I’ll describe 4 horse body signals and what they mean.
When a horse takes up a more elevated posture, standing tall and proudly with the head held high and the tail standing up it reflects an elevated and more excited mood. The opposite is a more submissive and bored mood in which the animal appears smaller. It is the transformation, as Desmond Morris says, between “liveliness to lifelessness”. When a horse starts to gallop having become even more excited he or she takes up a more sleek profile.
The body check
A dominant horse may employ the body check to say to a more submissive force that they are in charge. It is an intimidating form of body language as it forces the submissive horse to decide to either force its way forward or allow itself to be meekly controlled. If the more submissive horse retreats it is an act of throwing in the towel to use a boxing term; an act which demonstrates the retreating horse’s inferiority. The whole process reinforces the dominant horse’s status without the need for a fight. Avoiding fights is important because both horses can be injured which impairs survivability in the wild. The dominant horse instinctively knows this and therefore relies upon this posturing to achieve the desired result.
The shoulder barge
This takes the body check to a higher level. The threatening horse makes contact with his rival and pushes into him; another act of intimidation. If it doesn’t work a fight might ensue as a last resort.
As an act of intimidation it can make the “victim” more submissive which is why in horse races when a rider barges into another rider it does more than simply temporarily impact the horse and slow them down. It also affects the horse’s mentally which can result in a reduced performance.
Polo riders are allowed to barge into other polo riders as part of the game. The good polo ponies deal with it and aren’t intimidated thereby ensuring that their performance is maintained.
The rump presentation
When a horse turns its rump towards another horse it is signalling that they may kick that horse. It’s a threat and is employed as a defensive display. It is described by the specialists as an “intention movement”. It’s a signal that the horse doing it has the intention of kicking the potential victim who reads the signal and does not wait for what is to follow.
My thanks to Dr Desmond Morris’s HorseWatching. Why hasn’t Desmond Morris been knighted?