How do horses communicate?
Visual communication is the horse’s preferred way of sending information to its peers. Horses have a number of postures involving all parts of the body. Their body language also includes a wide range of facial expressions which are more varied than those of a dog and even a chimpanzee!
The movement from one posture to another is gradual, giving the horse time to react and thus avoid physical contact.
Olfactory communication is used as part of individual recognition and, especially for stallions, to analyze the urine and feces of mares on heat. Smell also forms part of marking behavior during which stallions mark their presence by covering up droppings which do not belong to them.
When greeting one another, horses blow air into one another’s nostrils to analyze the body odor of their peer.
Aural communication consists of two categories of sounds: vocalizations made by the vocal cords (neighing, calling for contact, whining, groaning) and those that are only produced by breathing air in or out (snoring, snorting, panting). Each of these sounds takes place in a very specific context, and has a very specific meaning.
Neighing takes place with the mouth open and can be heard up to 1 km away. It is used to re-establish contact during separation.
Tactile communication is mainly reserved for friendly relationships between special partners: mutual grooming, leaning the head against another horse, topping and tailing to get rid of flies, etc. However, physical contact can also have a less friendly meaning: biting, kicking, fights, etc.
Tactile contact between special partners strengthens social relationships.
Texts by Déborah Bardou and Hélène Roche, ethologists – Photos Hélène Roche