The Language of Horses


In contradiction to what we often see in movies and on TV, horses do not constantly make noise. They don’t whinny every time someone rides them, nor do they “scream” if they are hit by a whip (as one misguided author wrote). As prey animals, they tend to be quiet, not wanting to attract attention. They do, however, have very effective communication, using both vocalizations and body language.

small_2645376508A mare talking to her foal uses a low, soft whicker to show affection. She greets a friend, of any species, with a slightly louder, rumbling nicker or, if she’s excited, a higher pitched whinny. If you walk into a barn at feeding time, you’ll probably be barraged by both loud and soft greetings, according to the different personalities and how hungry they are.

Squeals are also a common way that horses communicate. When horses meet for the first time, they sniff noses, sometimes getting quite noisy about it, then often they’ll squeal and strike out with a front foot—a dominance behavior. Mares in season tend to squeal a lot too, usually adding a slight, threatening kick to tell others to keep away. The squeal and kick also say “stay away from my food!” My mare Glory has to assert herself this way whenever the gelding in the next stall looks at her while she’s eating her grain. You’ll also hear squeals as an expression of high spirits and playfulness.

Horses are herd animals and bond very strongly. If they are separated from one of their friends they’ll often neigh repeatedly, calling to them. If another horse answers, it may start a “conversation” that doesn’t end until the looked-for horse returns. Since a neigh is a high-pitched vibrating sound that can be quite loud, this can get old very quickly. My Portia had a bellow that could hurt your ears.

About the only time you might actually hear a horse scream is when a stallion is challenging a rival. A fight is a noisy affair.

small__6087150424The one sound you don’t ever want to hear from your horse is a groan. Horses tend to be quite stoic and tolerate a lot of pain. By the time they hurt enough to groan, they usually are in big trouble and you’d better get the vet out ASAP. The groan associated with colic is one of the scariest a horse owner can hear. However, the hurting groan is different from the grunt and groan you often hear when they roll. That’s just a “oh that feels so good” sound.

I had originally intended to talk about body language too, but that would make this post too long. I’ll save it for next time.

So the next time you see a movie where the horse whinnies as it does something, you can shake your head and mutter “Hollywood.” What silly things have you seen horses do on screen? Or have read about in a book?


Mare and foal: photo credit: <a href=””>nomanson</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt
Photo: photo credit: <a href=””>NatureNerd (probably outside)</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;
Categories: animals, horse care, horse personalities, Horses, How horses talk, Mother Nature, outdoors, riding, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “The Language of Horses

  1. A very interesting post for me, Kate. Thank you.

  2. vicki

    Hi, Kate! I never doubted they communicate. My dogs make the cutest sighs and mmmm. My cats purrs are different. Then there’s the nose rubbing, licking, and kissing. Sigh. Love my pets.

    • I guess all animals communicate in some way. And the ones around humans can get even more “talkative.” 🙂

  3. Kate, your post was right on time. I am doing a rewrite of my strong seller The Other Daughter and there is a scene where my female protagonist hears the sound of what she thinks is a horse. I had described it as a whinny but after reading your post, I changed it to a neigh. A small point perhaps, but often the small points are important to specific readers. Thank you.l

    • Glad to be of help. Most people wouldn’t know the difference, but a neigh would certainly travel farther.
      Good luck with your rewrite.

  4. My horse grunts when I make him go up hills. He’s a flat lander and would like to stay that way. LOL

  5. Kate, I’ve been thinking about you especially since the lead article in the Cape Cod Times this week was a picture of the foal—belonging to a miniature mare horse— that was born here on the Cape. Unfortunately, it was an orphan as it’s mother had died of complications right after the birth. Need I add that he was full of life and very cute? Down the road, they will be putting him in with other horses so it learns about being a horse.
    New book coming out soon?

    • Aw, how cute, but sad for the foal. And yes, they do need to learn how to be horses from others. A hand-raised orphan can turn into a real pain.

      Book two of my Horses and Healing series is in process. Hope to have it out soon. Thanks for asking.

  6. Enjoyed the post, Kate. Our local paper here in Philly just did an article Sunday on the 2004 Derby winner, Smarty Jones. Smarty was from Philadelphia.

  7. How about a talking horse liked Mr. Ed of course? This was an interesting post.

    • Haven’t we ALL wished for that, particularly when they hurt and we don’t know what’s wrong. If only they could talk then.

  8. One of my students has a horse that does a little, low huffle (softer than a nicker — and obviously not a “real” word) whenever you dismount. We’ve decided he’s saying “thank you” for the lovely ride 😉 . Fun post! Thanks!

    • What a polite boy. She should be honored. 😉

      It’s funny all the sounds they can make. Glory “putt-putts” when she says hello. Portia used to yell loudly.

  9. So how did Mr. Ed make all of those sounds then? You didn’t mention actual words in this post. (I’m being facetious of course). Lovely post. My horses made those happy noises all the time when they rolled. It was fun tot watch them.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Apparently rolling in the dirt is an ecstatic experience! I had one that would drop a foot inside the gate–couldn’t wait to even find a soft spot. That came later, after the first itch was taken care of. Another used to groan so loudly people would check to see if something was wrong.
      Horses are funny and intriguing.

  10. marsharwest

    Such an entertaining and informative post, Kate. I’ll be sharing. Glad to hear the next book is making progress!
    And apologies, if on my blog, I made it sound like I thought you were a hick. I so don’t think that. 🙂 Clearly you’re an educated, and a woman of many talents! 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing. Really appreciate it.

      Good heavens, no apologies necessary! I just thought your comment was funny, given the area I live in.
      Looking forward to your coming release.

  11. I always love to read your posts about horses! My Maximus rarely nickers unless I’m feeding him treats then I go around the corner to get some more and he knows I’m still there. Otherwise he’s pretty darn quiet. Going uphill and downhill he’ll do what I call a “snorfle” and complain a bit but otherwise he’s a quiet dude.

  12. Greta

    Hi, Kate. Thanks for this post!
    My girlhood reading of The Black Stallion books tells me there’s one more sound: the whistle of a wild stallion challenging another stallion. Is that right?

    • I’ve never heard a whistle, but I have heard a battle cry “scream” (for lack of a better term). Pretty scary. Also Walter Farley was 12 years old when he began writing “The Black Stallion.” Don’t know how knowledgeable he was about stallions. I’d really be curious just what he meant by a whistle.

      I read most of his books as a kid too. 🙂 But they never struck me as very true to life–at least in my experience.

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