Training to Translate…..Ear Movements


When it comes to paying attention to each other, it seems that horses are all ears. So if you are looking for a new trainer or a rider who will communicate well with your horse ask about ears!

Some horse’men can naturally read a horse, this comes from their long experience in dealing with an animal whose basic instinct is flight from threatening situations.  Learning these signals and putting them together with what is going on under you can help your riding improve dramatically.

If you are working with a talented and empathetic trainer they will be able to point out these cues to you.

Horses have very mobile ears, they can only swivel them round, point them forward, pull them up or flatten them back

When a horse’s ears are flopping down, it means the creature is relaxed.

But pinned back, and the horse is expressing anger.

When a horse is interested in something, it pricks up its ears and swivels them towards whatever has caught its attention.

The ability to read each other’s interest level is disrupted when the ears are covered up, the researchers found.

You can tell a lot from a horses ears when you are on the ground and, very usefully, when you are on its back too. Learning to read those signals is part of the key to a harmonious relationship with your horse.

In fact the signals are so important in the way that a horse communicates that when  Mammal communication experts Jennifer Wathan and Professor Karen McComb, whose paper is published on 04 August 2014, set up an experiment to see which cues horses relied on to judge the direction of another horse’s attention in a task where they had to choose where to feed, it was found that the ers were key to communication.

Each horse was individually led to a point where it was released and allowed to choose between two buckets. On a wall behind the buckets was a life-sized photograph of a horse’s head facing either to left or right.

The researchers found that if either the ears or the eyes of the horse in the picture were obscured, the horse being led made a random choice between the two buckets.  However, if the ears and eyes were visible, then the horse used these directional cues to guide their choice.

Jennifer Wathan says: “Previous work investigating communication of attention has focused on cues that humans use – body orientation, head orientation and eye gaze. But no one had gone beyond that. We found that in horses, their ear position was also a crucial visual signal. In fact, horses needed to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they would use another horse’s head direction to guide their choice.”

She adds: “Most people who live and work alongside animals with mobile ears would agree that the ears are important in communication, but it has taken science a while to catch up. We naturally have a human-centric view of the world and as we can’t move our ears they get rather overlooked in other species.”

Professor McComb says: “This study emphasises that animals other than primates are aware of subtle differences in facial expression and can use these to guide the decisions that they make. Fine scaled facial movements can indicate important changes in attention and emotional state and are likely to be crucial in determining social behaviour in a wide range of animals.”

The researchers’ paper, ‘The eyes and ears are visual indicators of attention in domestic horses’ is published in Current Biology, on 04 August 2014.

So add “How about the ears” to the list of questions you ask new trainer or a rider and you will know exactly how well they will communicate with your horse .