Trainers know horses communicate in many ways, be it through body language or ear and eye movements. But when it comes to the vocal sounds these animals make, it’s often hard to pick up on exactly what they may be trying to express. Neighing and whinnying are often interpreted as signs of stress, but is there something more to these noises that horses are trying to convey? One recent study analyzed exactly what emotions horses are expressing whenever they use vocal communication.
Emotional complexities of horse vocalization
Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland collaborated on the study that examined how the different frequencies in a horse’s whine may express a variety of complex emotional information. There were 20 horses of different ages and breeds that were involved in the study, and the researchers exposed each animal to various situations that either triggered positive or negative emotions. For instance, vocals of a horse whinnying were recorded when the animals were either grouped together or isolated from each other for long periods of time. In addition, the researchers analyzed other bodily functions whenever the horses communicated vocally, such as heart and breathing rates as well as skin temperature.
Ultimately, the researchers noticed two distinct vocal patterns and fluctuations in frequency whenever a horse was recorded whinnying. Positive emotions were found to be expressed when horses were whinnying for shorter durations, along with higher frequencies and a lowering of the head. For negative experiences, longer whinnies and even higher frequencies were detected. When a horse was feeling either aroused or stimulated, breathing and heart rates significantly increased, and higher frequencies were also found.
Dr. Elodie Briefer, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and lead author of the study, explained how the two primary frequencies identified not just what emotions the horse was experiencing, but how intense of a feeling the horse was trying to express.
“One frequency indicates whether the emotion is positive or negative, while the other frequency reveals the strength of the emotion,” Briefer said in a press release. “Such vocalizations with two fundamental frequencies are rare among mammals, in contrast, for example, to songbirds.”
Reading your horse’s emotions
The main point of the study was to emphasize how emotionally complex horses actually are. While further research is necessary to outright detect a horse’s feelings without the use of technology, there are a number of body language and general movements that can indicate what emotions the horse is currently experiencing. Trainers can often pick up on emotional signs by reading head movements or various tics, such as twirling of the ears. According to Horse Circuit News, the main reasons a horse expresses resentment or irritation are because they’re either afraid, bored, lost respect for a handler or are feeling pressured. The common ways to pick up on these indicators are flared nostrils, grinding teeth, holding its head high or flailing its ears out to the side.
Experiences of stress are quite common in horses, which is why finding effective ways to help calm them down can help them not only relax, but focus better during training. One horse supplement in particular that may be useful in times of nervousness is Quia-cal®, an oral paste that helps promote healthy nerves in horses. Always be mindful of the facial and vocal expressions your horse displays, and speak to a veterinarian if emotions of irritability or resentment do not decrease over time.