How Do Horses Communicate? New Signals Found

Forget talking horses like Mister Ed—when it comes to horse communication, the ears have it. 

A new study revealed that a horse’s large, highly mobile ears can help tell another horse where to direct its attention, which may help the observing animals locate food and evade predators.

Horses nuzzle in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photograph by Glenn Jacobs, National Geographic Your Shot

As one of the first studies to examine communication avenues that humans lack—movable ears, for example—it’s an important step in understanding how social animals interact, said study leader Jennifer Wathan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex in the U.K.

Traditionally, Wathan explained, scientists studying how animals communicate with one another focused on traits that humans also have, such as body language. (Watch a video that explores the minds of animals.)

But by thinking about the world as a horse experiences it, Wathan said, scientists can gain more insight into how these animals share information.

Like humans, horses are social animals. While living in large groups of other members of your species has its downsides, the arrangement also has benefits. Animals can watch each other’s backs, keeping a lookout for potential predators while others are busy eating or looking for food.

To make this system work, however, animals have to have ways of communicating information to other members of the species.

“Horses have really good vision—better than dogs or cats—but the use of facial expressions has been overlooked,” Wathan said.

So Wathan hypothesized that horses could use ear direction as a cue for where to look and if they should pay attention to something in the environment.

Horse Senses

To test this idea, Wathan and her adviser Karen McComb first photographed horses in a pasture looking at one of two buckets of food.

In one set of photographs, the horse’s ears were covered by a mask. In a second set, the horse’s eyes were covered. A third group of photos showed the horse’s head as normal. Then, Wathan and McComb turned these photos into live-size pictures for a horse to look at as it chose between one of two buckets of food.

Preliminary experiments established that the horses were able to recognize that they were looking at another horse in the photo. (Read “People of the Horse” in National Geographic magazine.)

When horses looked at a photo from the third set, where both eyes and ears were uncovered, they picked the bucket of food the horse in the photo was looking at about 75 percent of the time.

When either the eyes or ears were covered by a mask in the photo, the observing horse selected between the two buckets of food more or less randomly. However, the horses performed slightly better when the photo showed the ears uncovered than when it showed the eyes uncovered, according to the study, published August 4 in Current Biology.

“The horses actually looked at the photographs of the [horses with masked eyes and ears] less, which indicated there was less information there, and not enough to change behavior,” Wathan said.

Helpful for Horse People

The study represents the first evidence that horses can signal information about food to each other, even though they evolved in an environment where “one blade of grass is as good as any other,” said Katherine Houpt, an emeritus professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a horse expert. 

Since the study provides such a unique insight into how the animals think, “these results are really important to anyone who works with horses,” Houpt said. (Read “Kentucky Horse Country in National Geographic magazine.)

“Experienced riders know to pay attention to a horse’s ears to help figure out what it’s thinking, so I’m not surprised that the ears were the most important cue,” she added.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter and Google+.

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com
  • lee

    Animals are truely amazing I am glad we have them

  • Viv

    “even though they evolved in an environment where “one blade of grass is as good as any other,” said Katherine Houpt, an emeritus professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a horse expert. ”

    Back to school for Ms Houpt, there can and are substantial differences in the ‘blades of grass’ horses eat. Finding a rich patch of clover, mineral deposits, herbs…and of course, horses communicate all sorts of things about things they see…like predators, or danger in the environment.

  • Sjyjasmine

    “The horses actually looked at the photographs of the [horses with masked eyes] less, which indicated there was less information there, and not enough to change behavior,” Wathan said.
    The missing part seems to be [horses with masked ears] rather than “masked eyes” if I’m not mistaken.

  • Carrie Arnold

    Sjyjasmine, thanks for the notification. I changed the text to reflect more accurately what the author said.

  • JM

    This was a wasted study and a waste of money. Any horse owner can tell much more about horse communication than this study. Don’t doubt for a minute that the horses realized those picture horses were not real. Their sense of smell tells them so. I think the professor has been too long in the classroom rather than working directly with the animals. Sad commentary regarding what vet students are learning at Cornell. It’s even sadder that NatGeo published this.

