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    Understanding Horse Body Language: Ears

    Title reading "Understanding Horse Body Language: Ears" with a graphic of a horse running and an arrow pointing to their ears.

    If you provide care for horses at your sanctuary, then understanding their body language is vital to successful relationships and care practices. While horses have different vocalizations that communicate important information, their body language can also provide vital insight into their emotional states and health, but only if you can interpret them correctly! This resource is part of a series on horse body language and briefly introduces the different ways horses communicate with their ears. Through this series, you will learn to identify different meanings behind ear/head/tail/mouth/eye/body positions and how context and the combination of these body positions can provide a fuller picture of what a horse is expressing. First, let’s take a general look at body language in horses before taking a closer look at ear positions.

    Body Language

    Horse behavior (and body language) is complex. An entire book (or books) could be written on horse behavior–and they have been! This resource barely scratches the surface of the surface! There are many ways and many reasons horses use their ears and other parts of their body to communicate. There is a lot of nuance in horse body language that allows them to communicate effectively with other horses. This series presents static examples of body language simplified through words and pictures to act as building blocks for learning more about horse body language. However, it is important to remember many factors affect body language which is fluid and ever-changing in response to a horse’s environment and relationships. Something as simple as a strong wind can and will often affect how a horse holds their ears if they are walking into it. It is important to keep this in mind as you learn and assess body language in horses.

    Body language can help you better understand your resident’s wishes and emotional and mental states and help you identify signs of illness. Understanding a resident’s body language can allow you to catch early signs of illness or recognize social issues among the herd that may be negatively affecting a resident. Body language can also tell you much about a resident’s comfort level around different individuals and during different situations. Reading body language allows caregivers to tailor these situations and their own behaviors to meet the individual’s needs better. In short, body language is essential to know!

    In horses, there are several elements of body language to pay close attention to: their ears, their head, their eyes, their tail, and their overall body position. While each of these areas can provide information about an individual, the whole of them read together will give the best overall interpretation.

    But what do you look for in terms of ear position, and what can it mean? Let’s take a closer look!

    Ear Positioning In Horses

    You can tell a lot from looking at a horse’s ears!

    The Full Picture Is Necessary

    While this series is broken down into more easily digestible resources meant to make learning about horse body language easier, it is VITAL that you learn about all their body language when trying to interpret what they are saying and before acting. Only focusing on one body part to understand what they are expressing could result in a misunderstanding that could have disastrous results.

    Example: George, a horse resident, is standing in a stall with their ears pricked forward. A caregiver only looking at their ears might say “George is curious about the new visitors.” and attempt to go in with them. George spooks and backs up quickly when their caregiver opens the door. What did they miss?

    If the caregiver had taken in other aspects of his body language, they might have noticed the step back he had taken, the tension in his body, the whites of George’s eyes, and the snort he vocalized, among other signs of concern. These additional factors point to George expressing concern and fear of a potential threat. Turns out, George was surprised by and alarmed by the large sunhat a visitor was wearing, not simply curious about the newcomers.

    If you care for horse residents, you know that horse ears are conical or cup-shaped, generally tall, pointed, and relatively rigid in that they keep their shape (they aren’t droopy or folded). Their ears can move forwards and backward and out to the sides. The cupped or funnel-like shape of the ears allows them to use them as little hearing satellites, so to speak, that can pick up sounds that we, as humans, cannot. Think about how this might come into play in a practical setting. Horses are known for “spooking” or being easily startled. Their ears are sensitive to small sounds, allowing them to react when threatened by predators quickly. Sometimes this translates into a resident horse who is “jumpy” when new sounds are introduced. It is also important to note that there are ear differences between breeds. Horse breeds from colder climates generally have smaller ears to protect them from frostbite.

    Abnormal Ear Conformation
    Some horses may be born with congenital defects that cause the ear to be shortened, curled back, or bent. Others may have sustained an injury that changed the conformation of one or both ears or has an ear infection or parasites which cause abnormal ear movement. As a result, their ears may not stand the same as a typical horse’s ears, and caregivers must take care to learn what movement their ears are capable of and what their position may mean for that individual. Understanding horse ear placement can also help you detect new injuries or illnesses and treat them immediately. Applying a general concept of horse communication through ear placement may not be effective in this situation and could lead to misunderstandings and an unhappy resident. Remember, all residents are individuals, and while learning their species-specific behaviors is vital, so is learning about the individual. In rare cases, a horse may be born with a congenital defect or may have suffered such severe injury that resulted in the absence of pinnae (the outer part of the ear). In that case, you would have to rely on other body language and vocalizations to understand what is being expressed. 

