Heads or Tails

When I recently reviewed a study on how well owners recognized negative emotions in horses, I was pleased to see that most actually did – at least in some equine activities. However, back on Facebook, I find that so many really don’t recognize those negative signs – even when they are very overt. Whether it’s their implicit bias toward bridleless riding, or their feelings of admiration for those who win medals and ribbons, so many are willing to defend the riders against those of us concerned about the horses.

It can be challenging to recognize tension in the movement or carriage of a horse. They can run the gamut from fairly obvious to extremely subtle. Physical differences in the horses themselves, or your knowledge of the activity, can create challenges in your perceptions. Depending upon how many horses you have watched, of different breeds and level of training, you can certainly be forgiven for missing many of the signs. However, there are two areas you can always check to get a reading on the relaxation, tension, or just plain unhappiness of a horse – the head and the tail.

First, disclaimers

I am not a scientist – just someone who has lived with horses for a half century. Science is only now beginning to learn about horse facial expression, with the pain face being the first one truly well documented. However, when you work with numerous horses in a wide range of situations, and are open to hearing what they are telling you, the pieces begin to come together. I am gratified that with the pain face the scientific findings fit with what I’d observed as a veterinary tech, as well as a caretaker.

For this post I am using stills, as they are far easier to analyze and point out specific observations. Anyone who has spent much time training horses, and is honest, will agree that there will be moments where even the most happily engaged horse may present momentary signs of displeasure. Using photos of such moments is not meant as a condemnation of anyone, as these could be just moments. My bigger issue is that these have been defended as not indicating any negative emotion by the horse – and that is simply not true, as I hope you will see.

The Pain Face

Let us start with the equine pain face. A horse grimace pain scale was developed by a team of researchers from Italy, Germany, and England (such scales have been developed for many species). A team from Sweden and Denmark later followed that up with a study that resulted in Gleerup’s Equine Pain Face, a simpler identification of key elements that can be used to identify a horse in pain by the expression on its face. The images below are from the original grimace scale study. The first is a horse not in pain; the other two images show the horse expressing pain.

The key areas to look at are: eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, and facial muscles. Compare the three photos in those areas. What differences do you notice?

P1: No pain

P2: Pain face
P3: More/longer pain

Hopefully in reviewing those photos you notices some of these key changes:

  • Ears – They go from forward in a relaxed manner, to asymmetrical and slightly dropped at the base, to the same with more tension at the base
  • Eyes – They go from open wide with a rounded and relaxed appearance, to clear tension seen in a slight narrowing and an obvious triangle seen in the upper lid and wrinkles above, to finally half closed with that point and deep wrinkles clearly visible in the upper lid
  • Nostrils – They start out open and rather rounded, by the middle picture they are pinching shut and almost appear to have moved downward and forward, and in the final photo are clearly tight and now pointing down toward the end of the muzzle
  • Mouth and chin – The lips and chin start out relaxed (note how short the mouth appears); the lips begin to draw back and tighten in the second photo, seen particularly in a slight protruding of the upper lip, a tightening of the corners of the mouth, and tension in the chin (note how the end of the lower lip now protrudes from the curve of the chin); by the third photo the lips have drawn tighter and narrower, both upper and lower now clearly forming points

There are other qualities that the studies outline, so I encourage you to click on the links above if you want to take a deeper dive into their findings. However, these are the areas of the face most easily ‘readable’ in photos, video, and in person. These are the areas of the face we will focus on, though not all of the indicators of the pain face will apply to our later examples. Horses, after all, can make at least 17 discrete expressions with their faces (compared to our 27, dogs 16, and chimps 13) – and obviously those will run the gamut of possible emotions, beyond just pain.

General Expressions

Coffee is the most expressive horse in our little herd, so I have chosen him as my first model. These are some random expressions for comparison, all in situations where I know what was occurring, so can add that background for your consideration. For those who are not familiar with Appaloosas, one of their traits is that the white sclera around the iris is visible, much like human eyes. So, where the ‘whites of their eyes’ might mean distress in some horses, it is not strictly applicable to Appaloosas. Still, note the amount and location of the whites of Coffee’s eyes in the following photos.

First, three different levels of attention. Note the differences, most notably in the eyes and nostrils

C1: Alert but in a casual/mildly interested way; something interesting but normal going on at the neighbor’s
C2: Alert with interest, meeting our puppy
C3: High alert, something very unusual going on at the neighbors

Note that Coffee’s eyes in C2 and C3 show more wrinkles in the upper lid, meaning a bit more tension, but notice the absence of the triangle shape of the top of his eye, seen in P2 and P3 above. Also, notice the opening in his eye increase in C2, then go as wide as possible in C3. Finally, notice the additional flare of his nostrils in C3, likely indicating that he is trying to take in as much smell as possible, to try to identify what he is seeing.

