Speaking Horse—How Body Language Affects Training

What is Body Language?

Body language is common in animals and is a way of showing intention. It is unconsciously created by thoughts of performing an action, which results in tiny muscle contractions that show a shadow of the intent. Humans can consciously affect their body language, but it is unlikely that animals are capable of this kind of deception.

Many natural horsemanship trainers read their horse’s body language with precision and react swiftly to what they see, effectively employing reinforcement in a timely manner to train the horse. The best trainers have impeccable timing and know their subject’s language as well as their own.

The Natural Explanation

How natural horsemen explain this phenomenon, however, becomes confusing. Are they talking back to the horse in the same language to achieve the training result? But they don’t have long ears or a tail, which horses use extensively in communication, and while posture could be used, cocking a hind leg just doesn’t look the same with our two-legged stance. Does the horse see such a trainer as a higher herd member and obey because of their communication techniques? Then no novice rider would be able to have control over their horse, because they are clueless about body language at first. What is really going on here?

The Research Explanation

When humans read horse body language and interpret it correctly, their safety improves as they are able to avoid dangerous situations, and their training improves as they reward or correct behaviours appropriately as soon as they are shown. These interactions follow the principles of equitation science and employ addition (positive) and subtraction (negative) reinforcement rather than showing characteristics of a conversation.

Horses also quickly learn what our body signals mean, typically through classical conditioning. They learn that one action (such as shifting the gaze) precedes another (such as being driven away from the trainer) and begin responding to the gaze to avoid the driving. Increased heart rate in a rider results in increased heart rate in their mount, probably for similar reasons.

However, the number of human to horse interactions with body language that directly matches horse to horse interactions are very few indeed, if an ethogram (a list of all the possible behaviours of a species) is examined.


What does this mean for training? It is extremely important for trainers to understand horse body language. This provides valuable information about the horse’s intent, even though it is doubtful that horses see humans as herd members, interpreting their body language as that of a horse. Instead of trying to communicate to the horse in ‘horse’, then, we should focus on helping them understand what our body language means by being consistent, timing our reinforcement well, and using the principles of equitation science.


Ladewig, Jan. (2019) Body Language: Its Importance for Communication with Horses. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: 29, 108-110.

Ladewig, Jan. (2007) Clever Hans is still whinnying with us. Behavioural Processes: 76, 20-21.


Out in the Cold


As the weather gets colder and we start to put on layers and stay inside, it is easy to assume that our horses would prefer to be inside a heated building, in the comfort of a deep bedded stall. Sometimes we keep horses inside for our own convenience—they can’t get dirty, don’t take as long to catch, or can cool down before being put outside—but sometimes it is done from the honest conviction that the horse would prefer it that way.

Many people know about the evidence to the contrary, that horses tend to develop abnormal behaviour when kept inside, such as cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and aggression. However, we’ve also heard that providing the horse with a toy or two and a hay net makes his life in the box stall a pampered one.

These are well-intentioned attempts to make the box nicer for the horse, but their effect is quite limited. Here are the facts about what these ‘enrichments’ actually do for the horse. I end with practical suggestions for housing that more closely suits the horse’s needs.


We all want our horses to have a good life. That’s why we buy them treats and new brushes and fit their saddles and get blankets—and, all to often, bring them inside for the winter. Wanting them to have a good life is equivalent to wanting them to have good welfare. Welfare refers to quality of life—how easily a creature is able to adapt to its environment (Waran, 2002). If it is difficult or entirely impossible to completely adapt to the environment, the animal has poor welfare. If it can adapt and fit in, there is good welfare.

When horses show stereotypical behaviour (repetitive, abnormal behaviours like cribbing), aggression towards humans, behaviours caused by stress, or lack of engagement in the environment, these are attempts by the horse to cope with an environment that it doesn’t easily fit into. The presence of these four criteria can be used to assess welfare, and were used by Ruet et al (2019) in their study of housing horses in boxes.

It is easy to see how saddles illustrate this. A horse can never adapt its back to a poorly fitting saddle, and is likely to show aggression when it is put on and stress related behaviours when being ridden, so the saddle compromises its welfare. For a well-fitting saddle, however, the horse is adapted already, and its welfare is improved.

The same comparison may be made for any situation. Let’s see how it applies to box stalls.

