Body Language 101 - Part One: Intros and Ears

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I'm not an expert by any means, but I consider body language to be the single most important thing we can learn when it comes to being around horses. Horses are inherently honest and forthright communicators and just as we expect them to learn to understand us, so should we make the same effort to understand them. It is the "failure to communicate" that so often causes problems between people and horses. By the time a horse kicks or bites, he has usually run through several milder attempts to communicate his feelings to us which were either ignored or (more likely) went completely unnoticed. How many times have you heard someone begin relating an incident with, "I don't know WHAT happened..."

The more I've studied horse's body language (both at home with our own and out and about at various places) the more fascinated I become as to the depths and the degrees of it. Watching horses and other people interacting with horses at public events can help you gain an even clearer understanding.

I've used my own photos where possible and tried to find as many additional photographs as I could for you (without infringing on copyrights or stepping on toes) and I hope you find it every bit as amazing as I do - I just LOVE this stuff! :o)

PHOTO: Cinnamon (L) and Katie (R) We really miss Katie's antics; she was a little stinker and always managed to get into trouble (she was sold back to her previous owner, who decided he wanted her back).

Although equine body language can be pretty easy to understand superficially, it is actually a very complex topic. I have tried hard to share the subtleties and nuances of what I've learned on this lens (without being too confusing) and hopefully have managed to make it kid friendly and easy enough to understand to include those with little to no horse knowledge too. I didn't want anybody to feel left out :o)

Protocol Please: Introduce Yourself

Would you ever consider running up to a stranger on the street, grabbing them in an enthusiastic bear hug and then giving them a big smacking kiss on the cheek? Of course not! As ridiculous as that example may sound, that's just what we're doing when we march right up to a horse, plant ourselves in their personal space and start petting them without so much as a by-your-leave.

Now don't get me wrong, horses are pretty tolerant of our "lack of manners", but that's no reason for us not to practice them. Almost all horses (with a few rare exceptions) love to have attention from people; it's only that they would prefer to be asked first. This is easy enough to accomplish: simply walk up to the horse and give them a moment to check you out (extend your hand with fingers curled under if you like; this somewhat mimics another horse extending his nose in friendship or greeting). That's all there is to it!

PHOTO: Champ exchanging introductions with one of our "unofficial" visitors :o)

Body Language Basics

Horses are masters of subtlety, which oftentimes cause problems for we humans (as masters of large bricks). The horse is primarily a visual communicator (we are primarily auditory), and they are capable of communicating a vast array of thoughts and feelings through body language. Just as we use voice inflection and volume to talk-Talk-TALK, so do horses engage in specific degrees of body language. Communication can be talking - using one or two specific areas, e.g. the head and ears; a more emphatic statement - using several areas at once, e.g. ears, nose & head; or the horse's equivalent of shouting - e.g. pinning the ears back, a pinched nose, rapid swishing of the tail, and moving the head backwards and to the side to indicate extreme anger (the last group of signs often preface a kick-see photo).

You didn't listen to what I said, and you didn't listen to what I Said, Sooooo...

The Ears

The direction of a horse's ears, when paired with other body language, can indicate what that horse is thinking or feeling in addition to where his attention is. With the exception of additional body language, a horse's primary focus tends to be wherever his ears are pointing.

Pricked (Forward) - Alert or awake. Can indicate interest in an object or sound; curiosity, and/or happiness (just watch how they ping to attention when you approach with a feedbucket :o)

Drooping/Floppy - Dozing, content, relaxed and/or happy.

Laid Back - Requesting something (nose out), listening to or focusing on something behind him (head usually up), or concentrating intently (head lowered slightly and nose pulled in toward chest). Just as we may furrow our brow and frown when we are seriously focused on a task, so do they.

Pinned Back - Annoyance or anger. If the horse is mildly annoyed, he may pin them back for a moment (this is usually accompanied by the head moving back and to the side slightly) before pointing them forward again; if he is very angry, they will all but disappear into his mane.

Multidirectional - Hesitancy or confusion (flicking forward-back-forward or forward-side-forward) or listening in two directions at once.

The Ear Flick - An acknowledgment (when one ear pops back to you and returns to its previous position; I liken this to our "uh-huh").

Here I am introducing Bella to Mr. Rain Slicker (L):

Note the change of direction in Bella's ears when I place the rain slicker on her back. She is still paying attention to me, but she is also focused on the slicker (the slight tilt of her head in the photo on the right indicates she is definitely thinking about this).

Relaxed and Happy

Lady is dozing (L) and Shadow is all but cross-eyed with equine ecstasy from getting his chest scratched.(R)

Laid Back (L) vs. Pinned (R)

The horse on the left is either dozing or listening to something behind him, but the pony on the right is obviously angry about something (note the pinch
ed nostrils). Chances are, an attempt to pet this cranky little guy would result in either a snap or a bite (ouch).

Pricked (L) and Multidirectional (R)

If you read the Farm Day blog post, you may recognize this big lug (it's Champ): He was very curious and eager to "meet" the the strange new creature in the photo on the left (ears are up, nose is out, nostrils are flared and neck is arched). He was not quite as sure, however, about the piglet (notice how his ears are flicking front to back, indicating his uncertainty; his neck is straight, plus his head is a little higher and pulled back slightly).

The Ear Flick

For some reason, this particular movement is my favorite (maybe because every time I see it I hear "Uh-Huh" or " 'Kay " in my head :o)

STAY TUNED: Up next will be a post on the eyes and nose (they're considerably shorter than this one).

Hope you enjoyed the post, stay tuned for the next installment!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Very easy to understand, but with lots of info, I can't wait to read more :)

Your comments really brighten my day!

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