Understanding what a horse is saying is an important aspect of good horsemanship but it can also be extremely helpful around horses that you don’t know which is why I decided to write this article.
Have you ever wondered what horses are saying to each other when they all start whinnying at the same time or why some horses seem to sigh a lot? While every horse has their own personality and will vocalize in different ways there are a few set rules that each sound will follow.
Do horses talk to each other?
You might not think that horses ‘talk’ to each other but while the majority of their communication is done through body language there is also a lot of verbal dialogue between horses. While we may not understand what they’re saying (just as we may not understand somebody speaking a foreign language) it doesn’t mean to say that their language doesn’t have a definitive meaning. In fact, horses talk, verbally, to each other far more than you might realize with each sound having its own meaning and sometimes even its own response.
When it comes to verbal communication horses are very similar to us, some of their ‘words’ are simple to understand whereas others can be complex and perplexing. Also, like us, every horse has their own ‘voice’ that other horses will recognize, just as the same as you’ll recognize your friend’s voice as well as you know their face.
What are the sounds that horses make?
While nobody can argue that horses have the same level of vocal language that we do, the sounds they do make carry a lot more meaning than you might realize. While it’s not possible to explain everything a particular sound could mean the table below gives a brief idea of the most common meanings behind each sound.
|Whinny/Neigh||Where are you?|
|Whinny to say I’m over here|
|Nicker (mare)||Come here||A foal will go to its mother|
|Nicker (other horses)||I’m excited|
I can’t wait
|Snort||There’s something scary||–|
|Blowing||I’m happy||Horses will heighten the scenes|
|Squeal (mare)||Leave me alone||Stallions will leave the mare alone|
|Squeal (stallion)||Hello gorgeous||–|
|Groan||I’m in pain||–|
|Scream (wild)||I’m warning you|
|Scream (domestic)||The pain is unbearable||–|
|Clacking (teeth)||I’m only little||Horses won’t see the foal as a threat|
What does it mean when a horse whinnies or neighs?
Often described as a range of sounds (starting with a squeal it eventually transitions into a nicker), a whinny is a social call (that can carry for around 3/4 of a mile) that can be used to greet other horses, call for food or even let other horses (and people) know that you’re feeling lonely or anxious. If a horse is calling to a friend they’re typically asking where they are and will, more often than not, get a reply from eh other horse saying ‘I’m over here’.
Research has shown that a whinny (or neigh as some people call it) actually has two separate frequencies that convey a positive or negative emotion as well as the strength of that emotion. A positive whinny is shorter and has a lower pitch and is often accompanied by a lower head carriage and forward-facing ears while a negative whinny lasts for longer and is higher in pitch. A negative whinny often goes hand in hand with the ears flicking back and forth as well as the horse pacing up and down.
As well as whinnying to call for a friend, horses can also do the same when they’re separated from a friend, in this instance, the horse is letting everybody around know that they’re feeling lonely or insecure and want some comfort.
Surprisingly stallions have a slightly different whinny to that of a mare, at the end of it they’ll add a little grunt. It’s not known for sure why they do it but it’s believed it’s to show their prowess.
Why do horses nicker?
While a nicker is probably the most common of all horse sounds it’s also the most misunderstood sound and is wrong believed by many to be a sign that a horse is frightened. There can be a negative meaning to a nicker but never anything as severe as the horse is fearing something. Often described as a soft purring sound, a nicker is the loudest and longest of all horse sounds and can carry for around 30 yards.
A friendly expression of anticipation or excitement, horses often nicker when they know food is on its way or when you arrive at the yard. The sound is also made by mares when their foal wanders too far away, they’re essentially telling the foal to come back, it’s a sound that all foals are born to react to. Some stallions will also nicker as a way of showing off to a mare, they’re basically saying ‘look at me’.
Like so many other sounds a nicker can have multiple meanings which is why it’s crucial to pay attention to the horse’s whole demeanor. If they feel threatened or cornered, some horses will nicker as a way of displaying their anxiety. You can easily tell if this is why your horse is nickering though by their ears, when a horse is tense they’ll start to flick their ears back and forth.
If your horse nickers when he thinks you have treats it’s important to not give him anything until he stops. You might think that it’s endearing behavior but your horse is doing it because he thinks he’s dominant. Instead, it’s better to wait until he stops before giving him the treat, otherwise, you’re effectively rewarding this behavior. If, however, your horse does this around normal feeding time don’t worry, it’s just his excitement about being fed.
What does it mean when a horse snorts?
As you might expect horses snort by breathing in then forcing that air through their nostrils, but what you might not realize is that horses will alter the volume of the snort depending on how anxious or worried he is. A snort is an alarm call to alert other horses of a possible treat somewhere, they may also ad other ‘effects’ such as a rattle sound to the snort if they perceive the danger as being severe. Horses can also snort if they pick up an unusual scent while you’re both out riding.
Snorting not only alerts other horses to a possible threat but also allows the horse to clear his airways, giving him the ability to flee if the threat turns out to be real. This is one of the reasons why a snort won’t travel very far (only around 30 to 40 feet), it carries just far enough to alert other horses in the herd but not so far that a possible predator hears.
