Why Horses Neigh: Essential Behavior Guide

An Essential Behavior Guide to Why Horses Neigh

Horses are interesting creatures. Even the most experienced equestrian may not fully understand why a horse is behaving in a certain way. One of the most important things you can do to improve as both a rider and a horse owner is to educate yourself on the behaviors of your horse. Neighing is perhaps the most common of these important equine behaviors.

Why do horses neigh? Horses neigh for a variety of reasons. In short, horses’ neighs are meant to reflect their emotions. They may neigh to communicate anxiety or confidence. Horses also neigh to locate other horses. Finally, many horses neigh to greet their owner or other horses. Neighing is just one of many equine vocalizations that horses use to communicate their feelings.

As an equestrian, it is your responsibility to educate yourself on your horse’s behaviors and unique vocalizations. In doing so, you will be able to provide them with more effective training and care. In this post, we will take a closer look at why horses neigh. We will also discuss some of the other common equine vocalizations and their meanings.

Understanding Why Horses Neigh 

Especially when you are getting to know a new horse, you may be perplexed as to why they are making certain sounds. A simple neigh, sometimes called a whinny, can have a wide variety of meanings. 

Neighs have a unique sound, often starting as a squeal before ending as a nicker. Most neighs last around 1.5 seconds and are loud enough to be heard up to a half-mile away! As a young horse lover, the first horse sound you learned to mimic likely resembled a neigh.

Did you know that horses from the same herd have a similar neigh? Neighing, like many other behaviors, is regarded as unique to a particular horse. In many ways, a horse’s neigh serves as their personal identification.

If you spend any amount of time surrounded by horses from various herds, you will soon recognize the unique quality of each neigh. However, the unique qualities of a neigh are not the only identifying features. Male neighs vary from female neighs in the small grunt that a stallion will add at the end of their neigh. 

Horses Neigh to Reflect Their Emotions

Much like we use verbal cues and signals to reflect our emotions, horses neigh to reflect their emotions. As with other equine vocalizations, horses neigh to gather information, greet other horses, or signal a variety of emotions from anxiety to confidence. After spending time with your horse, you will begin to notice the nuances in the patterns of their neighs. This is a great way to gain insight into how your horse is feeling at any given moment.

Want to learn more about reading your horse’s emotions? Check out my article Is My Horse Happy?

Horses Neigh to Locate Other Horses

In many ways, the horse’s neigh is key to their survival in the wild. Much like a dog’s howl, a horse’s neigh helps them locate other horses if they become separated from the herd. Mares also use neighing to communicate with their foals. 

When one horse neighs, other horses in earshot (up to half a mile away) are likely to respond with a similar neigh. This alerts the horse of their location. The unique qualities of each herd’s neighs also come in handy in this situation. Studies have shown that a horse will react more strongly to the neighs of its own herd even if other horses neigh in response. Additionally, mares are much more responsive to the neighs of their foals than to any other horse.

Horses Neigh to Communicate Anxiety

Many new equestrians assume that constant neighing is a sign of fear. While this is not often the case, some horses neigh to communicate anxiety. An anxious horse may neigh to signal to their stablemate that they are in distress. 

Oftentimes, an anxious neigh will be high-pitched compared to a neigh offered as a greeting. Additionally, the body language of the horse will provide insight into the horse’s anxiety. Along with a high-pitched neigh, you may notice sweat, ears flicking back and forth, or a tail that is tucked.

If you recognize these or other signs of anxiety in your horse you must work to remedy the situation. While some horses may simply need time to adjust to their new surroundings, it is important to never expose your horse to undue anxiety or stress.

Horses Neigh to Communicate Confidence

On the opposite end of the spectrum, horses also neigh to communicate confidence! For this reason, neighing can be one of the most difficult equine vocalizations to decipher. A horse that is neighing in confidence will have a bold look, ears that are pricked forward, and a tail that is slightly lifted. The sound of the neigh will have a bold ring instead of the high-pitched squeal of anxiety. 

By taking the time to observe the various situations in which your horse neighs, you can gain a better understanding of the message it is trying to communicate.

Understanding Other Equine Vocalizations & Verbal Signals

Of course, neighing is just one of several equine vocalizations and verbal signals. Here are some interesting facts regarding some of the most common equine vocalizations:

Why Do Horses Snort?

The most common reason a horse snorts is to signal that danger is nearby. A snort lasts only about one second. This audible fluttering pulse is created by the vibration of the nostrils through a forceful exhale. Horses also snort when they are curious or fearful. A new situation of which your horse is wary will likely produce a snort signaling potential danger to nearby horses.

However, like many other equine vocalizations or body languages, snorting does not always signal danger. A horse may also snort to convey positive emotions such as anticipation or excitement! This is less common than snorting to signal danger, however. If you hear your horse snort, it is best to pay close attention to its surroundings to eliminate the threat.

Why Do Horses Squeal?

There is no sound quite like a horse’s squeal. Most times, a squeal is your horse telling you to stop! Mares will often squeal in objection to a stallion’s advances. Squeals can be heard at a distance of up to 100 feet and can last anywhere between .1 seconds and 1.7 seconds. 

Typically body language that accompanies a horse’s squeal includes pawing of the front hooves, arching of the neck, or other body languages that signal that something is wrong.

Why Do Horses Blow?

An equine vocalization that often goes unnoticed is a horse’s blow. Horses blow by exhaling air through their nose. A blow sounds similar to a snort but without the fluttering qualities, it carries less tension than a snort. A snort can signal either curiosity or contentment in your horse. 

Why Do Horses Groan?

Like humans, horses groan when they are in pain. This is perhaps one of the most important equine vocalizations you must be aware of. It is important to stop what you are doing to assess the situation if you hear your horse groan, especially if you are in the middle of a ride.

Common causes for horses’ groans include improperly fitting saddles, exhaustion, dehydration, or another source of injury. There is always the possibility that the horse simply has a habit of groaning. However, unless you know this to be the case with your horse, it is always better to be safe than sorry!

Learning Your Horse’s Vocalizations & Body Language

As an equestrian, it is both a responsibility and a privilege to learn more about the various vocalizations and body language your horse displays. Understanding these visual and verbal cues not only allows you to provide better care for your horse but also more effective training.

If you are not familiar with a horse you are riding or training, it is wise to carefully observe their habits in a variety of situations to familiarize yourself. This is the best way to prevent unnecessary anxiety, frustration, or strain once you begin working with the horse.

As with any aspect of horse riding or ownership, learning your horse’s vocalizations and body language takes time and effort. Over time, you will begin to develop a deep understanding of how your horse communicates. There is truly no greater reward for your hours of hard work! 

Related Questions

What sound does a horse make when they are happy? While each horse varies in the way they display their happiness, many horses neigh when they are feeling happy or content! A neigh that signals happiness will be soft, quiet, and relaxed – a perfect greeting call as you enter the stable.

How do horses show affection? Horses are affectionate towards humans who have gained their trust. A few of the ways a horse shows affection include approaching you without prompting, turning its heads and ears towards you, following you around, and having a relaxed demeanor in your presence. Learn how horses show affection by visiting my article Horse Affection: 10 Clear Ways Horses Show Affection.

Why do horses yawn? Although horses may yawn following a time of rest, there is often another reason behind the yawn. Some of the reasons a horse may yawn include relieving gastrointestinal distress, expressing stress or anxiety, or signaling dominance. Yawning is just another one of the many confusing behaviors of horses.

There are many other ways horses may try to communicate with you. Since they can’t talk, it’s important to be able to recognize communication methods and what your horse is trying to tell you. Here are some more articles about recognizing and understanding horse behavior:


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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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