WHY DO HORSES neigh, buck, bite, roll, push, kick, nip, show teeth, lick, follow, ears up, tail raise…

I ran across this article and found it perfect for a Sunday morning coffee read.

The original article is linked here – and there is even more information that I didn’t post!  Worth a read.

Click to view the entire article!

Why Do Horses…


A way to communicate to you, his/her friends or to an unknown horse or animal. Sometimes if you are lucky, it can be a sweet nicker as your horse recognizes you across its pasture. Other times it is a neigh of panic, distress, for example in the middle of a show ring or out on a trail ride, the horse uneasy being so far away from a barn pal.


Horses buck with fear, pain, surprise or aggressive behavior while under tack. Out to pasture a buck might come from pure glee, too many oats, or a horse fly is driving him batty. Under saddle, bucking is a more serious matter. Young horses generally buck out of naivety, unsure and afraid of the situation or something in its surroundings. Older, trained horses may buck from an ill-fitting saddle, pain or pressure (that is not always associated with back pain!), as a reaction to something spooky in its surroundings (i.e. animated trash bags, newly painted standards, a sneezing kitten) or to express its unwillingness to work either for that particular rider or discipline.


Rear Rearing is also similar to bucking because fear, pain, something surprising or aggravating may also cause a horse to rear. A horse may rear out of nervousness at the unusual sounds and sights of a horse show, from too much pressure from a rider trying to complete a task that the horse does not understand or is unwilling to do, or because something is pinching or creating pain and the horse is trying to avoid it. Although Zorro makes rearing look easy to control, a horse who has learned to rear as a first response to pressure or stress can become very dangerous for its rider and handler.

“Hey, I mean that!!!” Maybe not a direct translation of a teeth-bearing horse, but it must come close. Biting is a form of aggression and dominance. Fear of something new, something stressful in its surroundings or internal discomfort will bring a horse to bite. A horse sometimes acquires territorial dominance, even to its stall and can begin to bite people, cats, whatever it thinks is incriminating as they come by; a problem to be aware of when entering a new barn with an open-stall structure.

A horse rolling after being released in its pasture or on a well-loved pile of sandy dirt is completely normal, and encouraged. Horses get stiff backs like we do and a good roll both scratches those hard-to-reach places and stretches their backs almost as good as a well-loved chiropractor.

On the other hand, a horse rolling more frantically across the ground indicates pain, typically acute or severe gastric-intestinal related pain typically referred to as “Colic”. This type of rolling is a big red flag for the horse’s owner to call their veterinarian for further instruction.

A horse dropping down and trying to roll while being ridden is either politely telling the rider the horse has: a) had enough with riding (please and thank you, now get off my back!) b) is in pain either from an ill-fitting saddle or internally or c) has a scratch it would really love to itch regardless of who is on his back.

When a horse pushes you with their nose, it is a form of typically friendly behavior, a way to get your attention, like a foal to its mother. There comes a line that the horse can cross with their nose-pushing, however. When it becomes too often or too swift, like a horse begging for more treats, the behavior indicates a lack of respect for the handler. A small nudge for more the first day might mean pushing the treat-feeder over the next day!

A horse kicking you, or kicking out can mean many things. It can be a sign of aggression, dominance, fear, pain or lack of respect. An aggressive horse at dinner time may kick out at you, a young horse getting saddled, or shod for the first time may kick out of fear, an older horse may kick when being girthed up from pain or tenderness in the girth area, or a dominant horse may try and kick it’s handler if it thinks its training is too much.

Along the lines of pushing you with their nose, a horse might nip out of playfulness but should not be encouraged. Ornery young horses and stallions may nip your jacket or lead rope out of pure curiosity and energy. If a horse is constantly nipping and excited to play it may mean its grain feed is too high in energy and is making him a bit too giddy.


Bare teeth

Territorial, aggression, dominance and a great fear or anxiety generally brings a horse to show or bare its teeth. Teeth-baring stallions in the wild fought off rival stallions from their herds but today in most barn settings a horse bares its teeth when it is protective of its food, stall or foal. A horse charging a fence line or stall with teeth-bared should be approached with great, big caution.


