A Horse’s Body Language

The following was prepared by Debbie Stevens as part of the 2020 Brownsboro Alliance Virtual Adventures.

When reading horses, it’s important to look at each indicator and put them together to form a whole expression.  For example, a horse with his ears forward may mean a number of different things. You must look at the animal’s stance and other body signals to determine exactly how he is feeling.  Here are some common body signals that horses and ponies use to communicate.


The first thing I look for in a horse is the look in their eyes.  A wide range of emotions can be determined from the eyes.  A horse may have a kind, worried, curious, wild, gentle or intelligent “look” to their eyes.  Here are few indicators to help you read a horse’s eyes:

  • Whites visible (except in appaloosas) the wide open look – anxious and angry
  • Half-Closed – tired, relaxed, sleeping
  • Wrinkled – worried
  • Blinking – processing information, thinking
  • Soft Eye – gentle, relaxed, learning mode


Watching the horse’s ears can help determine where the horse is focusing and how it is feeling.  Generally a horse is focused on what the ears might be pointing at.

  • Pointing Forward – attentive, curious
  • Rigid Pointing – fear, uncertainty
  • Turned Back – focused on something behind, tired
  • Droop – tired, sleepy, bored
  • Pinned Back Tightly against the head – threatening, aggressive, angry warning
  • Pointing in Different Directions – focused on two things at once
  • Rotating – lots going on, curious, nervous, indecisive
  • Airplane Ears – drooped out to the side – depressed, drugged, unwell, sleeping
  • Neutral – normal


  • Tight/Hard Lips – anxious, tense
  • Wrinkled Muzzle – nervous, worried
  • Licking/Chewing – stress release, digesting ideas, acknowledgement
  • Drooping Lip – relaxed, bored
  • Swishing/Mobile Muzzle – curious, extroverted
  • Flared Nostrils – nervous, excited, alert, working
  • Relaxed Nostrils, Soft Muzzle – neutral, relaxed
  • Flapping Lower Lip – unfocused, sensitive, nervous
  • Open Mouth, Mouthing – often seen in foals – “I’m a baby – don’t hurt me!”


  • Low – accepting, relaxed
  • High – fear, anxiety, defiance
  • Level – neutral, focused


  • Swishing – annoyed, irritated, flies
  • Flagged – excited, happy, playful, alarmed (often seen in Arabians and foals)
  • High/Raised – attentive, excited, happy
  • Low – submissive
  • Neutral/Level – focused, normal
  • Clamped Down – fearful


  • Pawing – frustrated
  • Standing Square – attentive
  • Hind Hoof Resting – relaxed
  • Hind Leg Lifted – warning, defensive
  • Stamping – flies, mild irritation
  • Striking – angry, threatening, fighting
  • Dancing around – nervous, excited frightened