, it means he’s stressed or afraid.
Also, watch out for signs of disease in the eyes such as excessive tearing, squinting, cloudiness or signs of infection.
Hanging lower lip
A low hanging lip is the universal sign of a happy, docile horse, along with a lowered head and the eyes half closed.
You might also notice your horse drooling in this state or resting one of his hindlegs. On the other hand, a thin and tense lip line is a sign of pain, stress and irritation in horses.
Relaxed lower jaw
Just like a dangling lower lip, a relaxed jaw contributes to the image of a content animal. Although not as obvious a sign, you can tell when your horse’s jaw is relaxed as the chewing muscles will be smooth instead of bulgy and veiny. You can also run your hand over your horse’s lower jaw to feel if the muscles are tense.
Similarly to humans, a horse’s tightly clenched jaw is an indication of stress and fear. It’s also frequently accompanied by teeth grinding.
Ears pricked forward
A happy and healthy horse should always be inquisitive and alert about his environment.
Forward-facing ears indicate that the horse is focusing his attention on something in front of him. The ears might also turn in the direction of a sound, which means the horse is vigilant and attentive.
However, if the ears are hanging down the side it could mean the horse is sick or lethargic. Beware of a horse with pinned back ears as that is always a sign of aggression/dominant behaviour!
If your horse’s tail is hanging straight and relaxed, there’s a good chance he’s calm and happy.
Interestingly, lifting the tail can also be considered a sign of happiness. While trotting or cantering, many horses will raise their tails if they’re feeling excited or good in their skin.
How high the tail can rise differs from breed to breed. Horses with Arabian blood can elevate their tail much higher as opposed to other breeds. However, do not confuse this behaviour with a tense/swishing tail as these are signs of distress.
Play comes in many forms to horses. They often have fun pawing the ground, racing their herd mates, bucking or rearing. In any case, a playful horse is a happy horse.
Horses play with humans too. They especially enjoy chewing on our shoes and clothes or nibbling on whatever objects they can reach. Just be careful they don’t take it too far as horseplay can become very rough very quickly!
Gently nibbling each other’s neck and withers is a typical herd behaviour meant to strengthen the bond between two horses. It is also a sign that your horse is happy with his herdmates and enjoys life on the field.
Some horses also do this to humans, which might be cute at first and is definitely a sign of affection. But be careful as our skin is way more sensitive than theirs!
Snorting has generally been associated with a content and happy state in horses. They produce the snorting sound when breathing out rapidly through their nostrils. Horses might do this while being ridden or handled from the ground.
Scientists have observed that horses living in a stress-free, natural environment produce about twice as many snorting sounds as the horses of a riding centre.
Horses usually produce a light nickering sound when they’re happy to see someone. Mares often greet their foals this way. While doing so, they raise their head and point their ears in the direction of the newcomer.
You might’ve observed your horse nickering to you when you bring him his feed or when he’s been left alone for a long time.
Standing together with the herd
Horses are social animals, evolved to roam and survive in numbers. Their brains are wired to seek out the company of other horses. In a herd, they usually graze within 5 to 10 feet from each other.
So naturally, if a horse is standing isolated from the rest of the group, it’s a strong indication that they’re unhappy.
Normal bodily functions
Is your horse alert and responsive when you approach him? Is he eating and drinking normally? Are his bowel movements regular? If so, there’s a good chance your horse is healthy and happy.
Keep an eye out for signs that could indicate sickness such as as a faded coat, snotty nose, weight loss, depression, or colic.
Relaxed and grazing
In the wild and when turned out, horses spend between 10 and 17 hours a day grazing. By instinct, a happy and healthy horse will be chomping away on grass whenever he’s not playing or sleeping.
If he’s just standing on the field doing nothing or running around the pasture, that might be a sign your horse is ill/distressed.