Enriching the Box

The goal of enrichment is to make animals in an unnatural environment more likely to display the natural behaviours they would engage in in a natural environment. Bulens et al (2013) note that the most effective enrichment is providing something for the horse to eat, as 50-70% of their time is spent eating normally. In their study they used a bottle filled with sand and suspending from the ceiling, and a rope similarly suspended for the horse to play with. They found that the enriching effects of these objects were similar to other studies that looked at commercially available horse toys. Any beneficial effect was quite limited because they did not allow the horse to increase normal behaviour (locomotion, and interaction with other horses).

Ruet et al (2019) examined 12 factors in the lives of stabled horses: sex, age, time spent in the box, whether there was a window into the next stall, the bedding type, how much feed was given, how much concentrated feed was given, what discipline the horse was used in, the level of performance, the number of competitions, hours spent working per week, and lunging or walking time per week. Only three of these factors exhibited a positive change in the horse’s behaviour: straw bedding seemed to reduce aggression towards humans, a box with a window also reduced aggression, and less concentrated feed reduced repetitive abnormal behaviours, especially cribbing.

In short, enrichments weren’t as enriching as originally thought.

The Effect of Turn Out

Unresponsiveness to the environment, no longer showing interest in events or happenings around it, increases the more time the horse spends inside. This is shown by a withdrawn posture, where the head is level with the back, the ears do not move much, and the horse just does nothing (Ruet et al, 2019). While there is a place for horses to rest in a posture similar to this, this refers to an abnormal amount of time spent in this posture.

Horses that show stressed behaviours in the box, like pacing, calling out, or holding an alert posture for long periods are most likely to begin to slip into unresponsiveness, suggesting that these behaviours may be comparable to anxiety and depression (Ruet et al, 2019).

These behaviours are all reduced or non-existent when horses are studied at pasture with social interaction and space to move freely; to prevent this downward slide into poor welfare, avoid keeping a horse inside (Mills and Clarke, 2002).

Surviving Stall Rest

Horses that receive some turnout display the four indicators less often, showing an improvement in welfare, or at least a reduction in the deterioration of welfare caused by living inside (Ruet et al, 2019).

However, sometimes it is absolutely necessary to keep a horse confined inside, such as in stall rest. In this situation, using anything that may help the horse cope is advisable (Mills and Clarke, 2002). Allowing contact with another horse, providing a variety of food and a constant supply of fibre, keeping the lights on, and anything to keep the horse interested in the environment through sounds and sights can all help to reduce the negative welfare implications of forced stall rest.

We Live in Canada

What about when it is cold? The thermoneutral zone of horses, where there is no increased effort to maintain internal body temperature, is between -15 and 10 degrees Celsius in still air, and between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius under more normal environmental conditions (Morgan, 1998). Below 5 degrees the horse’s metabolism must increase to maintain internal temperature (Morgan, 1998). Providing continuous access to food to support the increase in metabolism along with adequate shelter is sufficient for the horse to maintain its internal temperature and body condition score over winter without compromising welfare (Mejdell and Bøe, 2005).


Horses were designed to live outside and express normal behaviour, to move freely in groups of other horses, to eat for most of the day, to avoid fear and distress, and to be able to avoid unpleasant or painful situations. While these ‘five freedoms’ have been criticized by some, they are still a good general guide (Mills and Clarke, 2002). The four factors used in Ruet et al’s (2019) study are also not all-encompassing and other factors and indicators should also be studied.

If your horse is quiet in the box, is he ‘good to stable’ or is he withdrawing from his environment?

If your horse chews any exposed wood, is he ‘trying to annoy you’ or expressing that his normal behaviours are being frustrated?

If your horse is vigilant and pacing in his box, is he ‘full of beans’ or on the road through anxiety to depression?

If your horse shows aggression towards you, is he being ‘naughty’ or coping with a suboptimal environment by letting the frustration out—towards you?

If you have the option, are you going to keep your horse inside and compromise his welfare, or let him be a horse as much as possible?


Bulens, A; Van Beirendonck, S; Van Thielen, J; and Driessen, B. (2013) The enriching effect of non-commercial items in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 143:46–51 

Mejdell, CM and Bøe, KE. (2005) Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 85: 307–308.

