Sometimes, it can be hard to tell how your horse is feeling. Since horses can’t talk, they have to communicate with us through body language. If you can read your horse’s body language, you can get a better understanding of whether they feel happy and relaxed or grumpy and stressed.
How can you tell your horse is happy? A horse will communicate that they are happy by:
- Being relaxed
- Paying attention
- Being engaged
- Wanting to play
When you recognize your horse’s signs for showing that they are happy, it will also help you recognize the signs that they are frustrated or stressed. Having this ability will help you to work in your horse’s favor to keep them feeling their best.
A Happy Horse Will Be Relaxed
My gelding absolutely loves to have his mane brushed; it has to be one of his most favorite things in the world. It never fails; when I brush his mane, he closes his eyes, his bottom lip gets heavy, and he rests his hind leg. I can always tell that he’s enjoying himself.
Here are some common ways horses will communicate that they are relaxed:
- closing their eyes
- relaxing their jaw
- drooping their bottom lip
- resting one of their hind legs
- sighing heavily
- relaxing their ears to the side
- lowering their head
I usually see horses become relaxed when they’re being brushed, standing in front of a fan on a hot day, or even just being pat by their owner. Helping your horse relax can go a long way in building your bond and advancing your training.
In order to create a bond with your horse and gain their trust, they need to know that they can relax around you. Horses are flight animals; that means they’re hesitant to rest and relax around someone they’re unsure of.
Take the time to simply spend quality time with your horse in order to show them that they can trust you. To learn more, check out our article, Bonding With Your Horse: 8 Simple Tips That Actually Work.
A horse will automatically attach a negative or positive association to you depending on the atmosphere you create. If the majority of the time you’re requiring something of your horse and creating a stressful environment, the horse will associate you with that. They’ll have a hard time relaxing around you.
On the other hand, if you create a calm and peaceful environment, your horse will positively associate those feelings with you. The horse will enjoy being around you and they’ll enjoy your company.
A Happy Horse Will Pay Attention
Like I mentioned above, my gelding absolutely loves his mane brushed. He’ll fall half asleep anytime he sees the brush come out of the bucket. Once I brush his mane and walk away, I love to see my gelding watch me through his half-closed eyes. His ears perk up towards me and I can tell he’s interested in what I’m doing.
A happy horse will pay attention, whether they’re half-asleep or not. Here are some ways to tell if your horse is paying attention:
- Their ears will point toward you
- They will walk towards you rather than walking away
- They won’t be distracted by other activities going on
When it comes to your horse paying attention to you, there is one point in particular that I want to touch on. A horse that is paying attention won’t be distracted by other things going on around them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a calm and relaxed horse suddenly become stressed out and nervous because of something that happened around them.
Since horses are always on the lookout for something that may be a danger to them, it can be hard for your horse to maintain the same level of calm and relaxed all the time. To help your horse not worry, you can encourage them to pay attention.
When your horse starts to get spooked or worked up, you want to get your horse to focus back on you. Focusing on you will help them relax. To learn more, take a look at our article, How to Get Your Horse to Pay Attention to You.
A Happy Horse Will Be Engaged
I had a pony growing up that absolutely loved to jump. Not only would she occasionally jump out of her pasture, but she also rocked it at the jumping competitions. When we would enter the ring for our round, I could tell she knew what was about to happen. She’d perk up, get focused, and respond to the slightest cue.
A happy horse will be engaged in what you’re asking them to do. Here are some ways you will be able to tell if your horse’s mind is engaged:
- quick response to cues
- ears pointed towards you, whether on the ground or in the saddle
- forward-moving steps; no feet-dragging
- confidence and willingness
A horse that is engaged in the activity you’re doing is a blast to work with! I could tell that my little pony thoroughly enjoyed jumping simply by how effortlessly she did it. It’s great to know that not only are you having fun, but your horse is having fun as well!
That being said, it can be easy for horses to get bored and frustrated. Horse owners and riders tend to fall into monotonous routines; I certainly do! After a while, your horse may not find the same thrill in the sport as they previously did. They’ll become dull to cues, their attention will wander, and they may even act out.
A great way to keep your horse happy and their mind engaged is by including different and new activities to your routine. Try something that you and your horse have never done before! Take a break from vigorous training and go have some fun!
Change even the simple things about your routine, like picking out the hooves before you brush your horse or leading them a different way around the barn. This will keep things interesting for your horse and help them stay focused by wondering what’s going to happen next.
A Happy Horse Will Want to Play
I had a mare once who could be quite emotional. One time, I put her into a new pasture with different horses thinking that it would be a nice change. However, she quickly developed a depressed behavior where she would stand at the gate all day looking sad. She wouldn’t even join the other horses to graze or bathe in the sun.
I decided to put her back with her old buddies in the old pasture, and her behavior went back to normal. She quickly went running to the other horses and caused a stampede of happiness.
A happy horse will want to play and spend time with other horses. Here are some ways to tell if your horse enjoys their herd:
- finding a “buddy,” one particular horse they’ll seem to bond with
- grazing with the herd
- being comfortable enough to lie down and sleep while another horse stands watch
- playing (this could look like galloping around, rearing, even play-fighting)
- scratching and grooming other horses with their teeth
Horses are herd animals so naturally, they’re going to feel happier with other horses. If you notice that your horse seems to be on the outs with the herd and not interacting with other horses, there may be something wrong.
Sometimes, it may seem like your horse tends to beat up on the other horses. Don’t worry, this is the hierarchy establishing itself within the herd; it has to happen. More horses will be more dominant than others. If it makes you feel any better, dominant horses are always respected by other horses in the herd.
If you feel like all the other horses are beating up on your horse, try and find an easy-going buddy to put your horse out with. There was one particular old broodmare that always took care of my horse that was low on the totem pole. These horses usually make great friends for your horse to bond with.
As with anything, some horses just need time to warm up to other horses. If your horse seems to be having issues, just keep a close eye on them.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Can I Tell if My Horse is Stressed?
Horses will usually demonstrate stress by doing the complete opposite of a happy horse. This would look like a horse being anxious, not being able to pay attention, not engaging with what you’re asking them to do, and not wanting to play or spend time with other horses.
As horse owners, we must monitor stress in our horses carefully. Stress can lead to multiple health problems in horses, specifically colic and gastric ulcers.
Knowing specific things that horses don’t like can help you determine where their stress is coming from. Check out our article, 6 Things Horses Don’t Like (And How to Handle Them) to see our personalized list.