  • Jam

    Definitely not a “new” signal for anyone who has been on a horse. More interesting is the fact that they could actually relate what they see from a photo. I’d read more on that.

  • Sandy

    My stallion of 19 years uses his body language to tell me everything he wants. He also knows many words and my body language too. His facial expressions also can’t hide nothing from me! he even has different voices he uses on me. If he wants to play he picks up his front leg and nips at it and tosses his head. I ask him with my hands thrown in the air “do you wanna play” and he will squeal and take off. I enjoy him so much. I have experimented with him since he was 5 months old! Sandy

  • Ancient Hippie

    Too bad they had to go and waste all that money on a study that 95% of all good horse people already know.

  • Nancy

    If you are a horse person you should already know this! But I know many who don’t seem to recognize the communication horses are giving constantly. Don’t read their facial expressions and only know that when the ears are back it is a warning. I see my horses faces and know immediately what mood they are in, how they are feeling (usually happy to see me). They are showing us all the time what they like and don’t like, but most humans don’t really pay attention. If they don’t like a bit in their mouth, we put it in anyways. If they don’t like the cinch, we disregard that and put it on anyways. I think humans decided we don’t really want to know how horses feel or think or we may not enjoy them the way we want to if we really knew. So their communication is generally disregarded at least or a quick slap, smack or whip to put a stop to that disrespecting animal behavior. Which sadly is a common act I see humans do to their horses all the time. They see it as “disrespect”. I see a horse who is trying to communicate and gets frustrated by being ignored. When you seek to understand then you can be understood. Horses have a lot to teach us if only we would listen.

  • Sharon S

    >>even though they evolved in an environment where “one blade of grass is as good as any other,”

    Now there’s an inane comment! Wild pastures are rich with ever-changing flora, and each has its season and best-tasting time.

  • Gelelied

    Cool – While many perceptive horse enthusiasts may think this to be old news, it is interesting how the experiment was set up to isolate which part of the face horses pay attention to the most. From my experience, the ears, being so mobile, obviously communicate signals – probably as much as full blown body language. I was surprised that eyes gave enough information away to affect a horse’s behavior. I was also amazed that horses can pay accurate attention to photographs of another horse!

  • Susan Koso

    Horses being driven have their ears back when listening to verbal commands…not indicative of emotions …?Of course there is a difference between listening position and really unhappy ….then watch out

  • Leah Van Dinther

    You folks should check out Pat Parelli’s stuff. He studies horse-behavior (and psychology) and has created a “training method” that uses body-language to communicate with horses. I’ve raised my Arabian mare from a newborn foal and only used his methods, and I constantly get comments (even from cowboy-types) about our level of communication and our close partnership. It’s like a language in itself… and it really is more than just the ears! 🙂

  • Vickey Lasley

    Ms.Houpt is apparently also unaware that one blade of grass is not the same as another.
    There are patches of grass in my pastures that my mustangs always ignore. They will eat all the way around it but never touch it.

  • fatih

    It is interesting to my idea these horses
    I want to take a source this one
    I were happy from learn this

  • Jake

    So much flawed information (such as the bunk implication that animals such as horses would not discriminate between quality of food sources. I know from experience that THAT is total garbage science!). Also, I know from observing canines that they must communicate in tones outside of the human range of hearing – especially when providing intimate educational moments to their young, etc.

  • Courtney

    This really isn’t anything new to dedicated horse owners. We all know that they use body language, vocal sounds, and ear and tail movements to communicate. We already know that horses let each other know about predators and other dangers in the environment, such as poisonous plants. It seems to me that they could have saved alot of time and money, and used it on research for something else, such as curing diseases that kill horses.

  • Rena Fowler

    Obviously, this person is not as familiar with horses, etc, as they would like us to believe. Not all blades of grass are created equally. Some are better… more flavor, nutrition. Some are basically bulk. Anyone who works with or rides horses knows the ears are a key to what they are thinking. In my opinion, if they chose the bucket the other horse was at, it is more likely that they wanted HIS bucket of feed. I’ve had horses that routinely do this… same feed pan, same type & amount of feed. ALWAYS going for the one that the other horse was at.
    TITLE of article is very misleading.

