FAQ Horse Care Other

Speaking Their Language: Translating Horse Physiology & Psychology

horses touching noses over fence
Written by Susanna Wright

Equine Physiology and Psychology for Crystal-Clear Communication

In order to successfully (and safely) work with horses, we need to understand how their bodies and brains work. Physiology and psychology influence each other and will be discussed concurrently.

Physiology is the branch of biology that studies the mechanisms of living things. Equine physiology includes skeletal, muscular, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems, as well as how the entire body functions. 

Equine psychology is the science that attempts to predict behavior under different circumstances and then influence that behavior to align with the goals of the human handler.

woman and horse

Source: Anu Joshi

Learning more about equine physiology and psychology allows us to better understand, communicate, and partner with our horses.

To start things off, here is a thorough and educational summary of 10 foundational horse behaviors, brought to you by Spalding Labs:


Prey Mentality

As prey animals, horses are built to run (physiology).

When presented with a “fight or flight” situation, horses will generally choose “flight” (psychology).

A horse may become aggressive if it feels cornered, or the “flight” option is taken away. This is why it is important to use caution when working with horses in small spaces, such as stalls or trailers.

boy kicking horse's forehead

Source: Canva

If “flight” is not an option, the horse may try to defend itself by biting or kicking. Since humans are viewed as predators, you need to make sure your horse sees you as a non-threatening predator.

Avoid quick, sudden movements and loud noises. Never run towards or chase a horse (They are much faster!)

Free lunging in a round pen is a great way to learn how your body language influences the horse’s movement.

Sense of Sight

Horses rely on sight and sound to detect predators.

Natural predators in the United States include coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and sometimes bears.

(Of course, whatever startles a horse is also considered a predator, such as plastic bags, shadows, and puddles.)

Mountain lions tend to hunt from higher ground, such as from a cliff or a tree. Because of this, horses may become skittish if they sense something above them.

If you are hiking on a trail and need to step off to allow horses to pass, always step off on the “down” side of the trail.

Vision is the horse’s best-developed sense to detect danger. Equine eyes are located on the sides of the head, which gives them almost a 350-degree range of vision.

That’s pretty impressive compared to humans, who have only a 180-degree vision range.

horse rookie eyesight infographic

Source: Horse Rookie

Keep in mind, however, that much of what horses “see” is akin to human peripheral vision—we often notice things, but can’t identify them.

This video helps us to understand how the horse sees compared to that of a human:

Horses have monocular vision on either side and binocular vision in front of them. The spot directly in front of their face and behind them is a blind spot. Because of this, you never want to approach a horse from the front, or the rear, as you could startle them.

It is best to approach from their side and use your voice to alert the horse to your presence.

When walking behind a horse, a good suggestion is to start from the side, use your voice to alert them, and gently touch them as you walk around so they always know where you are.

chestnut horse with stripe

Source: Pixabay

Monocular vision may not work quite the same on both sides—don’t assume because your horse saw something out of his left eye that he will recognize that same object out of his right eye. An object that is innocuous out of one eye may be scary out of the other, or you may get a second spook when the scary object is viewed from another angle.

It can be helpful to turn the horse to face the scary object—binocular vision will allow the horse to better see the perceived threat.

Eyes can also indicate the horse’s mood—if you can see the whites around the eye, the horse is likely scared and may be ready to spook. If eyes are half shut, the horse may be relaxed and dozing.

Sense of Hearing

Horses have excellent hearing—better than humans. They can hear a range of 14 Hz to 25 kHz, while the human hearing range is only 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Did you know that equine ears can move 180 degrees?

buckskin horse ears

Source: Pixabay

Ears can signal what horses are thinking. Here are a few ear positions and their common meanings:

Ears pricked forward – Attention on something ahead
One ear forward, one ear back – Divided attention; something interesting has caught the horses’ eye, but the flicked back ear indicates s/he is still listening to the rider.
Ears angled back – Horse is paying attention to something behind him/her (could be the rider)
Ears pinned back – Watch out! The horse feels threatened and may strike out

horse biting with ears back

Source: Canva

How Horses Defend Themselves

Flight is generally a horse’s first option in response to scary stimuli. If it feels threatened and cannot flee, or is interacting within the herd, it may bite or kick instead. Biting is more of an aggressive action, while kicking tends to be more defensive.

