Body language translation - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 02:39 AM Thread Starter
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Body language translation

Aside from the obvious stuff like pinned ears or swishing tails, anyone wanna translate some typical horse body languages and signs that aren't so obvious?

I know that turning a butt to you is disrespectful, but what's it mean? Why do they rub their heads on you? Why do they paw? Why do some swing their heads around when let out? Why do they grunt? How do they show affection?

Lol these are examples. Aaaaaand GO!
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post #2 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 03:55 AM
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Here is a chart from Equus magazine that many people find a good general reference..

Originally Posted by Tokoneki View Post
I know that turning a butt to you is disrespectful, but what's it mean?
Watch out, because this one means "I want to kick you."

Why do they rub their heads on you?
Typically because they want to use you as a scratching post.

Why do they paw?
Impatience, e.g. doesn't want to be tied anymore, or eager to go then stopping for a while on the trail, etc. Some horse also get very excited when fed and will paw.

Why do some swing their heads around when let out?
I've heard different explanations for this, but with our mares it always appears to mean something along the lines of "let's play", e.g. let's run around as fast as we can, kicking up our heels like crazy horses.

Why do they grunt?
Grunting or snorting is usually a sign of being afraid.

How do they show affection?
An age old discussion that I won't touch, but something like nickering is certainly in the "it's nice to have you around" column.

On the sixth day, God created the Quarter Horse.
On the seventh day, he Painted the good ones.
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post #3 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 05:19 AM
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To firmly believe that there is a world wide interpretation for any horse's 'acts of non verbal communication' between horse and human in any language is perhaps stretching the fact. But horses definitely communicate, that is for sure and there are only so many 'gestures' which they can make physically. PHMs 'translation' would fit what I interpret to be my own horse's 'acts of communication'.

It is important for you to try to verify your own horse's gestures with you its owner.

I can add another to the list - my horse regularly nudges my hand and that gesture definitely means 'Give me another treat' (which she can smell are always kept in my right hand pocket').

My own horse likes to stand head to head with me and anyone whom I am talking with. Her head with be inches away from my own and at the same level. I kid myself that she is listening but I know she likes to feel part of the 'conversation between the humans'. She can't contribute to the conversation but she seems to get the gist of what is being said - (or am I kidding myself?)

With my dog, 'acts of communication' coincide with routine. He will come up and nudge me at around 3.00pm every day. He knows that I normally walk him at about that time and following the walk I will always feed him his 'tea'. Likewise routine is a very important part of a horse's life - they come to expect adherence to a regular routine.

Your own response to a horses 'words' (for this is probably what the horse is expressing by a gesture) is very important and if the 'word' is a 'request' my belief is that where possible the 'request' should always be acknowledged.

But you should include all positive gestures - ie standing by the gate as dusk approaches is also a 'request' asking to 'come in'.
Running up and down the fence line equates to 'I am stressed out'

Gestures of emotion are controversial subject with horse owners in that horses are not supposed to have emotions towards humans - but I'll take a 'lick' from my horse as a 'kiss' any day.

But for sure communicate is one thing a horse does - the big problem for we humans is to interpret correctly what has been 'said' by a horse's gestures.

It surprises me that in the English language no specific word has come into use to describe a horse's gestures.

Last edited by xxBarry Godden; 12-27-2011 at 05:24 AM.
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post #4 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 05:57 AM
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There are SO many variables when it comes to 'what does it mean?'

A tail swish doesn't always mean thing. It could be a warning, annoyance, swishing a fly away, a test, resistance, pain, irritation... many, many different things and words.

Turning their butt doesn't always mean one thing.

Pinning their ears doesn't always mean one thing.

Raising their heads doesn't always mean one thing.

A look can mean a million different things.

Their body stance can mean a million different things.

Etc etc etc.