Mills, DS and Clarke, A. (2002) Housing, Management, and Welfare. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Morgan, K. (1998) Thermoneutral Zone and Critical Temperatures of Horses. J. therm. Biol. 23:1 pp. 59-61

Ruet, A; Lemarchand, J; Parias, C; Mach, N; Moisan, M-P; Foury, A; Briant, C; and Lansade, L. (2019) Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare. Animals 9:621

Waran, N. (2002) Preface. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Are Horses Intelligent?

Before you say, ‘of course!’…


It is important to define words that can mean different things to different people. The word of interest here is ‘intelligence’. What is intelligence?

Jacques Lautrey (2004) has proposed this definition: “Intelligence is… the capacity of an organism—or of an artificial system—to modify itself to adapt its behaviour to the constraints of its environment… But this cognitive ability to adapt does not qualify as intelligence unless it is generalizable to a fairly high degree, that is, if it appears in different situations….”

Comparing Intelligence

While no scientist will agree with another on a definition, there seems to be a general consensus that every species is ‘intelligent’ in a certain way. There are many forms of intelligence. While the number and type of these forms is also debated, one scientist (Howard Gardner, 1985) proposed eight types, and observed that each species of animal had strengths and weaknesses in each of the eight types. Rats are spatially intelligent, for example, and birds are musically intelligent (Leblanc, 2013).

For this reason, comparing levels of intelligence between species (i.e. between horses and humans) is essentially meaningless. Comparing one horse’s strengths to another horse’s, or to the general horse population, is more meaningful than comparing a horse’s strengths with a human’s strengths to determine comparative intelligence (Leblanc, 2013).

Intelligence and Cognition

Now, the way we use the word ‘intelligence’ in everyday life really doesn’t make this matter any simpler. Depending on the context we use it in, it could mean many different things, from the ability to learn to possessing the power of reason. In scientific literature, ‘intelligence’ is typically used of behaviour that is begun by an innate response, such as an instinct, and allows the creature to make specific adaptations in response to specific problems (Vauclair, 1996). In contrast, they may use the word ‘cognition’ to describe the way an animal learns and processes information, allowing a creature to adapt to unpredictable changes in its environment. The distinction is subtle, but fairly important.

So, when an animal is able to adapt a response that it has learned already (as opposed to an instinctive response) to a new situation, and when the newly adapted response can itself be generalized to suit other new situations, the animal has cognitive ability (Leblanc, 2013).

Both intelligent responses and cognitive responses are observed in horses. When we speak of these mental abilities in relation to trained responses, however, cognition is the more accurate ability to measure.

A Helpful Way to Think about Intelligence

We may consider a horse to be intelligent if he learns a new concept easily (and by extension not intelligent if they do not learn quickly). However, training is influenced by at least eight massive variables: learning ability, the human’s knowledge and skill, the horse’s temperament, conformation, history, and health, and the training environment (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is more helpful, then, to think of controlling these variables rather than appealing to the horse’s intelligence.

Further, we may consider a horse to be intelligent if he seems able to read our minds. However, this is really a product of the eight variables above, where the horse has learned to recognize subtle cues. This is usually a result of the horse’s adeptness at making associations and generalizing (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

Finally, a horse may be considered intelligent if he has learned behaviour that thwarts his handler’s wishes. This again, however, if a product of the eight influences on training, and is more an indication of how these factors have affected the horse’s environment than a reflection of the horse’s level of intelligence (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

What this Means

In our interactions with horses, it is counter-productive to our goal (and our morale) to wonder if the horse is more or less intelligent than we are. What we should be most concerned about, in order to really understand our horses and relate to them better, is comprehending the horse’s cognition, which includes learning processes, mental capacity, and information processing (Leblanc, 2013). Understanding how these processes differ from ours will enable us to treat the horse as a horse—leading to improved welfare for the horse and greater success for us.

Conwy Lloyd Morgan (1894) proposed this principle, known as Morgan’s canon, which makes a great deal of sense even now: “in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale”.

In other words, if your horse knocked you over with his nose, it is probably more accurate to say that he learned to push in order to receive food than that he is trying to get back at you for forgetting to bring treats.


Gardner, H. (1985) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Lautrey, J. (2004) Hauts potentiels et talents: La position actuelle du problème. Psychologie Française49:219-32

Leblanc, M. (2013) The Mind of the Horse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Morgan, CL (1894) Introduction to Comparative Psychology. London: Scott.

Vauclair, J. (1996) Animal Cognition: An Introduction to Modern Comparative Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.