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What do horses’ ear positions mean?

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Horses with relaxed neutral ears

The position of a horse’s ears change with their mood therefore they present signals to other horses and to humans. A horse’s ears are very important because they need to pick up sounds from the world around them for their self-protection as their only means of defense against predators is to run and they are superb runners.

Ear positions are of course subject to the normal usage of ears in which they move around picking up sounds constantly. A horse’s ears are highly mobile. And of course if the sound is coming from behind the ears will rotate to pick up that sound and this will override the positions listed below. When these sounds fade the horse will then resume the former position indicating its mood.

Horses with relaxed neutral ears

Horses with relaxed neutral ears. Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels

Neutral ears

The ears are held loosely upwards. They point forwards and outwards allowing them to scan the area in front of them and on either side. This is the best coverage of the area around the horse. If they hear a strange sound their ear position changes. The photo above indicates this position.

Pricked ears

The horse turns its head and even their body towards the source of the sound and pricks its ears which become erect and stiff. They are facing the source of the sound and capturing as much of it as possible.

Airplane ears

In this position, the ears stick out horizontally with the openings pointing downwards towards the ground. This indicates that the horse is tired and lethargic or has lost interest. In short, the horse is at a low ebb. Sideways ear postures also signal that the horse feels inferior during a status battle or a stressful social encounter.

Drooped ears

The horse is dozy, wants to switch off and/or is in pain.

Drooped backward ears

Once again, the ears stick out sideways i.e. horizontally but their openings are directed backwards towards the rider. It indicates that the horse is fearful of and submissive to their human companion and rider. The openings are directed backwards to pick up a sound from the rider and are positioned laterally as a sign of submissiveness. Dr Desmond Morris says that this is a sign that the horse is fearful of an abusive owner.

This ear position can also be seen when female and male horses encounter one another when sexually receptive towards each other. The female might adopt this ear position when she approaches a stallion as she is attracted to him but frightened. For the stallion, her ear positions signal that he won’t be kicked as he approaches her from behind i.e. he is reassured that she’s going to cooperate.

Flicking ears

This may indicate that a horse is on the verge of bolting in terror.

Pinned ears

The ears are flattened back against its head. They almost disappear. In silhouette the horse looks earless. This signals an angry horse. The ears are pinned back to protect them from a rival’s attack. They are least likely to be harmed. The same position is encountered with domestic cats. As for cats, ears flattened like this are also a threat signal when two rival horses meet each other. Pushing the ears back to a flat position tells the other horse that they are ready to fight. The opposite horse has a choice to either fight or backoff submissively. It’s a way of resolving disputes without violence.

Human ears

The ears of a human are pinned to the sides of their heads which indicates to a horse that we are intimidating and domineering. If the horse becomes submissive humans do not change their positions to, for example, the horizontal dozy position indicating subordination. This is inherently difficult for a horse but they learn by experience but it is given as a reason why humans can control horses so easily.

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