The most common ways to tell if a horse is friendly is to look for ears perked forward, a back hoof resting casually, calm eyes, and curious behavior. The best way to tell if a horse is friendly, though, is to use these body language cues along with verbal instructions from a horse’s owner or handler.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- 7 signs of a friendly horse
- 6 signs that a horse is angry, scared, or in pain
- & finally, a few of my best tips for making friends with a horse.
Keep reading to learn how you can tell at a glance if a horse is friendly.
Horses are often very friendly and curious animals. However, they are very large and easily scared, so it is very important to be able to understand their basic body language cues before approaching them. While dogs will show you they are happy and friendly by wagging their tails, horses give off more subtle cues. Not every horse will show their friendliness in the same way, and some may present multiple signals, while others are less obvious.
Signs that a Horse is Friendly:
Their Ears are Pointed at You
The first sign to look for is what the horse is doing with its ears. Horses use their ears to convey a lot of their emotions, and if a horse is uncomfortable or unfriendly, their ears will tell you. When a horse pins their ears flat back, it is a universal sign that they want to be left alone.
Pinned back ears may also be the first signal they give before a bigger reaction follows, such as striking out with a front foot, kicking, biting, or chasing. It is best to heed the warning of the pinned ears and not approach them. A relaxed horse will keep their ears up, usually casually flicking back and forth, listening to everything around them.
They may also perk their ears forward if they are particularly interested in what is in front of them. It is much safer to approach a horse that is giving off relaxed signals. If the horse pins their ears to its head, they are warning you to back off. If you approach a horse that is displaying this behavior, and especially if you walk behind them, they will very likely try to kick, bite or headbutt you.
Their Head and Neck are Relaxed
Look at the movement of their head. If they are relaxed their head will be sitting at a comfortable angle or possibly eating the grass. This indicates that they are either friendly or indifferent to you. If their neck is arched, their movement is abrupt or they are standing perfectly still looking at you, they are on high alert. If you approach them in this state, there is a possibility that you will be seriously injured.
Their Eyes are Dark and Soft-Looking
Another sign of a friendly horse is that its eyes seem calm. For horses, there’s an obvious tell if a horse is unfriendly or upset: If you can see the whites of their eyes, it means they are on high alert-likely anxious or angry, and an anxious or angry horse is a dangerous horse. (Some horses may naturally have white showing in their eyes even when they are calm, so consider this as one sign of many for how to tell if a horse is friendly.
The horse is resting a back leg
Along with their ears, eyes, and head, horses will use body language to communicate whether they are feeling friendly. A friendly horse will often be standing with one hind foot in a resting position, its head lowered, and maybe swishing its tail gently.
They will take all weight off of one of their hind legs and just rest their hoof on the ground. This means they do not see you as a threat and won’t be opposed to you approaching them. A friendly horse will typically display several of these signals at once if they are very relaxed. At other times you may only notice one of these relaxation cues at a time.
It is much safer to approach a horse that is showing signs of relaxation than one that is clearly in discomfort. A horse that is unfriendly or agitated will usually not stand still, paw at the ground, keep its head up high and its ears alert, and may be snorting or neighing frequently. If a horse is displaying these signs, it should not be approached by someone they do not know, as they are likely to be very reactive.
The Horse Walks Up to You Willingly
If a horse approaches you without any coaxing, they are likely looking for attention and very friendly indeed! The horse may be hoping that you have treats and this behavior makes it easy to tell if a horse is friendly. This type of horse is generally quite amicable, and likes to be around people. This is especially true if they are out in a field with access to grass and other horses but still choosing to visit with you instead of grazing. If this is the case, then you have found yourself a friend!
A happy horse will willingly walk up to you to say hello. He will likely have his neck resting at shoulder height or be eating. A relaxed horse will walk around their enclosure at a slow pace, and if you are very, very lucky, they may even lie down. Though this is rare and unlikely to happen with a stranger.
The Horse Says Hello With a Soft Nicker
A soft, low nicker combined with relaxed body language is kind of like a horse’s way of saying hello. A friendly horse will often do this while looking directly at you, or while walking up to you.
Some horses may neigh more loudly as a greeting, usually if it is someone they are very familiar with, and particularly if it is feeding time- while other horses hardly ever neigh at humans. Like barking or meowing in housepets, every individual horse varies in how vocal they are.
