Tuesday, October 24, 2006

horse body language

Horse Body Language - Part 1
Part One: The Ears

Next time you're standing at the paddock area of your favorite track, take a look at the horses' ears. You will notice that they are constantly shifting this way and that, trying to focus in on something that holds their interest. An inexperienced handicapper will usually dismiss these movements or not even notice them at all. Big mistake - a horse's ear posture can be very significant.

"When a horse's ears are in 'neutral,' they are held loosely upward with their openings pointing forward and outward." This is often referred to as the "ready" position, because the horse is relaxed, but its ears can instantly rotate to face a questionable sound and examine it carefully. If a sound gets to the point where it is worrisome to the horse, it will "prick" its ears so that they are erect and facing directly toward the sound. Eventually the horse may turn its head, or its entire body to face the strange noise. (Pricked ears are not always a sign of uneasiness - they can also mean that the horse is very alert or interested in something).

Laid-back horses will sometimes display what Desmond Morris refers to as "airplane ears." This signals that the horse is submissive, depressed, or very tired. (Not a good sign in a racehorse!) When you see a horse on a racetrack with slightly drooped ears which are pointing backward, it simply means that the horse is paying close attention to the jockey. (In this situation the horse is submitting to the jockey's will and often may be a bit scared of the situation.

Flicking ears tell us that the horse is distressed. "A horse with flicking ears may well be on the verge of bolting in terror." In this position, the ears are erect and nervously "flicking" back and fourth.

When a horse flattens its ears back so that they almost disappear from view, watch out! These "pinned" ears mean that the horse is very angry. This instinct comes from way back when horses were wild. When they were in danger due to another horse or a predator, they would pin back their ears to protect them from being harmed.

A horse's ears can even tell us if they have been drugged. If a horse has been given a depressant, it's ears will display little or no activity and usually droop down sideways. Under normal circumstances, their ears would be "constantly moving to pick up new sounds. Mobile ears, turning this way and that, are, by their very activity, signals of shifting attention and interest."

We will be taking horse body language one step at a time. Practice identifying the above "ear signals" this week. Next week, we'll go into what horses can signal with their necks and tails, as well as some of their limited vocabulary. (neigh!)

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