Not as common as in dog behavior, a horse may lick you to slurp up any salts or particular flavors on your skin it is dying to try out. Intense licking may be a sign of a mineral deficiency, the horse is trying to get as much sweaty salt off of you as it can because it lacking something in its diet.


A horse following you is a horse telling you its your biggest fan! More than one means you have groupies! But seriously, a horse following you indicates that it is relaxed, interested and responsive towards you and what you have to say or give. A great step forward in positive horse training.

Ears forward

The equine photographer’s dream, a horse with its ears forward generally indicates a healthy, attentive horse- or one that will soon spook at something! The horse is engaged with what it is doing at the moment or is focused on something in whichever direction it is looking towards. Putting their ears forward and keeping them there followed by hesitation, neck strain and maybe a fearful snort indicates the horse is afraid of something nearby or far and you best be ready to react.
Tail raise

A horse raising its tail in the pasture, for example, can communicate different things to its fellow herd. A raised tail may spread feelings of alarm, the horse alert and attentive to something that may affect the herd. A mare during estrus may have a very loose, relaxed tail resting on one side or the other of her buttocks to tell a stallion (and everyone else) that she is in heat. Young and playful horses will have a raised tail indicating their willingness to play or run in the pasture with interested pals alike.

A slightly raised, moving tail under saddle indicates a comfortable spine, free from pain and engaged in its work. Many upper level dressage horses swish their tail through complicated maneuvers, mainly because their spine is so occupied with what it is doing at that moment. A tail frantically or erratically swishing back and forth indicates discomfort and irritability and may be followed by a buck, bolt or other unwanted behavior.
One eye shut

A horse with one eye shut may have an allergy or eye problem which needs medical attention. Horses use the full range of their eyesight- a near 360 degree radius to protect themselves, requiring both eyes to be open simultaneously.


“Sound the alarm, it’s a moving kitten!” A horse may snort with a mixture of fear and curiosity while in training (or out at pasture) to both distract itself from the work at hand, and to tell you and everyone available it has just seen something we should all be really, really concerned about (i.e. the kitten). Horses also sneeze and snort for the same reasons humans do- to get a particular particle or smell out of its nose.

Like a child throwing their toys from the back seat to the front seat, a horse tied or under saddle who paws is anxious, discontent and wants your attention. Aggressive pawing or stamping is seen when the horse is upset or irritated by something. Horses may also paw to investigate and inform itself about something on the ground.



Like a human who chews its fingernails, cribbing, or the act of a horse clamping down on wooden fences, water buckets, or anything it can wrap its teeth around while simultaneously inhaling large amounts of air is sometimes negative, unwanted behavior. Otherwise it is a red flag for digestive problems. Horses are susceptible to stomach ulcers and one quick way to alleviate their upset stomachs is to create more saliva. Along with damaged stalls, fences and other costly things, cribbing creates saliva, which fights the ulcer pain. Horses may genuinely need to crib to kick-start their salivary glands to aid in relieving ulcer pain or crib to pass the time, they are bored! Either way it is a costly habit that is best to be addressed as soon as it is noticed.
Lip curl

Typically infamous among stallions and geldings but normal among all horses since birth, the curling of the upper lip (also reffered to as the ‘Flehmen response) indicates they have smelled, or sometimes tasted something really fantastically interesting. Whether it is a mare in heat or someone loaded up with powerful perfume, the horse’s upper lip locks the smell in the passages of its olfactory system (smelling department) for further investigation of what that peculiar smell might be.
Lower head

Horses lower their head to focus on things they see in the distance, and raise their head to concentrate on nearby things. Spirit, the cartoon horse with his head held high and proudly among his horse friends was probably not the best in his group for spotting faraway predators. Abnormal lowering or raising of the head while carrying a bit, particularly a new bit may indicate mouth discomfort or a tooth problem associated with the bits weight, size or position in the mouth. On the contrary, lowering the head while in motion, particularly at the trot indicates a loose back, and a relaxed, connection-accepting horse. It is a principal movement when teaching a horse the entry levels of dressage.

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