Anyone who knows horses knows that these animals are not exactly talkative. Indeed, as prey in the wild, they have learned to be as quiet as possible in order not to attract predators. So they prefer to communicate with their ears (yes, yes !), their eyes or their posture. But what do the rare times when they are heard mean ?
1. The call whinny
This is the most frequent but also the loudest and longest. The call whinny is a way for a lone horse to attract the attention of other horses that it has lost sight of or hears in the distance. It wants to alert them to its distress and waits for them to respond so that it knows where they are. This whinnying, which can be heard up to 0.6 miles away, is a way for a lonely horse to stay in touch with its fellow horses.
2. The neighing of the mother to the foal
When her foal wanders off, the mare does not hesitate to call him by neighing so that she can locate him. Her neighing can also be a warning to the foal to return immediately to her. On the other hand, if the foal loses its mother, it will also start neighing, but its neighing will sound more like a scream.
3. The alarm whinny
If a horse senses a threat to itself or its herd, it will not hesitate to sound the alarm with a series of short, discontinuous but loud whinnies. This call tells the other horses to gather round to face the possible danger.
If a horse is worried, it may also start huffing or snoring. Watch out for yourself as he may swerve.
4. The angry whinny
In order to frighten off an opponent, horses make a particularly high-pitched whinnying sound, which sounds more like a squeak. This whinnying can be heard in a fight between two males or when a mare spurns a stallion who is a little too spirited.
5. The whinny of joy
Have you often wondered what the short, low whinny means when your horse sees you coming ? It is simply a welcome signal that he is happy to see you ! Or because he knows that you are bringing him food.
6. The flirtatious whinny
When a stallion is courting a mare, he whinnies, which is more like a growl.
The snort is not strictly speaking a neigh, but rather a sneeze. It occurs when the horse relaxes after physical exertion, allowing the nostrils to open. But the snort can also mean impatience or even fear, so be careful.
The horse's neighing is rather rare. Indeed, equines use it very little because they have many other resources. When you hear it, it can mean a lot. Each sound made has a particular meaning.
What is the purpose of neighing ?
Horses, as mammals threatened by predators in their natural state, are very quiet animals that do not seek attention. However, within a group, communication is constant. Head expressions, eye contact, tail movements, ear positions, are all ways of getting a message across.
The body language of horses is so complex that it makes sound communication superfluous when they are in a group. On the contrary, it allows them to stay in touch when they are far away. This sound warning ranges from a simple snorting of nostrils to a long, calling whinny.
What is it technically ?
Technically, to neigh, the horse inhales deeply and expels air which passes through the larynx and causes the vocal cords to vibrate. It is the opening of the throat and mouth, as well as the position of the lips that will allow the horse to control the sound emitted. The force with which the air is expelled will also determine the intention of the neigh.
50 shades of whinnying
The sound language of the horse is full of nuances, only a professional is able to distinguish these sounds perfectly. However, a rider who knows his horse can recognise some of these whinnies.
The call for help
This is particularly the case with a loud, long whinnying sound. This is the call of a horse that is isolated from the group and feels threatened. It is very similar to the call of a horse that sees its master moving away.
Communication between the mare and her foal
Also, a particular sound is that of the mother to her foal, both communicate a lot through sounds. They are meant to convey a clear message.
For example, the whinnying "where are you ?" which can be toned down to a more or less forceful "watch out" or "come back immediately". In the same way that a lost foal will cry out loudly to get its mother's attention, building to a crescendo. The mare's maternal instinct will do the rest.
The alarm call
When a horse cries out in alarm, especially in the wild, it has two purposes. The first is to attract the attention of other horses, the second is to lose the predator.
These calls are short and made in series. At first they are high-pitched, then they become lower and lower. In this way, the herd understands that it must gather to protect itself. It is widely used by free-ranging horses.
