Understanding Horses: Equine Communication and a History of Feral Breeds

Learn the simple tricks to understanding horses and the history of feral breeds that still roam free today.


  • Alert Horse
    An alert horse will have both its head and ears in an upright position.
    Illustration © Elara Tanguy used with Permission from Storey Publishing
  • Relaxed Horse
    Both ears resting in a relaxed manner is a tell-tale sign of a calm horse.
    Illustration © Elara Tanguy used with Permission from Storey Publishing
  • Threatening Horse
    With its ears pinned back against its neck, there is no mistaking a threatening horse.
    Illustration © Elara Tanguy used with Permission from Storey Publishing
  • Wildhorse Przewalski
    The Przewalski Horse is the only remaining genetically wild horse in the world.
    Illustration © Elara Tanguy used with Permission from Storey Publishing
  • Knowing Horses Cover
    "Knowing Horses" (Storey Publishing, 2012), answers hundreds of questions about behavior, physiology, breed characteristics, training and the long-standing relationship between humans and horses. 
    Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing

  • Alert Horse
  • Relaxed Horse
  • Threatening Horse
  • Wildhorse Przewalski
  • Knowing Horses Cover

Understanding horses is easy to do with this informative compendium of all things equine by Les Sellnow and Carol A. Butler. Knowing Horses (Storey Publishing, 2012) answers hundreds of questions about behavior, physiology, breed characteristics, training, sporting events, and the long-standing relationship between humans and horses. In this excerpt, learn about equine communication and the history of feral breeds. 

As do all social creatures, horses communicate in a variety of ways. They are certainly great communicators at feeding time — nickering, pawing, and moving about the stall when they hear the rattle of feed buckets.

Horses employ numerous distinct vocalizations, and being highly visual animals, their body language clearly indicates feelings and intentions. For example, when two stablemates are reunited after being separated, they may nicker softly, and nuzzle and sniff each other with ears pricked forward.

When horses meet, they may stand nose to nose and blow into each other’s nostrils to exchange scents and evaluate their relationship to one another. When two strange horses meet, they might put their ears back and lower their heads. As they sniff each other, one or both might stamp a foot or squeal as they establish who’s who. They may also move stiffly, expressing tension or apprehension.



Horses primarily communicate with posture, position, and movement. The way a horse stands can tell his herdmates to be on alert or to relax and graze. Head up and ears pricked indicate that something’s up. A hunched shoulder or haunches turned toward another horse (or human) means “stay away” or “watch out.”

A gentle licking or chewing motion is understood as “I’m not threatening you.” Horse trainers look for that signal to indicate that a horse is thinking about and accepting the current lesson.



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