Body Language Part Five: Look at That Punim!
Horses are expressive creatures and with close observation, you can learn to interpret the many gestures and movements that make up your horse’s language. Beyond happy nickers when your horse anticipates a treat, a horse’s face gives us many clues to interpret and can lead us to understanding our pony pals better.
What His Muzzle Says
Chewing and Licking: During training, it is a good sign if your horse begins to lick and chew. Thought to be a sign that your horse is relaxing and processing information, the licking and chewing action also demonstrates a release of tension within the jaw and often an increase in salivation.
Sucking Movement With Lips or Clacking teeth: Often a sign of submission, a horse may either raise his neck and click his teeth together or drop is head and make a sucking movement with his lips. This behavior is more common in foals and yearlings. Older horses may display this behavior if they are trapped by another horse as a submissive behavior almost as if to say, “I give up!”
Drooping Lip or Slack Mouth: When horses are asleep or relaxing, sometimes their lips will droop downward. Take care when approaching to not startle your horse since he is most likely in the middle of a siesta. If slackness in the mouth persists, however, it is a good idea to notify your vet as this may be a sign of injury or neurological issues.
Flehmen: Many mammals have a ducts called nasopalatine canals in their mouth that connect with the Jacobson’s organ to supplement their already powerful sense of smell. To access this organ, animals raise their head, curl back their lips and breathe air in and out through their mouth. One of the most comical to watch, the Flehmen response allows your horse to push scent particles through these ducts. Often horses and other animals will use this organ to analyze strong smells, especially pheromones. It also provides a great photo-op for giggling horse owners.
Tight or Pinched Lips: This gesture almost always indicates discomfort or anxiety. If you notice your horse’s mouth is tight, try to diagnose the issue and alleviate the source of concern.
Teeth Bared: If your horse’s ears are pinned and his mouth is slightly open with his teeth exposed, he is most likely within seconds of biting. Remove your self from the situation or redirect your horse immediately. This could be a behavior triggered by pain, so check saddle fit and consult your vet.
The eyes are the window to the soul.
Tension. As with tension in any other part of the body, tension around your horse’s eyes is an early sign of discomfort or anxiety. Though a subtle sign, learning to “read” your horse’s eyes can help avoid your horse using stronger methods of communication. My mare, Gina, has incredibly expressive eyes and sometimes it feels like she is having an entire conversation with her eyes. She definitely has mastered the art of the “mom eye” when she is not happy!
Darting Eyes: Often accompanied by an elevated head position, when your horse is flicking his eyes from side to side, he is signaling anxiety or fear. Regain your horse’s focus and determine the source of his discomfort.
Showing the Whites of the Eye: In some breeds of horses, like Appaloosas, the sclera (the white portion surrounding the cornea) is always visible. A riding student once confessed that she was afraid to ride Gina because she “alway looks mad.” My sweet Appy was happily munching on some hay at the time and I couldn’t figure out why my student thought Gina looked upset. When I questioned the student further, it turns out that she had read that seeing the whites of a horse’s eyes means they are angry or scared. While this is absolutely true in many cases, it is important to know what is normal for your horse to avoid misinterpreting body language.
“Soft” Eyes: This is a term that is thrown out by horsemen and women to describe a horse with a kind disposition who is eager to please. While a soft eye is hard to describe, it is easy to recognize. Here is a link to an interesting article from Western Horseman magazine that helps to explain how a horse’s demeanor can be “read” in their eyes.