  • Marge Blanc

    Although the study results weren’t ‘news,’ the fact that horse communication is now a topic is news! My Fjord horses seems to communicate with me more as I interact with them more. When my ‘intention’ is clear, their communication is more clear. ‘Pointing’ with their heads and gazing with their eyes tells me so much when my intention (i.e. my unspoken question) is clear.

  • Abigail Kimball

    Uhm. This is super old news in the horse world. Pretty much the first lesson of horse body language: watch the ears.
    We tell that to the 5 year olds learning on a pony, and we tell it to the 60 year old newbs going on their first trail ride.
    This was seriously wasted money. It’s like if somebody did a study saying “recent studies have shown that increasingly, young people are getting their news from online, rather than newspapers and TV. Who knew?”

  • Abigail Kimball

    I just had a sudden mental image of these “scientists” searching for ranchers nearby to supply horses for a “scientific study” and the ranchers obliging. Then, months and thousands of dollars later, when they bothered to ask what the study was about and being told, the ranchers all laughing hysterically and saying “shoot. I could’ve told you that on the phone.”

  • Danielle Bradberry

    I have been around horses my entire life, that being said, horses communicate with not only body laungage but smell. Horses are alway in competition with one another for who’s dominate and the dominate one gets the first choice of food/ water. Its all about who moves their feet first looses. Horses also cominucate not only by the sound of their neighing but also by blowing into each others noses. For example if I blow softly into my horses nose twice she calms down. If I blow very hard twice I get bitten. If I blow very hard once after that she might squill and stomp her feet as if I said something very naughty. Maybe you scientists need to be eith horses for a couple of years before you publish only one percent of horses use of launguage.

  • Equine vet assistant

    Yea, like many other people have already commented, this study was a complete waste of both time and money.

    It said that there have been no studies done on horse facial expressions, what a lie. Go to the book store and pick up almost any book on basic horse training and they will all comment on watching the horse’s expression especially the horse’s eyes and ears. I would take the study of COUNTLESS trainers over this farce experiment any day. Furthermore, anyone that has spent their life working with horses could tell you a lot more than what this STUDY has.

    I like seeing worth while studies on horses and other animals, and generally enjoy a good read on such. That said, I like to try and have an open mind toward the study, but in this case all I can say is what a joke.

    Sorry to be so derogatory, but it is what it is. This study was something any horse person already knew with a bit of horse hockey mixed in.

  • Equine vet assistant

    Yep, I figured my post would be moderated out. God forbid someone post a disapproving comment. Can’t have anything being posted that might put an article in a bad light. You go Nat Geo moderator.

  • Csduf

    Yes, the part about horses looking at photos and choosing from them is very interesting. That should be the lead-in on this article, because, as the first comment says, anyone who’s been around horses knows that they “speak” with their ears. Using precious research money to determine that was a big waste!

  • Lee Rosenblum

    Interesting study that shows horses are so attuned to each other’s signals that they’ll follow the “message” even in a photo.

    Of course horses have incredibly rich means of communicating of which the ears and eyes are only a small part. Head position, tail moving, body moving, breathing, and sounds are just a few obvious ones. As humans, we are hampered by our own language-based cognition in trying to understand a rich non-verbal system. Horses are exquisitely aware of communication with each other. And incredibly aware of messages we send that we are not even aware of. (See explanations of Clever Hans, or think about horse whisperers, etc)

  • Christine Dell’Amore

    @Equine vet assistant—we’re low on staffers at the moment and I just got a chance to moderate comments. Please be patient!

    Thanks, Christine Dell’Amore, Editor

  • Katrin

    Horse people have known this ages ago, it is not new discovery.

  • HorseLover

    It has been a pretty well-known thing for any horse lovers… I’ve been riding for an extremely long time, and I recall that during my first lesson, my coach referred that I should never stop watching the ears. It’s basic common sense to any horse lover….