Me personally, this question can't be answered easily, because the way the horse does something will not only mean one human word. You need to be looking at the horse and the many stimulus and the environment around the horse as to why and what could it be doing what it is doing... and not only that, it's a life long forever developing understanding.
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post #5 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 06:19 AM
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I think that every horse is individual, so you first need to get to know your horse, before you could make conclusions about what is he traing to say!
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post #6 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 06:26 AM
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Horses communicate through emotions - physical actions are just a way to express these emotions. Of course, there is the basic "vocabulary" we all know, but, to really know a horse, one must observe each horse individually, learn the horses' own language and ways of expressing emotions. There are no books and charts, which can describe in depth the language of an individual horse. For example - pawing. My gelding paws when he is impatient. He also paws, when he is frustrated by an exercise and wants to show something easier he already knows, so that I left him alone with the things he doesn't understand. He also paws, when he's irritated by a human being. He sometimes paws, when he feels like playing and tries to encourage me to join him. He also paws to ask for a treat. And it is up to me to understand, which way of pawing he is using this time. :) Also, it can be done only by observing the mimics - eyes, ears, overall facial expression, muscle tension, tail movemen, etc. - of a horse. One gesture alone tells nothing or very little and superficial, the horse as a whole does. That is just as with people - for example, if I said "And then Andy smiled." - how would you imagine him smiling? ;)
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post #7 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 07:51 AM
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My Rottweiler lives with me so the connection between us is much deeper that any connection can ever be with my horse. We have a dog flap which in case of need at night he will go through to reach the garden to relieve himself. However he is too big to get back through the flap to return indoors. So he will lay there outside the door to the garden until I get his request to be let in, rise out of bed, go downstairs and open the door. Rarely does he bark to say "I've finished - let me back in". He may occasionally but not always. Strangely even though I may have been fast asleep, I'll hear a single bark and wake up. But sometimes I don't remember hearing the bark but I sense he has called. As I open the back door he brushes past me as much to say 'You took your time" and off he wanders to his bed.

At times I get a distinct impression that he looks at me in utter exasperation and says to himself 'didn't you hear/feel/sense/see/expect/guess what I said?"

At other times when he wants something out of the ordinary he will come up and stare at me. I can see from his facial expression that he is silently asking for something as though there is a means of communication that dogs have which we humans don't have - some sort of thought transfer perhaps. Nowadays whenever he stops, stands and stares at me, then I know I must seek out the meaning of the request.

I always make a point after eating a meal of setting aside a small tidbit for each of my two dogs. It is usually less than a mouthful. My wife goes mad but I still do it. SO at breakfast time, he always has a drop of milk in his tin dog bowl. He will never be in sight but he knows I'll stand up and go over to the worktop and partly fill his bowl with milk. Then as I put the tin bowl down on the ceramic tiled floor it will make a scraping noise - immediately I'll hear the patter of his feet and round the corner he will come. He will have been waiting to hear the bowl scrape. When he has drunk the first bowl, he will invariably stand, look up at me and effectively say with his eyes: "more, please".

Now some people say a dog is not a horse, but a dog is a species of animal which has devised a way of communicating with its human owner and I assume that since the horse faces the same problem of communication with its human rider that it will use similar tactics.

My belief is that to enjoy full communication with either dogs or horses, humans have to let them into their lives. You can't expect to communicate with an animal unless the animal has a way of communicating with you.

Have you ever watched a horse meet with a friendly dog? The horse will put its nose down and the dog will sniff - or are they communicating with each other in some silent way?
Do dogs and horses have a radio wave receiver in their heads?
Do they have a sense we humans don't have?

Since the invention of the micro chip, I have dropped the notion that the size of a brain matters especially as I am told these days that much of a human's relatively large brain lies dormant and unused.
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post #8 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 07:57 AM
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I've seen dog-horse communication fail miserably when an exuberant dog has bounced up to my horse and tried to play with her by leaping up and nipping playfully at her face, as dogs do to each other. The horse had a view on this and pinned her ears and swished her tail at it. Dog did not understand horse body language so kept trying to play, but of course the horse had no way of knowing that the dog could not understand her warning, so the horse threw a kick in its direction. The dog understood that!
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post #9 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 10:06 AM
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Personally I believe the head swing is a dominance-establishing gesture. If you watch horses in the herd, they do this when another horse approaches them, it's the first movement they make to say, "Stay outa my space." It seems to me that the lateral swing (side to side) is less aggressive than the vertical (up-down nodding). If a horse did this while I was turning him out, I would think he was saying, "Let me GO and play now."

As to why, possibly it's because swinging the head laterally gives the horse a bigger range of vision so they can "protect" more space. And the head nod of course makes a horse seem taller and bigger. These are just my guesses as to the reasons for the instincts.

I haven't ever seen this described this way by anyone else, it's just what I have observed myself. The best way to figure out what horse language means is to watch horses in a herd and see what they do and when they do it, and how the other horses react.
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post #10 of 12 Old 12-27-2011, 10:45 AM Thread Starter
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Lots of good reads!
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