Reading the Ears

If a horse pins its ears, that is, lays them back against its head, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Is he angry? Grumpy? Annoyed? Feels crowded?

While we may make judgments about what we think the horse is saying, the fact is, we really don’t know for sure, and we don’t know why he’s saying whatever it is he’s saying. Solving this communication mystery, without judging the horse, will open doors to a whole new world.

I recently did a horse camp for my 8 year-old niece, and before she got on to ride, I asked Chaco, my horse, to circle me at the walk a few laps each direction. He was responsive, so then I asked for the trot. The moment he picked up the trot he laid his ears back, and they stayed back.

I stopped and walked over to my niece and asked, “What happened to his ears when I asked for the trot?”

“They went back?” she asked.

“Yes, they did. What does that mean?”

“He’s unhappy?”

“That could be. Something isn’t right, and he’s letting us know. The mystery is we don’t know what it is. The only way to find out is to try different things until his ears don’t go back anymore. He could just be stiff, and maybe after a few more circles of trot he’ll loosen up and his ears will go back to a forward position. Let’s see what happens.”

I sent him again a few laps each way, stopped and then walked over to my niece.

“What did you see?”

“His ears were still back.”

“What do you think he’s trying to tell us?”

With a quizzical look on her face and thinking really hard as to what it could be, she said hesitantly, “It’s too fast.”

“That’s a great idea. Let’s try having him walk out and see what happens.”

So I sent Chaco in a forward walk a few laps each way, and then stopped and went back to my niece.

“What did you see?”

“He liked it. His ears were forward.”

“Congratulations! You figured out what Chaco was trying to communicate to you. His trust in you to listen to him just went up.”

With Chaco being 33 years old it was completely reasonable that the trot on that small of a circle was uncomfortable for him.

The rest of the day went so well that when she went to leave, Chaco was so relaxed that he ignored his hay and kept both eyes on her. She probably spent at least 15 minutes saying good-bye and giving one more hug several times, and he welcomed them all. It was confirmation for me that she read him correctly when she stuck with the walk.

Because horses spend so little time talking with their vocal chords, it’s imperative to learn to read their primary mode of communication: body language. It’s a silent language, but so powerful. As you start to get the hang of it, a whole new world opens up.


2 thoughts on “Reading the Ears”

  1. When a horse pins its ears, how long do you have before a really strong reaction (I was surprised he kept doing what he didn’t like)?

    • Good question. If I were to increase the intensity of my “ask” then he would increase the intensity of his “no”. His “no” of pinning his ears could increase to tail swishing, turning his head and glaring at me, and if I still didn’t back off, it could escalate to kicking, and the biggest “no” of all is biting. In this case I kept my ask very low key. He still moved for me, but he stated his opinion that he didn’t like it by pinning his ears. When I saw that I let him make a circle or two without any more intensity from me. Then seeing that nothing was changing for the better, I stopped. Thus, he didn’t need to escalate his “no” to get my attention.

      When people get kicked or bitten out of the blue, typically there were more subtle body language cues involving the ears, the eyes and the tail that the horse gave that the person didn’t see. So the horse increased to kicking, and then later biting to get his/her point across.


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