Have you ever wondered which horse sounds and noises are normal?
As horse owners and horseback riders, knowing what our horses are thinking and feeling is crucial to how we carry out their care, training, and riding.
While horses are incredibly communicative animals, the sounds horses make can be perplexing. When interpreting horse sounds, some are very straightforward, and some are a bit more complex.
Much like humans, what horses say is combination of body language, sounds, and inflection.
Horses communicate constantly to communicate their needs and boundaries. But what is normal among all of the horse sounds? And how do we know when to be concerned?
Thankfully, researchers have dedicated countless hours observing and documenting horse sounds to demystify much of equine communication.
Many of the sounds listed below can have both positive and negative implications. All “verbal” equine communication can be interpreted through non-verbal cues.
These inflections help us understand the full picture of any given noise a horse makes.
Let’s start by outlining their seven basic sounds.
What Sounds Does a Horse Make?
When a horse snorts, he inhales quickly, then exhales by puffing his breath out of his nostrils. It usually indicates excitement and anticipation, like when you’re about to let him out to pasture, when he sees his friends nearby, or when you reach that place on the trail where you usually take a good gallop.
While endearing to see your horse excited, you do want to be alert if his snorts escalate with a raised head and tail. He may be ready to make a sudden movement with little regard to you. Make sure to get his attention as soon as possible.
If you are riding with friends, be extra cautious to get his attention, as his snorting can trigger the same excitement in the rest of the horses.
A horse blow is the same essential sound as a horse snort, but a bit more mellow and drawn-out. A blow typically means your horse is content and relaxed.
According to research, the horse sigh is the one equine noise that is used primarily around humans. A horse sighs by drawing in a long breath and exhaling deeply and audibly.
Sighs are indicators that your horse is relaxing, such as during a massage, grooming session, or when loosening up on the lunge line. Horses may also sigh out of boredom after standing or doing an exercise for an extended period of time.
A groan is a deep guttural sound that is low in tone. Some groans escape as shallow grunts, while some draw out into deeper moans. There are some horses who are just natural groaners.
You might notice that your horse is otherwise happy and relaxed, but he tends to let out grunts and groans when you ride or lunge him. On the other hand, groans can be an indicator of pain or discomfort, and possibly deeper medical issues.
The squeal is a high-pitched, brief, piercing noise that can be heard from a good distance away. You may hear your horse make this sound upon introduction to another horse, as it is a test to see if the other horse will mind his personal space.
Your horse may also squeal if another horse bites or kicks him. During mating time, a squeal is a mare’s way of saying she is not interested, which is why your mare may be vocal with the geldings and stallions at the barn.
The nicker is a soft, gentle sound that your horse makes with his vocal cords, but with his mouth closed. A horse nicker is a friendly expression, often accompanied by forward ears and an alert look in the eyes that indicates anticipation or excitement.
Most commonly, a horse will nicker when he knows food is on the way, but also when he recognizes his beloved owner coming towards him. You will also hear a mare nicker at her young foal when he wanders too far, so there is no question that this is the most affectionate of the horse sounds.
Though usually positive, your horse may also nicker when he feels trapped or threatened, like encountering something scary on the trail. He will likely flick his ears back and forth, tense his whole body, and try to escape whatever is causing him apprehension.
A horse whinny is a sound that starts as a squeal, projects like a bugle, and settles into a nicker. It requires more wind from the horse’s lungs than the other sounds, and can convey either confidence or anxiety.
A horse neigh is the same as a whinny, but often is associated with the more confident and happy whinny. Whinnying is a social noise, either to call friends over, call you to bring breakfast, or to express loneliness or fear of being separated from the herd.
Researchers have discovered that a horse whinny contains two independent frequencies: one frequency indicates either positive or negative emotion, while another frequency communicates the strength of that emotion.
The positive whinnies are shorter and overall lower in pitch (usually accompanied by a lower head and forward-facing ears), while negative whinnies are longer, higher-pitched, and involve ears flicking back and forth, pacing, and even sweating or defecating.
The scream is a very rare horse noise, and is semblant of a roar. When a horse screams, he is typically fighting with another horse. Two horses fighting in a herd may be a battle of dominance, where one of the horses will need to back down and submit before they become peaceful again.
Contrary to popular belief, herd dynamics can shift quite often, even when no new horses have joined the group. However, horses who escalate to screaming fights regularly might need to be separated.
When Should I Be Worried?
While all of the horse sounds above are normal for daily equine life, the following sounds should raise concern:
Roaring Horse Noise
When your horse exhales with a roaring or whistling noise during exercise, you could be dealing with a respiratory issue called Laryngeal hemiplegia. Known as the “roaring horse noise”, this sound is fairly distinct because it is the partial or total paralysis of the larynx.
The air escaping his lungs doesn’t pass quietly when exhaling, because the paralysis causes a partial obstruction.
If you think your horse might be making this abnormal noise, your vet may need to perform some endoscopic tests. While there is no cure, pleasure horses can often get along fine without too much strenuous exercise. Performance horses may need to undergo surgery to help them breathe more easily with the paralysis.
The other noise that can be cause for concern is much more subtle. While groaning can be a typical noise for many horses, the horse groan is often an indication of something deeper.
A groan when riding or lunging your horse can mean that he is in pain or discomfort from a bad saddle, too heavy of a rider, or a new source of internal pain or lameness.
A horse may also groan if he has issues in his digestive tract, such as impaction. If your horse is groaning more than he usually does, or the nature of his groans change, contact your veterinarian to see if something deeper is going on.
How to Be Fluent in Horse Sounds and Noises
Knowing the nature and range of horse noises is a wonderful place to start when learning how your horse communicates. In addition to knowledge, the best way to get to know your horse’s noises and sounds are to observe him as much as possible. Take note when he makes noises and when he doesn’t.
Soon you will know better than anyone exactly when your horse is anxious or in pain, and when he is completely happy and healthy.