Although hard to see at these angles, I would also point out the position of his neck. In C1 it is very neutral, having just lifted his head from munching some hay. In C2, although he is on more alert that C1, he is actually reaching toward the puppy who is just out of the frame – indicating that while he’s ready to flea, if need be, he has reached the curious stage of discovery. In C3 you can see the many wrinkles and tense muscling indicating that he has retracted his head and raised his neck for best view, and also in preparation to spin and run, should need be.

Now, let’s look at some different moods with Coffee.

C4: Getting a scratch in his favorite spot
C5: Having a munch of rosebush, his favorite snack
C6: Still dopey after having his teeth worked on

I grouped these three photos because the one where he is drugged has some similarities to the other two, which are clearly faces of pleasure. His ears are off to the side in all, but notice the difference in the bases in C6. Notice also that none of the ears here are asymmetrical as they were in the pain face photos above. All three of these photos also have his eyes half closed, but notice the indentation above the eye in C6, caused by the drugs induced relaxation. However, again notice the lack of the peaked lid above the eye in all three photos, by contrast to P2 and P3 above. Finally, notice the slight difference in the nostrils and elongated upper lip in all three photos – all slightly different due to the activities in C4 and C5, and the drug induced relaxation in C6.

Now we move on to three photos that get into what starts to be more ‘negative’ emotional states. By contrast to C1, where he has a fairly neutral expression, you can start to see things going on that indicate less neutral moods.

C7: I’d been taking a few photos while he stood there, and he’s wondering what is going on
C8: I’d been taking quite a few photos, and about now he’s getting annoyed/frustrated with just standing
C9: Telling off the much younger Noble (you can see his mouth upper left) for trying to eat from his piece of hay

In C7 you can see a slightly protruding lip, his eye is turned my way, and the blurry ear indicates that he’s swiveling it in my direction. Note that there is also a wrinkle above his eye, and while it does not have a peak (as the pain face) the upper lid has begun to lift. You can almost equate this with a human’s raised eyebrow when inquiring (that is one expression equated to humans in the expression study I cited above).

By C8 his nostril has closed a bit, and his eye has set itself with a bit raised upper lid – but notice that his eyes appear to be looking at nothing. Ears are swiveled and set outward, though not dropped or asymmetrical as in the pain face. You will often see this face in horses who have been shut down. This was Coffee’s ‘normal’ expression around humans when I found him. This photo was from a few years ago, when he would still resort to that ‘place’ fairly easily. The Coffee of today would be much less passive in expressing his annoyance than the Coffee in C7 and C8.

In C9 we have the classic ‘angry horse’ face – nostrils slit, eyes hard, ears pinned back. The upper lip is extended and tight – a bite will follow if this face is not heeded. We will return to those ears later, as we look at horses at work. When I was quite young, perhaps the first thing I was taught to watch out for was a horse with its ears pinned; yet, in the context of a working horse, too many will say that this very ear set indicates ‘concentration’.

Working Horses

It is in photos of horses at work that I find people most likely to misunderstand what they are seeing. The most common reason given for signs of negative emotions is to put it down to ‘concentration’. Having looked at the equine pain face, and Coffee’s various expressions, take a look at the following horses at work. First consider the initial impression each expression gives you, then look at the key features of the face to see if they match your initial impression – why or why not?



If you recognized that the first three horses are relaxed and comfortable in their work, and the last three are showing negative emotional states – congratulations! If you did not have that same result, don’t worry. I threw in one challenging one that would be easy to misinterpret. Here are my assessments for your comparison.