  • Gary Wilkes

    Honestly, this should be embarrassing. Let me see. I’m a horse. I want food. You are another horse and know where it is. You weigh half a ton. I’m going to watch your ears to see that your big butt is moving toward a flake of hay. That ear movement CAN be a trigger for relatively basic functions such as defensive caution is really stretching the definition of communication. Oh, I’m going to look at the ears to know there is a mountain lion rather than listening for nickering, stamping feet restless indecisive motions and other blatant signs. On the other hand, without brainless studies, what would National Geo sell since they decided to lose credibility in a big way?

  • Lisa

    I’m much more interested in horses recognizing another horse in a photo. I’m missing the significance of the ear research because that seems such basic knowledge in the horse community.

    But I’d love to know more about how horses perceive images of horses. Can they recognize themselves in a mirror? When I met my wonderful Analusian, he seemed to LOVE to look at himself in the mirror. He kept running to the other end of the arena to gaze in the mirror. Did he really know he was looking at himself? He didn’t try to interact with the reflection like he would with another horse. This is of much more interest to me.

  • Erin Start

    I respectfully disagree with Prof. Houpt’s statement that all blades of grass are created equal, and this concept actually supports the ideas presented here, it is not “in spite” of it. Any rancher can tell you that toxic plants often grow in pastures, and certainly horses evolved around toxic plants. Blades of grass within the same species can also have different nutritional and toxicity levels due to disease, environment and other factors. Like humans, horses can often detect toxins by taste and so it makes sense they would share this information with each other, however they can, as an evolved survival strategy.

  • Erin Start

    I wanted to add that my last comment created a false-binary, treating plants as either “edible” or “toxic” when in fact I think this may be an oversimplification of a horse’s motivations for eating certain plants. Plants are also medicine for animals, the only medicine that they have. My dog likes to eat mallow when he has an upset stomach, not because he knows the detailed phytochemical properties of it, but only because he knows it makes him feel better. Horses can learn all sorts of things about plants by eating them and noticing how they feel afterwards. Then they can communicate this information to their offspring, like where the plants are that will make their stomach stop hurting, after they have eaten the slightly-toxic shiny berries you told them firmly with your laid-back ears not to eat, but colts will be colts, eh?

  • Ginger

    This study was a huge waste of money,,, glad to see our taxpayer dollars at work,,,,,, this has been known in the horse industry for a very long time,,, there didn’t need to be a scientific study to figure this crap out,,,, next amazing study,,, why horses twitch their tail? Give me a stinking break

  • Donald Fisher

    When we get around to examining how information is encoded in scent, pheromone complexes, I foresee a massive jump in our understanding of horse communication.

    As our primary means of communication is sound, my observations over a 60 year period with and without personal horses, strongly supports a consideration of scent talk as the best subject to explore.

    Even horse people, quick to point out how familiar we are already with ears and other means of communication have as yet only begun to explore the breath as a source of communication.

    Note in the picture chose for the article, the nostril to nostril proximity,.. along with the ears. These horses are not so much talking with their ears as validating with them what they are reading with breath exchange.

    There is only so much a horse can say with his ears.. what wonderful messages might they be sending and receiving with complex pheromone mixtures?

    Experiments with humans hint at this complexity we inherited from our predatory opportunist forebears. Why not even more complexity and greater wealth of information in the large prey animal?

    My own amateurish experiments with cross species (human to and from equine) strongly suggest far more information sharing goes on than we know and if we are not receptive, as the horse is, we are missing much.

    I hope some research on this will happen.

  • Casey

    In response to people commenting things like: “Horse people have known this ages ago, it is not new discovery” or “glad to see our taxpayer dollars at work”.

    There is a difference between knowing something and having quantitative data supporting it. Not all research is about making a “new discovery”. An important part of the scientific process is testing things we think we already know and confirming these presumptions with data.

    This sort of clerical, “sanity check” research happens all the time. And it should.

    Every now and again, you find out that your assumptions were wrong, discover an exception to what you believed was a universal rule, or realize what you “knew” was an over-simplification of a system that was more complex than you originally thought.

    So… while you I applaud you on your no-doubt vast knowledge of horse behavior, you should brush up on the scientific method.

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