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.
A 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.
The 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=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/nomanson/2645376508/”>nomanson</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a> Photo: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/55839122@N04/6087150424/”>NatureNerd (probably outside)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>