From their Eyes

Equine Behavior: Emotions

Lately I have been dealing with quite a few human emotions, and the more I learn and deal with my own emotions, or other people’s emotions and feelings, the more I attempt to relate this to the horse world. Therefore I thought I would explore my own opinions about horses and how they might be mirrored, similar or contradictory to human emotions. In this first post I will begin my exploration of horse emotions and how we humans can affect them.

Horses who are overly stressed will get a dull coat, dull eyes and and overall unhealthy look, exactly how humans show their depression. They show their excitement by prancing about, or at least having pricked ears and an expressive eye. Horses are able to show their desire to be with you by leaving their herd mates, their comfort zone and be willing to come to you.

Why Consider Emotions?

First we must evaluate what we are defining as “emotion.” The reason this is important is because scientifically, there is little to no research about animal emotions, and it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint whether they feel emotions the same as humans do. Horses have fairly underdeveloped brains and therefore they do not express things in the same way that we can, they do not articulate it, and if they do have emotions as clearly as humans do, they are not able to keep those feelings for long. I suppose that it might be comforting to know your horse is physically unable to hold a grudge. The difficulty behind looking at equine behavior is that we have no way of knowing their motives, they do not yell, they do not express heartache, and they cannot say the words “I love you,” therefore we are relegated to observing their behavior, much as we would in small children, who are also incapable of communicating emotions.

Observing Equine Emotions- Behavior

There are multiple ways in which horses express how they may be feeling. The biggest and most important is their general health. Horses express how they are feeling in the same ways that we might, starting with the biggest and most important- appetite. If a person is not feeling better, then we might have the tendency to desire to lounge in our sweats, and watch mind numbing tv all while not eating for a few days, or having little desire to eat simply because one has little interest or physically cannot keep it down. Although horses do not have those luxuries of lounging about and skipping work, a horse will show their discomfort by refusing to eat, eating listlessly or even not drinking. The first thing any good horse owner looks at is a change in the horses’ eating behavior and if it is not a physical problem, then it might be a mental one. Horses, like humans, can become depressed, stressed and uncomfortable and this may be mirrored in their eating habits.

Next is the behavioral aspect of what a horse does in their day to day life. You might have seen your favorite horse willingly leave their herd and trot to the gate nickering to you. Now we must question what drove the horse to do these actions, was it because you are a fellow friend, or those horse cookies that your horse knows accompanies your visits. But simply looking at a horses’ behavior we might be able to imagine what the horse is telling you.

The Ears: Horses use their ear to express themselves at an alarming rate, now we all know the basics… but lets review- pricked is interest (or happiness?), pinned is annoyed (or angry), to the side is sleepy (or depressed?) and one forward and one back is split attention. These emotions in the parentheses are examples of how these horses might demonstrate how horses are trying to communicate to us how they feel.

Feet: Stamping, kicking, one leg resting, even rearing. All of these behaviors can be seen as not only their physical expression, but also a deeper one. Stamping could be annoyance, pain, distress at something. Resting leg could be depression or sadness and rearing is a fear, angry or even confusion.

Eyes: Horses have one of the coolest eyes of all the animal kingdom, and this is represented in the thousands of photographs that have been shot of them. The reason that people pay so much attention to these animal’s eyes is simply because horses have such expressive eyes. We all have seen the different types of eyes there are out there, wild eyes, gentle eyes, attentive eyes and sleepy eyes, but every single horse is able to change his expression to mirror those emotions. Horses who are scarred first demonstrate that in their eyes, and their attention to detail is astounding. They are able to show their kindness in the way their lower their head to look in the face of a small child and even their distress in the dullness of their eye, a glazed over look.

Behavior and Interaction

Horses and people are intertwined in many different arenas, literally and figuratively. I am sure we have all had different experiences in looking at how people view their counterparts. Some people view them as commodities or robots, here simply for our own gain, or there is the complete other direction where people coddle and baby their horses, believing their horses should never be ridden or should never even hear a negative word. This is all exactly like different parenting ideas, because we have the extremes, then we are able to also have a midpoint which is where most of us fall.

By evaluating not only the horses’ physiological make up, we must also consider what is behind their behavior, their mental psyche. So the next time you have a horse who has a medical problem that is had to diagnose, rapid weight loss, dull coat, change in work ethic, I recommend you look not only at x rays and flex tests, but also at the environment, changes in the herd and maybe even changes in your own life that might be affecting how you work with your horse.


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