    While the whole meaning of ear positioning comes with context and understanding of tail, mouth, eyes, body, and head positions (in addition to other things), there are some basic positions to know! You will see a bit later how the combination of the different positions can provide a fuller picture of what their body language is “saying.”

    Neutral/Calm

    A horse’s neutral ears will generally face a little outward or forward. They may be out to the side slightly and down or up and forward-facing but lacking tension. Generally, their tail will be hanging vertically, not lifted, their head won’t be lifted high or tilted back or hanging low (unless they are eating or drinking), their body won’t be tense, and their lips won’t be droopy. You won’t see tension in their cheek muscles or around their eyes, and you won’t see the whites of their eyes.

    If a horse resident is resting or generally feeling calm, their ears may drop down to the side a bit or may even rest back and to the side a bit. Not droopy, but relaxed. You can distinguish this from dozing by observing the context and position of their tail, head, and/or body. For example, suppose a resident is enjoying a nice nibble with a companion out in the field with their tail down, and their ears are relaxed a bit on each side, but hold some tension or are actively turning towards sounds in the vicinity. In that case, there is a good chance they are resting and feeling relaxed but paying attention to what is happening around them. 

    Bay horses placidly eats grass with ears in a neutral position.
    Horse faces the camera and walks towards the photographer with a relaxed, interested expression.

    Everyone Is An Individual
    Even if a resident doesn’t have a congenital abnormality or illness or parasite affecting the conformation or position of their ears, their ears at a neutral level may be a little more relaxed, coming out to the side a bit or otherwise different than that listed above. Again, careful observation of residents will allow you to know what is “normal neutral” for each individual.

    Relaxed And Dozing

    If a horse’s ears are out to the side, aren’t holding any tension, their lips are drooping, their eyelids relaxed, and/or they are standing with a leg lifted slightly, they may be dozing. Be careful not to startle them by walking up to them unexpectedly. It is also important to learn the difference between a horse who is dozing while resting a leg and a horse who is holding up its leg due to pain or discomfort. A horse will be hesitant to put their full weight on a leg or hoof that is injured or if they have laminitis. Their gait (how they walk) will look different and the hoof or leg may show signs of swelling, heat, or apparent injury. There are additional signs of pain to look out for as well.

    A horse dozes, exhibiting a relaxed face, closed eyes, and relaxed ears.
    A foal rests on the ground with eyes closed and ear out to the side of their head.

    Alert And Curious

    If a horse resident is feeling alert and curious, their ears will be up and forward-facing. You might notice this when a resident sees someone coming into sight, hears a noise, or is otherwise alerted to or curious about a change in their environment. They will be lacking the tension in muscles around their eyes and cheek and body that would occur when they are concerned about a possible threat. They may stretch out their neck to sniff or otherwise investigate the subject of interest. If they reach out their neck towards a human or other horse and their ears are back, this is often a sign of confrontation.

    A horse stands in a field looking behind them in an alert but not fearful posture.
    A horse looks towards someone with pricked ears and a focused expression.

    Alarmed Or Concerned

    If a horse resident is feeling more concerned than curious, their ears will still be up and forward-facing. However, there may be more tension in how they hold themselves. The position of their tail, head, mouth, and overall body position is often telling as well. Additionally, you may notice tension in their cheek muscles or muscles around their eyes. We will cover this in future series. You might notice this when a resident sees someone they don’t know coming into sight, hears a loud or sudden noise, is separated from their companions, or is otherwise concerned about a change in their environment. They may also pace or vocalize, alerting others to a potential threat or calling out to a companion they are separated from.

    A black horse looks out of the corner of their eye, showing the whites, and their ears stand straight and forward.
    Note: When you can see the whites of a horse’s eyes, this is an indicator of fear. This highlights why it is important to consider the “full picture” of a horse’s body language, as well as the context in which you are seeing this body language.
    A grey horse strides towards an unknown threat with their ears pointed sharply forward, their tail lifted slightly in alarm.
    Note: A raised tail can indicate negative OR positive excitement. A horse excited to see their companion that was at the vet’s office might have a raised tail, and forward facing ears. Interpreting body language requires taking in the whole of the body language being expressed and applying it to the context of the situation.

