Beyond Body Language 3: Watch those Ears!

Rio and I riding

We hear it all the time.  Our horse’s body language is important.  It’s one of their primary means of communicating with us.  Every movement, every twitch of a muscle means something.  The more we learn to recognize their signals and accurately interpret them the better!

This week is special.

I’m inspired by spending last weekend teaching calming signals with Anna Blake.  We had a blast and I was thrilled to find another like minded soul!

This weekend I glued myself to a round pen rail to watch Frederic Pignon demonstrate  how he builds a relationship with horses.  Watching him work was a bucket list item for me.  I’ve seen loads of videos and images of horses working with a person “at liberty” and the horse doesn’t look very happy to me. So I’ve not pursued it much because I didn’t want to bother my horses in my learning process.

Frederic’s horses always seem so mentally/emotionally free, I wanted to understand how he creates that.

Of course body language is key.  He gathers loads of information from the horses, and much to my delight I found he does it in the same way I do.  We watch how they move and the gestures  they use when we offer a suggestion.  We touch them to see how they respond to touch and  we feel with our hands.  We resonate with them to learn their story.  Are they happy, sad, anxious?

It’s nice to discover like-minded people out there in the world!

Of course, hot on the heels of watching Frederic interact so respectfully with horses I saw some images of horses working with a person at liberty that did not look so happy to me.  I see this so often.  The people are smiling and looking like they are playing while the horses look angry and frustrated.  Their movement may be expressive but it’s not happy.

And that’s what inspired today’s body language post.

Let’s talk about ears!

Let’s be clear.  Pinned ears = unhappy horse. Period.

Frederic always stopped when a horse pinned their ears or even if their ears stopped moving.  He apologized for doing too much, helped them calm back down and then asked again.

Anna Blake has this to say on the subject:

Ear pinning is not just a calming signal; it’s a loud one. It means that the work is too loud or too fast or just too TOO. If a whip is used, it’s being overused. Listen to your horse more and play the “game” less.

When our horses are actively engaged with us and comfortable their ears are almost constantly in motion.  When they get anxious, tense or upset or when they are processing something those ears stop moving. They fix in a position and stay there. For me, any fixed position needs to be noted and acknowledged by pausing and breathing. Checking in with myself and my horse.  Did I do too much?  Did I ask for something you can’t give? Did I ask you to do something too long?

The more we learn to listen to what our horses are telling us and respond to their feedback appropriately the stronger the bond we forge, the more they trust us.  Communication goes both ways.  We ask a question or make a suggestion and our horse answers. Are you listening to your horse’s response to your question or just throwing another question at him?

Here is the same series of images I included in last week’s post. Notice how mobile and expressive Sundance’s ears are.  Can you tell when he’s feeling confident? Anxious? Skeptical? Relaxed? Guarded? Curious?

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Are you listening?

What are your horse’s ears telling you?

5 thoughts on “Beyond Body Language 3: Watch those Ears!

  1. I’m curious what you mean by having the horse’s ears always moving? When I play with my gelding he assumes the typical position with one ear on me and the other tilted slight back, not pinned. Occasionally his ears will come forward but mostly they stay in this position. I’m hard pressed to find something that interests him if there is food involved. 😂


    • Hello Lily,
      This is still something I’m in the process of observing myself so it’s only a theory at this point. But it seems to me that when my horses are really relaxed and engaged their ears don’t fix in any particular position for any length of time, they are quite mobile. Now that doesn’t mean they never stop moving. If we are doing something where we are both very focused on something new or complex they will stop moving and stay focused in a way similar to what you describe with your horse. But I think what I’m seeing is that I want to pay attention to that because it means they are thinking quite hard and are very focused. That’s great, but I probably don’t want to expect them to maintain that level of focus for terribly long periods of time. If they are that focused I might want to give them a break and let them relax and breathe – even if just to say – hey – I noticed how focused you’ve been and I appreciate it. Food is such a priority for horses, I think it’s hard for any of us to get their attention when food is involved! Hard to be more interesting than food! 😉


      • Sorry. Typo in my original post. I’m hard pressed to find something that interests my gelding when there isn’t* food involved. I have noodles and milk jugs of pennies, balls and tarps, steamers and fog machines. I present him something new and he looks for a second then couldn’t care less. Not unless cookies are involved!

        Liked by 1 person

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