The manifestation of its mood
An angry horse that wants to threaten another horse or animal will squeak, like an angry scream. Its purpose will be to frighten him. Typically, this is the whinnying of a mare who is trying to repel a stallion who is too enterprising.
Conversely, the neigh of a happy horse will be short and low. It may even be repeated several times. This whinnying is the one we might hear when we bring our horse food, or when we bring a companion he likes back to the stable.
The neighing of the horse
The silence of the herd
People who live in contact with horses know how little this animal talks. Ethologists have made the same observation : you hear less neighing in a day near a herd of 25 to 30 head than in the first ten minutes of a Western !
A constant exchange
Horses are rather quiet. It is imperative for a mammal threatened by predators to make as little sound as possible, as it can be detected from a distance. However, within a group, communication is continuous. It takes the form of head expressions and body postures, even the smallest ones, such as the direction of the gaze, the orientation of the ears and the movements of the tail.
The position of animals in relation to each other is in itself a complex language. The horse's vision, which allows it to cover a fairly large area, makes these exchanges particularly eloquent. Gestures, expressions and postures are perfectly clear and intelligible for animals in the same group.
The complexity and precision of this body language generally makes sound communication superfluous when the animals are close together. However, it does exist, with an infinite number of nuances, and ranges from a snorting nostril to a long whinnying call. It allows horses to stay in touch even when they are far apart. Whinnies and calls are also used to threaten and warn.
How does the horse neigh ?
The horse inhales deeply and then expels air which, as it passes through the larynx, causes the vocal cords to vibrate. The opening of the throat and mouth and the position of the lips allow the animal to modify the tension of the vocal cords and, therefore, the nature of the sound emitted. The force with which the air is expelled also determines the power and range of the whinny, which resonates in the head and chest cavities.
A rich language
The sounds made by the horse include an infinite number of nuances that only specialists can clearly distinguish. But all riders can learn to recognise the main types of horse whinnies. The most common whinny is a call : it is the loudest and longest. When a horse is alone and sees its companions moving away or hears other horses in the distance, it will utter a long, loud whinny. This is also the cry of a wild horse that has strayed from the herd. It draws the attention of others to its distress and waits for a response that will enable it to locate the herd.
From mother to foal
The period of its life during which the horse is most talkative is undoubtedly its "childhood" : the foal communicates a lot with its mother. The mother calls her foal when it moves away : this is the neighing : "Where are you ? ". The foal itself, if it gets lost, seeks its mother with great cries and its despair increases. Mother and foal recognise each other's voices and can express and identify many nuances.
Good to know
For a call or alarm whinny, the horse raises its head and opens its mouth to a greater or lesser extent, its nostrils dilating as air passes through. This position clears and opens the throat and allows the sound to resonate powerfully.
How to interpret
The horse's whinnying expresses the full range of its emotions.
The alarm call
To be effective in the wild, an animal's alarm call must carry a long way and be immediately recognised by its fellow animals. At the same time, the call must be discontinuous and of a varied range so that a potential predator will have difficulty locating it. A horse that sounds the alarm makes a series of rather short calls that start in a high register and move downwards. The alarm sounds a rallying call : in case of danger, there is strength in numbers.
Anger and threat
When horses want to frighten a fellow horse or another animal away, they make a high-pitched squeak that sounds like an angry cry. This is, for example, the cry of the mare who puts an enterprising stallion in his place. These threats can also be heard during the distribution of grain : stall neighbours threaten each other with violent kicks against the walls and characteristic cries accompanied by expressive mimics. In more dramatic circumstances, when two stallions are fighting, the screams are truly terrible.
Joy and desire
When the horse wants to express its pleasure, it emits a short, rather low whinny, which it sometimes repeats several times. This can be heard, for example, when food is brought to the horse, when an expected companion is brought back to the stable, but also, if you are a happy owner, when you come to see your horse, who thus expresses his joy. Joy and desire cause a very similar whinnying sound, at least to our human ears.