Horse behaviour explained: the language of the ears

In order to improve our communication with our horses, we try to learn and understand more and more about the horse. How does it see the world? How does it learn? What needs does it have? A fascinating part of this is equine behaviour. Horses can’t literally tell us something, but you can read a lot from their body language. For example, it can tell you where their attention is focused, or whether they are about to kick out or whether they are in pain somewhere. In this series of articles we will discuss horse behaviour and explain a specific behaviour or behaviour category in each article. We start with the language of the ears. 


Most horse lovers know that you can read a lot from the position of the horse’s ears. Hearing is an important survival mechanism for horses. Because they can individually rotate each ear 180 degrees, they can accurately detect where a sound is coming from without having to turn their heads. Very useful if you are grazing calmly in a field and you suddenly hear a rustling in the distance. By locating the sound, you know which direction to flee. A horse’s hearing is better developed than that of humans, they perceive sounds louder and can hear higher-pitched tones better. 


You can see where the horse’s attention is focused by the position of the ears. When the horse has its ears pricked, it is focused on something. By focusing both ears on the source of the sound, the horse can better locate it. A horse can also divide its attention by pointing both ears in different directions. You often see this when you start working a horse at liberty: one ear is focused on you as the trainer, the other scans the environment. If the horse has its ears turned straight back, it is listening to something behind it. This is different from when the ears are pinned flat on the neck, which will be explained later in this article. The ears also have a neutral position. They stand upright with the ear cups turned outwards, so that they have the widest possible hearing range. 


The ear signals can also say something about the emotional state of the horse. This is often in combination with other body parts, such as the head and neck, nose, mouth and eyes. A horse that is fearful will likely focus its attention on the scary object first. The ears are pointed straight forward. When the horse flees or panics, the ears are turned more down and back. In case of irritation, the ears will flick a little nervously, in all directions. These lively ear signals can also occur in excitement or nervousness. When a horse is showing threatening behaviour, the ears are pinned back with the auricles pointing down. When the threat turns into aggressive behaviour, the ears are laid flat on the neck. Make sure you are not too close to the horse when it shows this behaviour. 


In order to properly assess the emotional state, it is important to look at the big picture. The ears are only a part of the whole picture. If the ears hang to the side, this may indicate relaxation, but by looking at the eyes, nose and lips it may just be that the horse is actually showing that it is in pain somewhere. So make sure you always look at the whole horse. 

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