Does your horse neigh when he sees or hears you coming? Does he have a special nicker he makes when he knows you have a carrot in your pocket, just for him? And during a long, hot afternoon waiting around at a show, does he let out a big sigh?
If you think your horse is trying to communicate with you – you are right.
Horses and ponies are usually quiet creatures, ‘talking’ mainly through body language. This is because in the wild, horses live on open plains, so they learned to communicate mainly through sight so as not to attract attention to predators around them by making a noise.
But horses and ponies do use a range of vocal sounds as well, though not as wide a range as people or other animals such as dogs and cats do, and the same or similar sounds can mean several different things. We need to read the horse or pony’s body language at the same time – the position of their head, ears and tail for instance – to correctly interpret what the specific sounds mean.
Experts in equine behaviour believe that horses and ponies can recognise familiar people by the sound of their footsteps, or even the engine of their car – and will neigh out in greeting.
They are most likely to neigh if they can hear you, but can’t actually see you – this is why horses and ponies ‘talk’ to each other more when they are in stables where they can’t see each other.
Here are the main sounds you might hear your horse or pony making:
The nicker (or snicker)
This is the lovely friendly sound chortling ponies and horses make as a greeting to a mate, or an anticipation of a treat. It’s produced when air is blown over the vocal chords with the mouth shut, and you will notice their nostrils fluttering. Some horses and ponies use it to appease a threat, and mares use a quiet, lower version as a special ‘chat’ with their foals.
The neigh (whinny)
This is a louder greeting, which generally begins at a high pitch and finishes in the lower range. It can be very loud and heard from quite a distance. The neigh is made with the mouth open. It’s used to greet a more distant horse, to call out to mates who are out of sight, and may also act as a challenge, to warn other horses of danger, or to get attention or indicate that they need something – often that something is food!
Squeals are usually made only when horses or ponies are interacting with other horses. Maybe another pony touched them, they want to play, or they’re cross, they are being attacked, or they are fighting with another pony.
A scream is more intense than a neigh – it’s an unmistakable sound of distress. This is typically the sound made by a foal trying to find his Mum, or by a horse trying to find the rest of his herd.
Usually only stallions trumpet or roar, and in several different situations. They might be courting a mare or yelling out a challenge to another stallion. Or they might be excited, or simply frustrated because they are alone.
Horses sigh like we do; it can mean they are bored or resigned to what is going to happen – a ‘here we go again’ sound. Or it may mean they are simply relaxing. No one is sure if they sigh much around other horses in the paddock.
The sneeze and snort
Obviously, horses will sneeze if something makes their nose itch or if there’s a strong smell. Sometimes they will sneeze to let another horse know they are there – a bit like you clearing your throat with a polite cough – or if they are feeling a bit nervous. If a pony becomes more alert, the sneeze becomes a snort. If a pony snorts while looking at something, the other ponies will go on alert and look in that direction too. The sneeze/snort also clears the pony’s airways in case he needs to run away from whatever it is that has caught his attention. A really deep, long vibrating snort indicates the horse or pony is alarmed, wary and suspicious. Be careful – a horse making this noise may bolt or spook.
Horses and ponies will grunt if they are exerting themselves, such as during rolling, when bucking, or making a big effort over a jump.
- This article was first published in the autumn 2015 issue of PONIES! magazine