In a new study, psychologists from the University of Sussex have found that horses use a range of muscular movements to form dynamic facial expressions that are nearly identical to those of humans. The muscles in the human face allow us to make around 27 facial expressions. However, the ability to use complex facial expressions to convey emotions isn’t only unique to us. In fact, chimpanzees, dogs and cats also possess this ability. Chimps can make 13 different facial gestures, while dogs have been found to have 16 discrete looks.
Dr Jennifer Wathan and her colleagues at the University of Sussex devised a comprehensive coding system to better understand common equine facial actions, which they named the Equine Facial Action Coding System, or EquiFACS for short. This incredibly detailed index of horse facial expressions explains how horses can make some 17 different facial actions which they combine to create their unique expressions. Thanks to Dr Wathan and her coding system, we can now make a little more sense of horses and their preferred forms of communication.
Below, we have listed seven of the most well-known horse facial expressions and what they mean. We hope that it is helpful for you and that it allows you to bond with your horse more effectively.
- Observe how your horse’s ears are positioned. Horses will hold their ears in different ways to pick up various signals from their environment to indicate how they feel about what is going on around them. Your horse will communicate a lot to you through the positioning of his ears. Ears that are slightly forward indicate that your horse is feeling relaxed. If your horse’s ears are sharply pricked forward, this is a good sign that your horse is alert and tuning into something.
- Ears that are flattened back are a clear sign that your horse is upset. If you are near to your horse when you see this, move a safe distance away to protect yourself from injury. If only one ear is back, then a horse is most likely listening to something behind him. Whereas, if his ears are pinned back, close to the neck, he is angry and about to bite or kick so keep your distance!
- Rapidly swivelling ears that are flicking back and forth are a sign that your horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness. He may be trying to locate the source of a frightening sound or smell, or he may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.
- Beyond the common whinnies that you horse makes, his nose and mouth can tell you several things about what he is feeling. A horse standing quietly with his lower lip drooping may be relaxing or even asleep. If you approach him, do so cautiously and call his name to avoid startling him. Once he is awake and moving around, his lip should return to normal. However, if the slackness in his mouth persists while he is alert, it is a good idea to ask your veterinarian to investigate.
- Another one of those behaviours that looks humorous but serves as an important function is flehmen. This is when a horse smells something that he is unsure of and so he raises his head, curls his upper lip, breathes in and blows air back out. This allows him to push the scent particles through a structure in his nose enabling him to better detect chemicals in the air. You most often see stallions flehmen when they’re determining whether a mare is in heat and ready to breed, but all horses do this when they smell something unusual and they’re trying to get more information.
- The movements of your horse’s eyes tell you not just what he is thinking but also where his attention is focused. If your horse’s eyes are rapidly darting from side to side, he is probably scared and looking for a way to escape. This telling sign may precede a spook or bolt, but if your horse feels trapped he may react by biting or kicking to try and get away. Be sure to remove him from the situation and calm him down.
- When whiteness of the eyes is showing in your horse, you need to know your horse well enough to know what is normal for him. In some horse, the white portion of the eye is always visible while in others, it is only exposed when they are startled or mildly alarmed. Usually, however, by the time a horse has worked himself up to a point where you can see the white around his eyes, he is extremely upset. Either way, you will need to take quick action to reassure him or distract him to prevent a spook, bolt or defensive move.
There are another ten horse facial expressions that we haven’t mentioned. If you would like to know what they are why not look up Wathan’s report on EquiFACS for more information. If you want to know your horse better, make it a point to become a student of equine body language. Spend as much time as possible watching horses in a group study and how they act and react to things. In time, you will be able to tell what your horse is thinking and feeling. As you work closely with your horse and observe how his postures and expressions change as he interacts with you, you will be far better equipped to attend to his needs and care for him effectively. Before long, you will start to understand the subtle signs that he is getting annoyed or fearful, and then you can respond far more effectively to his cues to keep his focus on the work at hand. Give it a try and you may become the next horse whisperer!