If you provide care for horses at your sanctuary, then it is helpful to understand their vocalizations. If you interpret them correctly, vocalizations can provide vital insight into a resident’s emotional state and physical health. They can provide context to body language and behavior, allowing you to identify possible health issues, understand herd dynamics and how a resident may feel about you, your presence, your behaviors, and their comfort during events such as transportation, moving into new spaces, changes in herds, and procedures they may have to undergo. This resource is a glossary of some of the possible vocalizations you may hear a horse resident make. We hope this resource will help you better understand your horse residents, allowing you to provide them with the best care possible. This resource is most helpful when read with our resources on horse body language that cover eye, ear, and tail positions.
Vocalization Glossary For Horses
Horses communicate through both body language and vocalizations. Understanding a resident’s vocalizations can better assist you in assessing their emotional states, identifying social relationships between other horse residents, and identifying health issues. Sometimes vocalizations can also tell you much about a resident’s comfort level around different individuals and during different situations. This allows caregivers to tailor these situations and their own behaviors to better meet the needs of the individual. These vocalizations (and body cues) enable care staff to provide individualized care that promotes health, trust, strong relationships, and overall content residents. Now let’s look at the fascinating vocalizations horse residents can make!
A blow is characterized by a strong exhalation of air through the nostrils. A horse may blow during or after curiously exploring something by sniffing. This exhalation of air is prolonged. A horse may emit a sharper blow to alert others of intruders. During this, a horse’s mouth remains closed, and their nostrils will be dilated.
A horse may groan if they are in pain, experiencing discomfort, or during physically strenuous movements such as rising from the ground. Sometimes a groan may indicate a positive state, such as when a horse is taking a nice roll in the dirt. However, it is essential to understand other aspects of horse behavior and body language and take in the context to ensure you properly read the situation. Horses experiencing colic may also roll and groan. It is vital that you can identify the differences.
(Note how the human in this video reassures viewers that he is okay and is just “a groaner.” This is why learning about your residents as individuals is so important. That sound from another horse could indicate pain and distress. It could still suggest that in this sweet little one, but as his caregiverSomeone who provides daily care, specifically for animal residents at an animal sanctuary, shelter, or rescue., you would know it isn’t necessarily an immediate cause for concern. Pay attention to other behaviors, vocalizations, and the environment for additional clues.)
(CONTENT WARNING: The following brief video shows a glimpse of a horse who is down and groaning in pain.)
Much like a groan, a grunt can indicate pain or discomfort. It may also be observed during confrontationalBehaviors such as chasing, cornering, biting, kicking, problematic mounting, or otherwise engaging in consistent behavior that may cause mental or physical discomfort or injury to another individual, or using these behaviors to block an individual's access to resources such as food, water, shade, shelter, or other residents. situations where rearing back or boxing.
A neigh (or whinny) is a strong, long, almost staccato sound used to locate, maintain or gain contact with other horses. It starts strong and often winds down, sounding more like a nicker in the end. They are calling out to others and hoping for a response. Neighs will sound different depending on the reason behind them. It may be used as a distress call by a mare trying to locate her foal. A foal can recognize their mother’s whinny just weeks after being born. Or it may be a greeting from one horse when other horses come into view or are heard in the distance. By the other horse’s response, they can tell if the individual is familiar to them. Neighing is generally accompanied by a lifted head, pricked ears, and a slightly open mouth.
A nicker is made up of softer, lower contiguous vocalizations. The tone of the nicker can vary depending on the circumstances and who is involved. If you care for horses, you are probably familiar with the breakfast or morning greeting nicker. You may often hear this when you are bringing food! Mares will also nicker to their foals. They may do this to call her foal back to her side or if she is concerned. These nickers are generally lower and smoother. Lastly, a stallion or a gelding behaving like a stallion may nicker as an early part of courtship behavior.
A low roaring (or whistling) sound can indicate issues with the laryngeal nerve. It is generally most prevalent when an individual is exercising. If you hear this sound, contact your veterinarian for a consultation. Sometimes a horse, particularly a stallion, may make a low roar-like sound directed at a mare when aroused or when in conflict with another stallion.
A scream is generally a high-pitched, loud, and long vocalization. However, some horses have lower voices. Screams are generally heard in situations of increasing conflict between two horses. A terrified horse may also scream.
Horses may sigh when they feel relief after a tense situation or as they relax. They may also sigh when they are feeling bored or frustrated.
Yep, that’s right. Sometimes a horse may snore while enjoying a good nap.
The words “snort” and “blow” are often used interchangeably though many scientists define them as distinct vocalizations. So if you are reading articles or papers about snorts and blows, check how they define each vocalization. Currently, there are many theories as to why horses snort. According to one study, a snort is described as a “forceful, quick exhalation through the nostril…” It goes on to say that a short snort is used to communicate alarm, while it may also be used in play situations or as a sign of frustration. Sometimes a snort is more like a sneeze, meant to dislodge irritants from the nose. Another study concluded that horses snort when they are happy or relaxed, though the study was small, and many scientists don’t believe there is enough data to conclude that as of yet.
Squeals are usually associated with conflict of some sort. Mares often emit squeals to protest attention from male horses to indicate annoyance. Male horses, specifically stallions, may squeal as part of their threat display when engaging in conflict with another stallion. A horse may squeal if they are hurt and surprised by an injection. A squeal is generally made with the mouth closed.
A whinny is a greeting, the same as a neigh, though some people distinguish it from a neigh, stating it is not unlike a neigh but softer, high-pitched, and used to greet friends who are closer. A whinny is generally made with the mouth open, ears up, and pricked forward.
Test Your Memory!
A. Not worry too much about it. This is normal.
B. Encourage them to slow down and lead them to a stall, only allowing them access to small living areas to discourage running.
C. Encourage them to slow down and call your veterinarian, as this may indicate a health issue.
Great job! We hope you have found this resource helpful in better understanding your horse residents. To learn more about horse body language, check out our resources covering eyes, ears, and tail positions.
Acoustic Communication In The Domestic Horse (Equus Caballus) | Journal Of Veterinary Behavior (Non-Compassionate Source)
An Unexpected Acoustic Indicator Of Positive Emotions In Horses | PLOS ONE (Non-Compassionate Source)
Physiological Outcomes Of Calming Behaviors Support The Resilience Hypothesis In Horses | Scientific Reports (Non-Compassionate Source)
Chapter 6 Communication | Equine Behavior 2nd Edition (Non-Compassionate Source)