I can list eight main sounds that a horse makes thanks to Dr Desmond Morris’s book Horsewatching. I would have thought that like cats and dogs, horses have a wide spectrum of individualised versions of these main vocalisations. One can categorise the sounds but we have to take into account the countless variations made by individual horses. The vocalisations convey a horse’s changing moods to their companions. Do they do more than just convey mood? I suspect they do but this is probably work in progress. Vocalisations are one sort of communication which you combine with body language.
The snort says that there may be danger. The horse experiences curiosity and fear and there is a conflict between the two. Something might interest the horse about which he or she is wary. The snort alerts others to the possibility of danger and helps prepare the horse for action by clearing their respiratory tract. When delivering this vocalisation the horse faces the potential source of danger which helps the others. The dog equivalent is the bark although the snort is much quieter and can be heard from about 50 yards maximum.
Therefore for this vocalisation to be heard the horses have to be quite close together. The reason why it is quiet is to prevent the potential danger from being alerted to the presence of the herd. Air is expelled through the nose while the mouth is shut. The fluttering pulse is caused by vibrations of the nostrils and it lasts for between 0.8 and 0.9 seconds. The horse is excited and the head is held high in preparation for fleeing. The sound is also made when stallions face off with each other.
This means, “Stop it!”. It’s a defensive sound which also means “Don’t push me any further”. A female might make the sound towards an approaching stallion when objecting to his advances. They vary in intensity and length and last between 0.1 and 1.7 seconds. The squeal can be heard up to 100 yards away and is performed with a closed mouth or with the corners of the mouth slightly open.
This means, “Hello, good to see you”. A low pitched guttural and pulsating sound which means, “Come here” in a friendly way. It’s a close quarters sound after a companion has been spotted and can be heard up to 30 yards away. It’s a warm greeting and is sometimes heard at feeding time when it is directed towards the person doing the feeding. It’s been described as a “begging” sound.
This means, “Hello, beautiful!”. The sound is made by a stallion approaching a mare. He may nod his head vigourously by keeping his mouth shut and his nostrils wide open. The pulse rate varies between stallions allowing a female to identify him without looking up.
This means, “Come a little closer”. It is made by a mother to her foal and is delivered softly and quietly from a distance. The mother may be concerned about her offspring’s safety. The foal responds instinctively. Humans can get a foal to follow them using this sound.
This means, “I am over here, is that you?” It is also called the whinny. It begins with a squeal and ends with a nicker. It lasts about 1.5 seconds and is loud enough to be heard over half a mile away. A dog’s equivalent sound is the howl. It is made when a horse is disconnected from their group or when he or she spots a companion in the distance. The response from the distant horse might be, “Yes, it’s me, I hear you”. Its purpose is to help to keep the group together and maintain contact.
Each individual horse has his/her own version of this sound. Stallions add a small grunt at the end which distinguishes them from females. Neighing is not a sign of panic or fear.
The roar is made when horses are in a serious fight. It can be converted into a scream i.e. made at a higher pitch. You rarely hear this sound in domestic horses unless they are in a wild state and in herd.
This means or may mean, “What’s this?”. Or it might mean, “Life is good!” It is the equivalent of a snort without the pulse or fluttering quality.
In addition horses can sometimes groan or grunt due to boredom and exertion. Horses can also snore. The sounds listed can merge and be used in a range of situations and therefore it is difficult to be precise about their meaning. You have to assess the meaning in the context of the social event i.e. what is going on.
Video of nickering and whinnying
Please note that sometimes videos stop working because of reasons beyond my control. If that has happened, I apologise.