Horses can also snort when they’re feeling relaxed and content which is why you need to read your horse’s body language too, is his head raised or low, and what about the ears, are they alert, relaxed or pinned back? When a horse raises his head and swivels his ears it’s because he’s wary of something and is trying to find out where a threat is coming from.
Some horses will also snort when they’re playing, they’ll snort then run away straight after, this is more common in younger horses though, and is a way of them testing their flight response.
What’s the difference between a horse snorting and blowing?
While a snort and blow are very similar a blow is much mellower and more drawn-out than a snort. A blow generally doesn’t have the fluttering sound that a snort does. The main difference between a blow and a snort is the meaning, blows indicate that a horse is happy, content, and relaxed while the snort is the complete opposite and is a sign there’s danger about.
A blow has far less force than a snort and is typically used as a greeting or when the horse is curious and wants to know what something is. Strangely enough, it’s also how horses ‘kiss’, they put their nostrils together and then gently blow air into each other’s nose.
What’s a horse saying when it squeals?
You might think that squealing is reserved for rodents and smaller animals but not only can horses squeal, it’s also just as high pitched (in terms of pitch in relation to the size of the animal) and piercing as that of a rodent. Unlike that of a much smaller animal though, the squeal of a horse can be heard at around 100 feet away.
A squeal is a kind of greeting, that normally begins with interest and intrigue but can quickly become a sign of aggression. When two horses meet for the first time they’ll sniff each other before one of them squeals. They do this as a sign of their dominance which is okay if the other horse backs off, but if not it can very quickly resort into a fight with one of the horses striking out at the other. If this happens you’ll need to be very careful as it can be especially dangerous if you’re stuck in the middle.
While any horse can squeal, outside of horses greeting, it’s far more common in mares when they’re trying to ward off the advances of an overly enthusiastic stallion, it’s their way of saying back off I’m not interested.
Why do horses sigh?
It’s unclear as to whether horses have learned to sigh by being around us or if it’s a natural part of their vocabulary but one thing that is clear is that they do it far more around us than they do around other horses. Typically horses sigh as a form of relief (such as when you take their saddle off or groom them) but they can also do so because they’re happy, calm, and relaxed or because they’re bored.
Not all horses will sigh (just as not all people will) but they have been known to do so when they’re being massaged or groomed as well as when they’re spending some quality time with their best buddy. On the other hand, though horses can also sigh when they’re bored of doing the same thing all of the time or are just fed up with standing still for a long period of time.
What does it mean when a horse groans?
A low-pitched guttural sound that can be habitual, some horses will groan out of habit when they’re jumping (similar to a tennis player grunting when they’re stretching to hit the ball). Outside of this habit though, a horse will normally groan when they’re in pain.
While it doesn’t always mean your horse is in pain if he’s groaning at a particular time or when you do something specific (such as put the saddle on him) it’s a good idea to check your horse over for any signs of injury or trauma.
If your horse is only groaning while you’re riding then you should check the tack is fitted properly and make sure you’re not too heavy for the horse. Conversely, if he’s doing it while he’s eating it could indicate he has a problem with his digestive tract. Regardless of what it is, you should speak to your veterinarian about any underlying issues that could be causing your horse to groan.
Why do horses scream?
While it’s not impossible for domestic horses to scream it’s far more common in wild horses that are fighting, typically for herd dominance. The pitch of the scream will determine how strong the feeling is but as a rule a scream signifies extreme fear or anger and is a sign for other horses to back off.
There will always be an exception to every rule, but in general, when domestic horses scream it’s a sign that the horse is in a lot pain or has suffered a severe injury so you should call your veterinarian immediately.
What does it mean when a horse ‘roars’?
It might sound odd to say that horses roar and while they don’t do so in the conventional sense there is a condition, known as ‘roaring horse noise’, that afflicts some horses which can sound as if they’re roaring, albeit quietly compared to a cougar or other big cat. The proper name for the condition is Laryngeal Hemiplegia and occurs in horses that have some form of nerve damage in their throat. The damage, which typically affects the nerve that controls the cartilage in the throat, means that the larynx is either partially or completely paralyzed. This means that the air can’t pass quietly when the horse breathes out, hence the ‘roaring’ sound they make.
There’s no known cure for this but thankfully most horses that suffer from the condition aren’t negatively affected at all. Its generally only performance horses that need any form of intervention which usually involves an operation to enable them to breathe more easily.
What does it mean when a foal opens and closes its mouth?
Some foals and youngsters (typically under the age of three) will make a clacking sound by opening and semi-closing their mouths as if they’re chewing. While this isn’t really classed as a form of verbal communication it certainly is part of their language which is why I decided to include it here.
Sometimes called champing this behavior, known as clacking teeth, often occurs when the foal is in unfamiliar surroundings or is around strange horses. It’s not known for sure why they do it but it’s believed that they’re telling other horses that they’re only small and that they’re not a threat at all.
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