The Horse is Playful
Some horses have very playful personalities. There are horses that may only be playful with certain people who they know and trust, while others are happy to make new friends with everyone they meet. Playfulness can be shown in any number of ways, and really depends on the horse and its personality.
They may try to nibble at your sleeve for attention or try to get you to run along the fence line with them. Others may like to pick up objects to play with (these horses are naturally easy to train to play fetch!), or search your pockets for treats. Every horse and owner pair develops their own play language, but beway of playful behaviors that could be dangerous- like when a horse rubs their head on a human.
Signs of an Unfriendly Horse
Not all horses are friendly. It’s an unfortunate fact but it is the truth and that means that we need to be careful when approaching them. The ability to assess whether a horse is going to act aggressively towards you is crucial in the equine industry and a skill you should practice early on in you your equine career.
By reading the horse’s body language before you approach them, you can prepare for any dangerous actions that may occur. For example, if you walk up to a horse and he pulls his ears back and clacks his teeth at you, make sure you are either out of biting range or that you have full control of his head. This prevents injury to you and any people standing close by.
It is also important to remember that all horses can have bad days. For example, a mare may be very friendly, always willing to participate in cuddles, tolerate young children, and is forever requesting treats. But once a year, hormones change and that horse can become incredibly aggressive due to her heat cycle.
There are many scenarios where a known horse may be acting unfriendly for the day, so how can you tell if today is one of those days? And how can you assess whether an unknown horse is friendly?
Unlike humans, a horse can’t easily express its feelings using his or her voice, because of this, he will rely heavily on body language.
On the other hand, they can also convey their annoyance using their body. If a horse is aggravated or outright aggressive, it will likely show some or all of the following behaviors:
- holding its head high, with nostrils flared,
- have ears pinned back flat against its neck
- movements will be stiff, jerky, or reactive OR very still while they assess you.
- They may stomp on the ground repeatedly, move their feet, prance, or pace
- swish its tail with irritated, sharp swishes
- if you’re close enough to get a good look at their eye, and you see white, move back!
- positioning themselves with hindquarters facing you
These are all signs that a horse is not friendly, not safe, and potentially even in pain. Horses can bite or kick suddenly- almost with the speed and suddenness of a snakebite! If you notice any of the signs above, move out of the horse’s space immediately and consult with a professional handler.
When horses fight, their most powerful blows come from their hind legs. Because of this, if they don’t like you and don’t want you coming closer to them, they will angle their body so that their rump is pointing towards you. Make sure you are not within kicking distance of this horse. If you see the back legs tensing or the rump lowering slightly, they are preparing to kick out behind them hard. Learn how to safely walk behind a horse.
How to Befriend a Friendly Horse
Friendly horses like spending time around people, and are quite easy to befriend. If you would like to build a bond with a horse, there are several things you can do:
Spend time with them
The biggest thing is to just spend time with them. Hanging out in the pasture while they graze may not seem like a trust-building activity, but it really does go a long way in bonding with them and building trust.
Don’t Be Scary!
Researchers have proven that horses prefer humans who approach them in a less dominant way. 1 Instead of striding confidently toward a horse that you want to make friends with, try meandering towards them with slumped shoulders and an indirect gaze.
Talk to Them
Keep talking to them so they get used to your tone and voice. Horses are experts at reading humans, and one of the cues they use to know if a human is safe is the tone of voice a person uses.
Give Treats (With Permission)
If they are permitted to have treats, bringing them a carrot or a horse cookie is a surefire way to win the heart of an already friendly horse.
Brush or Scratch Them
Most horses don’t really like being petted (see our article: how to pet a horse) but adore scratches to their jaw, neck, or chest. Grooming is another great way to build a bond with a horse. Most horses love attention, particularly the kind that comes from grooming and scratching (behavior that is similar to how horses form bonds with each other in the wild).
Final Thoughts on How to Tell if a Horse is Friendly
Ultimately, no matter how friendly a horse appears, you should always check with the owner before petting a horse you don’t know, as they may be prone to biting. It is also extremely important to never feed a horse without permission from its owner. There are a lot of foods that are very bad for horses that they cannot digest, and they can also have allergies and dietary restrictions, just like people, that need to be followed.
Paying attention to the body language of the horses the best way to tell if a horse is friendly. Along with the owner’s permission, these cues can show you if a horse is approachable.
Research sources used for this article:
- Smith, A. V., Wilson, C., McComb, K., & Proops, L. (2018). Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture. Animal cognition, 21, 307-312.