Even though horses aren’t carnivores, a bite can still be dangerous.

Horses have strong jaws and incisor teeth and can inflict serious damage. Never allow horses to bite or nibble you—it can be a dangerous liability and a tough habit to break.

gray horses fighting in the wild

Source: Pixabay

The most common reasons a horse may bite include:

Responding to stimuli, such as a medical procedure or tightening a girth. Some horses may need to be muzzled or even sedated for medical procedures. If you have a “girthy” horse it may be necessary to tie them shorter or have a second handler work with you to correct the behavior.
Defending resources or territory – some horses can become food aggressive. Never hand-feed someone else’s horse without permission. Give horses space when they are eating.
Protecting offspring – a mare may bite to defend her foal. This is a natural response and generally diminishes after a week or two.
Foal behavior – young horses commonly bite. It is important to teach young horses early that biting humans is unacceptable. While a little foal nibbling your hands or clothing may be cute, it is dangerous as they grow bigger and should never be allowed.

Horses generally kick using their back legs, but can also strike out with a front leg. A horse can kick with the approximate force of their body weight—enough to seriously injure, or even kill, a human.

pinto pony kicking pinto horse

Source: Pixabay

Horses with shoes can do even more damage, as the force of the kick is the same, but the impact surface area is smaller than that of an unshod horse. For this reason, some people will not turn shod horses out in a group for fear they might injure each other while playing.

Herd Mentality

Part of understanding equine psychology is understanding herd mentality. Horses are large land mammals that live in groups, or “herds.”

Within the herd is a complex social structure, or pecking order.

Some animals are more dominant (“alphas”), while others are more passive. The leader of a typical herd will be a dominant mare. Stallions will generally stay along the edge of the herd to defend it against predators, including other stallions that may try to steal mares from the herd.

herd of horses in green field

Source: Pixabay

Clear hierarchy within a herd is important to minimize aggression within the group and ensure herd cohesion. When interacting with horses, it is important to assert yourself as the leader in the relationship.

When you ask your horse to do something (reasonable), ensure s/he does it. Get in the habit of making your horse move away from you, not into your space.

Never let your horse crowd your personal space!

woman and horse at liberty

Source: Canva

Study Your Horse

Physiology and psychology are interconnected—learning about both is an important step in becoming a better equine handler and partner. You will be more successful if you can learn to read your horse’s body language and temper your response accordingly.

The best way to improve your knowledge of behavior and herd dynamics is (drum roll) spending more time around horses!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do horses view humans?

A horse’s perception of humans depends on their previous interactions and experiences. To a domesticated horse,  humans may be seen as a source of food, safety, and companionship. To a wild horse, humans may be viewed as predators and something to avoid.

Q: Do horses get emotionally attached to humans?

Horses and humans are capable of forming deep bonds on a psychological level, especially over longer periods of time. They have the ability to mirror human emotions. Horses have excellent memories and can recognize humans they’ve bonded with (or had negative interactions with) years later.

Q: Do horses know their names?

Horses can definitely learn to react to their names, especially when a food reward is involved. But, do horses have a sense of self? Some experiments indicate yes. This article by The Horse is a great resource for answering these questions!

horse ears looking out of stall

Source: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Understanding equine physiology and psychology enables us to better speak their language, ensuring a positive outcome for both parties.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


How Hard Horses Kick

How Horses See

How Normal Vision Works

Love it? Share it!

About the author


Hey there, fellow horse lover and outdoor enthusiast! Horses have been my rock since day one. From my early days in 4-H to the college equestrian team, these majestic creatures have always been my passion. Riding Quarter Horses has been my gig for over two decades, snagging a few wins at the esteemed Quarter Horse Congress along the way.