Horse Care Other

Speaking Horse: Translating Equine Vocalizations

horse silhouette rearing
Written by Holly N.

Whinny or Whicker – What’s that Horse Sound?

If you’ve ever watched a movie with horses in it, you might think they spend their entire time whinnying or nickering. You hardly ever see a horse on the big screen just silently hanging out, yet in the real world, horses are relatively quiet creatures that rely more on body language than vocalizations to communicate.

Horses are prey animals and rely on discretion and speed to protect themselves from predators. They don’t make much noise and communicate more through body language than vocalizations. When horses do vocalize, they use a limited range of noises to communicate very specific emotions or concerns. Although each horse’s vocalizations sound slightly different, the meaning is consistent.

It’s a universal language that, when we understand it, can give us insights into our horse’s mood and state of mind.

horse yawning

Source: Canva

Equine Communication

Horses can communicate a wide range of opinions using body language alone, and within a herd, the flick of an ear or wrinkling of the nose is all it takes to get another herd member to find another patch of grass to explore.

Horses don’t like to draw attention to themselves by making lots of noise, as that would only attract danger. When they do vocalize, it’s because they have something important to say – something so important, it’s worth the risk.

A single neigh or whinny could alert a predator to the herd’s position, so vocalizations are only used when absolutely necessary.

Body Language

Horses use body language to convey most of their feelings and opinions. When relaxed, their heads drop, and their mouths relax, but when they’re angry, they flatten their ears, raise their heads and turn their bodies, ready to aim with their powerful hind legs.

Most trainers rely as much on body language as their horses do, knowing this is the most natural and common form of communication.

horse pinning ears back

This body language means “back off!” Source: Canva


Horses vocalize in certain situations and rely on these noises to communicate specific emotions. Whether you’ve got a Mongolian pony or an American Paint, these noises are consistent across all breeds.

Horse Noises

Horses only have a limited number of vocalizations, and most use these infrequently. Each vocalization has one or more specific meanings and may vary according to context.

Understanding your horse’s vocalizations can give you useful insights into his state of mind and where his attention is focused.

If he snorts in fear while out on trail, you can prepare yourself for a spook; if he whinnies, you know he’s calling to his friends and maybe feeling lonely. In this scenario, you might offer him comfort and reassurance.


To neigh, a horse passes air through its vocal cords, which change position according to the movement of the throat muscles, tongue, mouth, and lips. The result is a combination of a squeal and a nicker, and lasts around 1.5 seconds.

Neighs are generally loud and can travel up to a mile away.

What’s it Mean?

Horses most commonly neigh to locate another individual or to find out where the herd is. When a horse neighs, another will often answer as if they’re having a conversation.

The first neigh means, “Where are you?” while the answering neigh means, “Over here!”

It’s a bit like the game Marco Polo!


When a horse snorts, it expels air through its nose, creating a fluttering noise by vibrating its nostrils.

What’s it Mean?

Horses occasionally snort simply because a foreign object has entered their nostrils, but they more commonly use it as a warning.

Horses snort at things that they fear, like plastic bags and mysterious objects, and in doing so, clear their nasal passages, ready for action. A snort is quieter than a neigh and can only be heard from around 40 feet away.

Stallions may also snort as a form of challenge or in excitement.


Every morning, my pony Sherlock nickers for his breakfast, but he does it so quietly that he emits almost no sound at all. The only reason I know he’s nickering is because I can see his nostrils vibrating.

mare and foal laying on ground

Source: Canva

A nicker is similar to a snort in that it has a pulsating sound produced by the vibrating nostrils, but the nicker is lower in pitch and more guttural. It’s also quieter and gentler than a snort.

What’s it Mean?

A horse’s nicker is often used as a greeting. It indicates contentment and happiness. Horses nicker to each other when one returns to the herd after a training session. Horses might also nicker to their owners, especially if they suspect them of having food.

In general, a nicker is a warm greeting that horses use to indicate positive engagement and attachment.

Mares often nicker to their foals, and stallions also nicker when courting a mare.


A whinny is the same as a neigh, although some people believe it to be slightly higher in pitch.

What’s it Mean?

When horses whinny, they are calling to another horse to communicate their whereabouts. They may also be expressing discomfort at being separated from another individual or herd.

Buddy sour horses often whinny when leaving their buddies behind.


A horse’s squeal is a high-pitched, piercing noise that lasts only a second or two but can be heard from up to 100 feet away.

horse biting another horse's tail

Source: Canva

What’s it Mean?

You don’t tend to hear horses squealing very often, but when you do, the meaning is clear.

Horses’ squeals sound angry, and they are! Squeals are warnings that if whatever is upsetting the horse doesn’t stop, things could get nasty.

When first introduced, unfamiliar horses often squeal while striking out with their front legs. This means the horse is ready for a fight!

Mares in heat will often squeal.


When a horse emits a deep, guttural sound, it’s known as a groan or a grunt and sounds very similar to a human’s. Some groans may come out as shallow grunts, while others develop into longer, deeper moans.

horse rolling

Source: Canva

What’s it Mean?

Many horses grunt in contentment, especially after a good roll.

Horses that grunt or groan under saddle are probably expressing pain or discomfort. I knew a mare who groaned when wading through rivers simply because she hated the cold water touching her belly!


Screams are high-pitched vocalizations similar to squeals, but often more blood-curdling.

two wild black stallions fighting

Source: Canva

What’s it Mean?

Screams are aggressive vocalizations only produced during a fight. I’ve only heard domestic horses screaming a couple of times and only ever during a particularly intense battle.


A horse’s roar is loud and deep, not dissimilar to the roar of a lion. It is a deep, guttural sound that’s prolonged and travels long distances.

black and buckskin wild horses fighting

Source: Canva

It’s important to note that this sound is different from a “roaring horse” which refers to a horse suffering from laryngeal hemiplegia. Horses with this condition produce a gravelly, wheezing sound.

What’s it Mean?

Very few domestic horses ever roar, and this noise is most commonly associated with stallions establishing their territory or issuing a warning to potential rivals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a horse grunt called?

A grunt is a deep, guttural sound referred to as a groan.

Q: Why do horses nicker?

When horses nicker, they are greeting a friend, or welcoming the arrival of food.

Q: What sound do horses make when happy?

Horses nicker when they’re happy and sometimes grunt or groan in contentment.

Q: What sounds do wild horses make?

Wild horses make very similar noises to domestic horses but utilize other vocalizations that domestic horses rarely use, like squeals, screams, and roars.

Q: What sounds do horses make when they are running?

When horses are galloping, their hoofbeats make a recognizable sound. Some horses may whinny while galloping, but vocalizations are not typical when horses are exerting themselves under saddle.

Parting Thoughts

Horses do vocalize but they don’t rely on this as their primary form of communication. They use body language primarily as it’s more discreet and won’t attract the attention of unwanted predators. When horses vocalize, they do so to communicate something very specific.

Domestic horses most commonly whinny, neigh, or nicker, using these sounds to greet others or alert them to their whereabouts.

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About the author


Holly N.

Holly started riding as a six years old in the UK and competed regularly in local events, including showjumping, cross country, showing, working hunter, and gymkhana. She now lives and rides in South Africa, working as a trail guide with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures. Her interests are primarily in the areas of DIY horse ownership, trail riding, barefoot horses, endurance, competitive trail riding, and South African breeds.