  • WH1 – his eyes are well open, rounded, and soft looking with no tension or wrinkles evident; the ears are generally forward, with the right ear canted slightly in our direction, likely because he has seen the photographer, or has received a subtle signal from the rider; nostrils, lips, and facial muscles all appear generally relaxed
  • WH2 – again, we see eyes that are rounded and soft; ears forward in an easy, relaxed way; nostrils a bit more rounded than the first horse (possibly effort or a breed difference, as she is an Arabian), but still soft and relaxed; no apparent tension or wrinkling in this face
  • WH3 – this one may have been a bit tricky, in part because of the angle of head and neck; this mare (the same as in WH2) is in the middle of performing a levade, the ultimate in collection, which explains the angles; this is the ultimate ‘concentration face’ in a horse: ears canted back toward the rider, but not pinned, dropped, nor appearing stiff; nostrils and lips showing a bit more tension than the prior two, but mouth still closed and nostrils not much flared out of their natural state; most important, the eye is still relaxed and rounded
  • WH4, WH5, WH6 – all three of these horses fit what many consider ‘listening’ ears, but compare how they hang out with the opening pointed to the side (not back to where the rider is), and bases lowered as compared to the mare in WH3, then go back up and look at the ears in P2 of the pain face; all three of these horses also show varying degrees of the increased wrinkling of the upper lid, with the triangle shape clear above the eye, a classic sign of the pain face; all three also have tension in the muzzle area, with extended upper lips (none are engaged in a maximum effort, in these photos, as the mare in WH3 is – in fact the horse at center is walking ostensibly on a loose rein) and their nostrils are not just flared but are showing tension through the way the rims protrude (compare to the mare in WH3 whose nostrils are flaring with effort, yet lack the stiffened appearance these three horses are showing)

It is hard to see how horses whose faces actually fit the qualities of the pain face scale can be enjoying their work. Yet, many a famous rider is congratulated while sitting atop a horse whose expression shows signs of stress and pain.

Since the study I previously reviewed showed a clear bias toward bridleless (and Natural Horsemanship), in that horse owners were less likely to see expressions of negative emotion in horses in those pursuits, I wanted to end the head comparisons with two horses being ridden bridleless. Both of these horses are stallions, and both are cantering in the photos. What do you see?



Do you get a different feel between these two photos? Or do they feel the same to you? The differences here are less obvious than in the set above. Here’s what I see:

  • B1 – I was criticized for seeing this as an unhappy moment for this horse; let’s start with those ears, which most closely resemble Coffee’s ears in his angry face (C9) than any other horse on this page; rather than listening, they seem to be pinned back; the eye is half closed which can be seen in the pain face (P3) but can also be an indicator stress in horses; the nostril again most closely resembles C9, as do the tight and drawn back lips; it is hard to see this horse as ‘happy’ when his face more closely resembles one who is angry
  • B2 – this fellow’s ears look very like the ears in WH3, attentive to what he is being asked by his rider; his eyes are well rounded, open, soft, and with no deep wrinkling in the upper lid; his nostrils are much more open than the horse in B1; compare the more natural shape and flare above his nostrils to the pushed-down and pinched (ab0ve the nostril opening) flaring of the horses in WH5 and WH6.

The horse in B1 certainly does not appear to be in the same level of stress or discomfort as the horses in WH4, WH5, and WH6. Although it is not an image of a happy horse, this is more likely to be just a momentary reaction than those other three horses. That WH4, WH5, and WH6 show signs consistent with the equine pain face speaks to longer term distress or discomfort for these horses than we can necessarily deduce from the moment of displeasure of B1. Yet, again, we do the horse no favors by ignoring the message his face conveys, and imagining that this is a happy horse in this moment.

Tail talk

Although the face of the horse can speak volumes, his other end has a few things to say as well. If you have spent any time observing horses’ tails, you will know that typically their tails hang quietly while they are standing, and will swish in response to an irritation such as a bug bite or an unwanted approach by another horse.

T1: At rest, the tail hangs down in a relaxed manner
T2: Swishing at a fly, the tail can be quite active

When horses start to move, you get a variety of carriage and tail set, based upon conformation, temperament, even the weight of the tail. It is important to know what a horse’s normal tail carriage is in movement, without a rider, before making any judgement on what it might tell you when the horse is under saddle. Even among the members of my little herd there is some significant variation of their natural tail carriage when moving.

T3: Tally tends to keep her tail low, lifting only slightly in canter
T4: Coffee carries his tail unusually high, much like an Arabian
T5: Roxie has a more ‘average’ tail carriage, lifted slightly away from the body

Of course, there is also the tail at play. It may be raised like a banner (photo left) or twisted in excitement (photo right). Either of these can signal nervous excitement or just joy in the moment – but if you observe the backs of horses when their tails are engaged in this way, you will see that they are relatively tense in the muscles. This is no issue for the horse at liberty, unburdened and free to change posture as it suits them, but can lead to damage when a rider is present.


Now, logic says that a horse who is relaxed under the rider should carry their tail approximately in the same way as they do when moving in a relaxed manner without a rider. So, here are some tails from horses who are traveling in a correct and relaxed manner.


