Generally, we humanize horses too much when dealing with them. Giving bread and sugar at the wrong moment is not to be recommended (see equine nutrition for further details on this topic). By careful observation of the horse as we handle him we learn about his mental state and when to praise him. We must observe his eyes, ears, general expression, tail movements, sweating, neighing, snorting and the way he moves, just like a professional punter looking for the best horse during the horse betting process. But what do these mean individually?


The horse’s temperament and character can be determined from his eyes. A quiet, clear and kind eye indicates a friendly character. Horses with small eyes and a mistrustful look often have difficult temperaments. It is said that a horse with a lot of white in the eye has a lot of energy and can sometimes be difficult.

When the horse’s eyes appear uneasy this could indicate that he is nervous, which is understandable when he has been moved to a new yard and has not yet found a person he can trust in this new situation. If the horse has an uneasy look and is agitated even when handled well, this could be an indication of pain, in which case the vet should be called.


The mood of the horse is shown by his ears. If both ears point forward he is in an attentive mood. If the ears are turned to the rear and are apart then he is listening to sounds behind him. If the ears are both laid back slightly then he is worried. Care must be taken if he reacts like this. If the ears are really pressed flat back then he is being defensive and could suddenly bite or kick. He must be spoken to and reprimanded with a short, sharp smack.


The horse’s expression cannot be understood fully just by glancing at him. You need to take time to observe the individual facial features; the movements of the nostrils, lips and ears and the look in his eyes to fully comprehend it, and this one learns from experience. When you have known a horse for a long time and see him every day, you get to know the individual characteristics of his face.


Looseness in the way of going, contentment and a quiet rhythm are all indicated by a gently swinging tail. If it is held up stiffly or clamped down it can be a sign of tension in the back, which often happens if the horse becomes excited when leaving his stable.

By allowing the horse to run free in the school for a short while he can get this out of his system and may well enjoy leaping around. When he settles down again his tail will be held normally.

Horses who swish their tails excessively when ridden are often tense. It is important not to ride at too early a stage in spurs, to ride sensitively and also to make sure that the horse works through the back from the beginning.


Horses use their voices very differently. There are horses one hardly ever hears and those who greet every other horse they see with a loud neigh. The Olympic horse, Dux, used to bring attention to himself all the time by neighing in a loud but friendly manner in unfamiliar situations. This behaviour is most typical of stallions in new surroundings. Young horses frequently neigh at the others back in the stable yard. It is not difficult to teach a horse to greet his rider with a short whinny by bringing a small titbit each time and our food trolley is always greeted by loud neighing.

If a horse groans it is certainly a sign of severe pain, and one should immediately call for assistance.

Squealing is typical of a horse feeling either irritated or playful. This is often heard when two horses are sniffing each other, and it is usually followed by a playful bite or kick. Loud squealing is common from mares in season.


Snorting is a sign of contentment and shows that the horse is relaxed. There is a difference between quick snorting on inhalation when the horse is tense or excited and a longer, relaxed snorting when exhaling. A different form of snorting is small grunts in a different tone in the throat, caused by the vocal cords.


Sweat appears naturally when the horse is worked. It is generally an indication of how hard the horse has been working and can thus help in planning the horse’s training schedule. However, the time of year and the temperature play a part in the amount a horse sweats. Certain anomalies may also be noted: occasionally, a crooked horse will sweat only on one side, while the other side remains dry, or a horse may sweat only on certain parts of the body, such as the neck. As with people, some horses naturally sweat more than others.

Severe pain such as is indicative of colic will cause sudden and profuse sweating. Young horses can sweat through sheer nervousness; sometimes one can also feel them shaking and the heartbeat is evident just in front of the saddle flaps.


The gaits of the horse are a distinguishing feature of his frame of mind and ability. When a young horse first comes out of the stable to run free in the school, for example, it is totally normal for his gaits to be tense. He has to let off steam after being confined to his stable before one can study the quality of his movement.

Assess the young horse as he canters along the short side of the school and see whether he remains balanced or not, which is an indication of the quality of the canter in future ridden work. The mechanics of the trot show the possibilities of developing it further. One could write a long article on this alone, drawing conclusions on training methods by observing a horse moving at freedom. Watching the horse completes the picture of what the rider feels and experiences under the saddle. By free-schooling one can see the natural ability of the horse in all three gaits. The gaits can be improved when working with a rider.

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