Animal Communication | Training |Horses | Relationship

Watch Your Language Around Horses

Bonnie Kreitler
5 min readJan 4, 2021

Whether you’re on the ground or in the saddle, horses can read your mind.

Horses notice and quickly size up the body language of any animal-human or otherwise — entering their environment. People can watch and learn from the horses watching them.

A driving horse expert clicked to the next slide in her presentation to our local horse club. It depicted a young mare wearing a harness, an early lesson in her training sequence. The trainer asked the group, ‘’What do you see?”

Everyone pretty much sat on their hands. A horse was standing next to a barn. What more was there to notice?

Plenty, it turned out. The trainer pointed out that the mare was holding her breath. Her body language was not dramatic but the trainer noted the slightly flared nostrils, barely squinty eyes, ears stiff and twitched back just a hair, and a rigid tail that telegraphed her stress. Not enough to make her fight or flee. But clearly signaling to the observant trainer that she felt some uncomfortable physical or mental pressure.

She needed time to think about this new experience and feel comfortable with it before moving on to the next training step.

Humans are Predators

Horses are prey animals. Predators like coyotes or lions or bears view them as dinner when they’re hungry. Evolution moved horses’ eyes out to the sides of their skulls so they could see 350 degrees around them, the better to spot approaching predators (that other 10 percent is a bothersome blind spot). Evolution put predators’ eyes closer together on the front of their faces, the better to spot dinner at a distance. Nature kind of evened up the survival score, so to speak.

Now take a look in the mirror. Your eye placement says “predator” to a horse. So right away, any human-horse relationship kind of starts out on the wrong foot. Through training, we ask horses need to rewire their mindset about human predators in order to work with people.

People need to rewire their mindset so they don’t act predatory around horses.

What Did You Say?

Communication is a two-way street. Body language is the communication system humans share with animals. No words required. Animals constantly read and react to our body language. We humans, on the other hand, are so busy using words to think and talk that we easily overlook what our body language is saying loud and clear.

So there can be a big communication disconnect between what we want (our thoughts) from an animal and what our body language is saying to the dog or horse or any other animal we might be working with.

Here’s an example. A girl wants to lead her horse forward to the barn. She is frustrated when the horse won’t move its feet as she tugs on the lead rope. She wants the horse to walk straight ahead toward the barn. But her shoulders are turned at a 45-degree angle toward the horse’s head. She is thinking “to the barn” but she’s not looking at the barn. She’s looking the horse in the eye as she continues pulling on the lead rope.

How does the horse feel her body language? Well, the way forward feels blocked by her shoulders. And with her eyes focused on him, the horse can’t figure out whether he is supposed to move sideways or backward. Her body language does not suggest moving straight or “to the barn.”

We could go on about how her vocalizations and facial expressions might be telegraphing stress, too. But we’ll stick with basic body language for now.

Her message isn’t clear. The handler is thinking one thing in her mind but saying something else with her body language. And maybe this is a narrow gate or one they’ve never used before. She’s unsure about her intentions so the horse is, too.

He’s confused, not ornery.

A Body Language Exercise

Riders have a bigger responsibility for using body language clearly when they mount up. Now the horse is feeling it rather than observing it. This is a new ballgame.

While visiting a farm for an interview, I watched the trainer working with a young horse just starting training under saddle. He stopped at one point, got off the horse, blew his nose with a forceful honk, remounted, and finished the session.

Later, he explained why he’d dismounted. The inexperienced horse was accustomed to hearing his nasal expletives when he was on the ground. However, feeling the force of that powerful blast as it jerked through his seat and legs while mounted might have offered a body language experience that could overwhelm the green horse.

Pop quiz. Pick one. How do you breathe when you want a horse to stop?

  • I take a breath in and hold it.
  • I take a breath in and exhale abruptly.
  • I just keep breathing in and out normally, rhythmically, relaxed.
  • I have no idea how I breathe when I ask a horse to stop.

As you read these options, did you notice how each one creates a different feeling in your body? So does a horse.

Riding a horse is more than just using a specific combination of leg and rein cues to perform a specific movement. You need to be clear about all of the physical signals you send a horse the moment as you mount up and throughout the ride.

When things aren’t going according to plan, don’t blame the horse until you’ve done a quick assessment of yourself. Are you holding your breath, breathing rhythmically, focusing your eyes where you want to go, sitting heavier on one seat bone, or leaning to one side? A horse notices every little move you make.

Riders get recipes in their heads. We’re taught to do this with our reins and that with our legs and seat to get a specific response from the horse. We think we’re going through all the steps.

But what we want will not be clear to the horse if our body language and the recipes in our heads don’t match.

At the 2006 American Quarter Horse Congress, trainer Stacy Westfall astounded the audience with a freestyle reining pattern ridden bareback, complete with sliding stops and tight spins, as a tribute to her dad who’d passed away weeks before. No saddle. No bridle. Just Stacy and Wizards Baby Doll, syncing through body language, moving in perfect harmony. The YouTube video of their partnership performance has over 2.5 million views.

See if you can pick up on how closely the mare pays attention to her rider’s body language. And try not to cry.

Paying closer attention to how your horse receives and reacts to your body language starts a dialogue in a common tongue that can build into a beautiful partnership.

© Bonnie Kreitler 2021. All rights reserved.

Writer Bonnie Kreitler creates content to help fellow animal addicts build rewarding relationships with the critters in their lives. See more at



Bonnie Kreitler

Author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer creating connections between our critter relationships and life lessons at