In all of the images above, the tail head is carried in a natural, neutral way – away from the body with a slight relaxed arc. Compare these to Roxie’s tail in T5 above – the tail head is quite comparable in all. What you see as movement in these three tails is what some call ‘the flick’. When a horse carries his tail in a relaxed way, and moves through the gaits with relaxation and cadence, the tail hair will ‘flounce’ from side to side, in rhythm with the movement. It is caused only by gravity and the movement of the horse’s body, not by any action of the horse with it’s tail muscles. Contrast the images above with these images.


Every one of those four examples is exhibiting tension and displeasure by the horse. Compare T11 to Roxie’s tail carriage in T6. As stated above, Roxie is doing it through a personal motivation to her actions, while the horse in T11 is doing it in reaction to the rider’s actions. Both indicate tension in the tail, and by extension the muscles in the back – but Roxie is free to change, while the horse in T11 is carrying a burden, and is trying to send a message that may not be heeded.

The other three tails can be compared to a horse swishing at a biting fly – they are being swung in annoyance. Again, this reflects a tension that is not limited to the tail. Have you ever been bitten by a fly or stung by a bee? Recall how that made your whole body react, muscles tensing. Yet, these horses cannot simply make the rider go away through swishing their tails violently. Sadly, too often, this tail action is ignored or, worse yet, misinterpreted by onlookers (including judges). In fact, I have actually been told, with regard to the last photo, that this particular horse was signaling her joy with that tail – much like a dog wagging its tail. Have you ever seen a horse greet their friend with a wagging tail? Such is the misunderstanding of equine body language in the population at large – and the desire to find ‘happy’ explanations for what our minds would otherwise tell us is a problem.

Of course, the challenge with still photos is that they capture a single moment. There can be times when a horse will swish it’s tail, as you see in T12, where it is a momentary reaction. It might be to a tap of the whip or spur that the rider has used to get the horse’s attention; or it might be in a movement the horse finds particularly challenging, such as when learning flying changes. If you see such tail action for just a moment, it should not be taken as a sign of bad training or that the horse is in distress. However, if repeated frequently, even incessantly, that is the equivalent of a horse trying to scream a message and it should be taken seriously. Note that body pain can also cause such a reaction – so if it is seen on a horse where it normally had not been, check for soreness on his body.

In conclusion

I recently watched as a group of seemingly caring people scoffed at a poster (put out by a well respected animal behavior group) that showed signs of stress in horses. To be sure, some of the signs (such as half closed eyes) need to be taken in context – as we’ve seen, they are equated with pain but also with pleasure. However, just because of this aspect many of those responding completely dismissed the whole poster. Unfortunately, based upon some comments made, such as one about their horse flipping its head at feeding time, some of these people were in fact ignoring their own horse’s signs of stress. Couldn’t happen to them, right?

If there is anything that hurts my heart the most about the future of horses, it is this inability (or unwillingness) of people to recognize what the horses are trying to tell us – sometimes even screaming in the only way they can. In this post I hope that I have helped readers to further develop their eye for recognizing the signs of relaxation, tension, and pain. I hope that you are willing and able to begin to see them, even on your own horses or those whose riders you may admire. Context does matter, and those negative signs can show up for just a moment, which may not be condemn-able. But failing to acknowledge them can lead to further harm for the horses we all claim to love. In dubio, pro equo – when in doubt, for the horse!


I would like to express my gratitude to Sonja Weber Reitkunst and Edit Kappel for their generosity in allowing me to use the positive images of the beautiful horses they work with (WH1, WH2, WH3, and T8 from Sonja; B2 from Edit). Images of their riding are always a bright spot in my Facebook feed, providing me with reminders of what is possible – what I once had and hope to achieve again.

Sonja Weber Reitkunst on Finito, a Lusitano stallion (Photo by Sabine Grosser Munchen) Learn more about Sonja at www.sonja-weber-reitkunst.de, soon to be in English!

Edit Kappel on Favory XXVII-53 Financ
(Photo by Berecz Tibor) Learn more about Edit at https://www.philippe-karl.com/TeacherProfiles/Edit-Kappel

10 replies

  1. Can you give me instructions on how to apply for a password… I don’t think I’ve done this before! Jan Mullis (Ishin Maru’s mom!)

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. There is a lot of defensiveness especially in the competitive circles. There is a background level of distress that has become their normal. One example is the significant number of hunter/jumper horses have been testing positive for drugs that are getting into their systems through eating bedding that their (medicated) grooms have urinated on. Horses that eat urine-soaked bedding are not getting some very basic need met, and apparently the humans taking care of them do not have access to their very basic need of toilet facilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An International Dressage competitor was just let off of penalty for that very reason. The state of the horse industry saddens me on all fronts – not least that it increasingly reflects the deepening economic divide in our country.

      Liked by 1 person

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