    Anxious Or Annoyed

    If a horse resident is uncomfortable, upset, or dislikes something about a situation, they may lay their ears back a bit, but not all the way back. Their ears are generally at a slight angle pointing towards their back, and they will lay back farther the more upset they become. If they are annoyed, they may lengthen their neck towards someone and bare their teeth. If they are fearful, they may back away, their ears may go back or back and out to the side a bit, and you may see the whites of their eyes.

    A bay horse lays their ears back as a grey horse invades their personal space.
    A horse lays their ears back and steps away from something that is making them uncomfortable.

    Depressed/In Pain

    A horse resident may flatten their ears when in pain. They may also move them restlessly back and forth if experiencing discomfort. Their ears may also droop out to the side, sometimes described as airplane ears, when depressed or in prolonged pain. As mentioned above, a horse resident’s ears may also seem a bit droopy when they are especially relaxed. Because of this, it is important to become familiar with each individual resident and learn how to identify signs of pain and depression. Disinterest in eating and/or engaging with companions can be a sign something is wrong, as can a lack of interest in/reaction to their environment. A depressed individual will often stand in a fixed position, their head lowered, and show little or no interest in the world around them. They may have dull eyes or “squint” and have tension in their cheek muscles if in pain. Check for signs of any obvious injury or illness. Calling an experienced veterinarian out to perform a health check is a good idea if you are uncertain.

    Seriously Displeased/Confrontational

    An especially displeased horse will pin their ears all the way back. While all the above states should be taken seriously and steps should be taken to lower any discomfort or anxiety, this body language is a grave warning that they are especially displeased, and whatever is happening to make them feel threatened or uncomfortable should stop immediately before they defensive behaviors (pulling back, rearing, and/or blindly fleeing) or offensive (kicking, biting, stomping, or charging) measures in an attempt to stop whatever it is that is upsetting them. You may observe their head tucking down and their body bracing to kick out with their back legs or observe their head sticking straight out and their teeth bared to potentially bite someone. They may also lift their head and back up to try and remove themselves from the situation.

    A horse lays there ears back as they swiftly turn their body to possibly kick out at another horse in their personal space.
    A horse bears their teeth, stretching out their neck and laying their ears back in a threatening manner.

    Feeling Good

    Horses may have their ears up if they are enjoying engaging with someone or out and down a bit if they are feeling super relaxed. Just to confuse things a bit, horse residents sometimes also point their ears back when they are experiencing positive emotions! However, this ear position is generally accompanied by eyes that are half-closed, an upper lip that is extended a little or twitching, and an otherwise relaxed body. Context is important. If you are grooming a horse resident and observe these things, they are likely feeling pretty good. If you are grooming and they lay their ears back and extend their neck towards you, are restless, attempt to leave, or you can see the tension around their eyes, in their cheeks, or if their lips are back showing their teeth, you should promptly and carefully remove yourself from their vicinity.

    Rapidly Changing Positions 

    There are times when a horse residents ears may move quickly back and forth. This can simply be them trying to pinpoint where certain sounds are coming from or could be a sign of anxiety when accompanied by certain behaviors and other body language (seeing the whites of their eyes, rolling their eyes back and forth, raising their tail, raising their head back, and so on) You may also see a resident’s ears twitching if there are flies or other insects bothering them. A resident suffering from colic may move their ears back and forth a bit in discomfort.

    The Full Picture

    As you may have noticed, sometimes ear position can look quite similar but be expressing different emotional states. In order to get the full picture of what a horse resident is trying to “say”, it is important to understand the context of the situation you are witnessing. While the above is a good introduction to horse body language and can certainly help you have a better idea of what your horse residents may be experiencing or expressing, you will learn through this series on body language that context is important, as is having a good understanding of horse behavior and recognizing nuances in body language and behavior. Knowing about ear, tail, head position, and body posture, as well as eye, nose, and mouth movements, will allow you to have a clearer picture of what is being “said”. For now, observe your horse residents and see what their ears are telling you!

    SOURCES

    Understanding Your Horse’s Body Language | RSPCA

    Equine Senses: Hearing | Ask a Vet: Horse & Rider (Non-Compassionate Source)

    EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System | PLOS ONE (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Horse Reactions To Human Attitudes And Behavior |Antrhozoös (Non-Compassionate Source)

    What Do Ears Positions Tell Us About Horse Welfare? | Ethologie Animale Et Humaine (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Facial Expression And Oxytocin As Possible Markers Of Positive Emotions In Horses | Scientific Reports (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Horse Body Language | Extension Horses  (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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