Small Farmer's Journal

or Subscribe
Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

Interpreting Your Horse’s Body Language

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID

The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.

His posture can tell the observant horseman at a glance whether or not all is well. The animal’s general bearing, leg position, head, neck and tail carriage can be indicators of something amiss. If the horse is standing with his head down and dull, rather than bright and alert, the horseman should be immediately suspicious. If a horse is not feeling well, or is experiencing pain, he is often less perky than usual, less aware of what is going on around him. He is tuned inward instead, concentrating on his own misery. It would be wise to take his temperature; his dullness may be an indication of fever.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

He won’t necessarily have fast respiration rate with a fever; he may just seem a bit dull. If he isn’t quite himself, take his temperature. While you are at it, check his pulse and respiration rates. An elevated pulse can be a sign of pain. If you decide that the horse’s condition warrants a call to your veterinarian, you can tell the vet about your horse’s vital signs and give the information needed – so the vet can be better able to know whether or not a more thorough examination and diagnosis are necessary.

Every horseman knows about colic signs – pawing, rolling, sweating, and so on. But mild abdominal pain may be harder to detect, unless you know your horse well and have a feel for when he isn’t quite himself. A horse with mild abdominal pain may be just a little dull, or slightly restless, or off his feed. He may get up and down more than usual, or spend too much time lying down. He may lie with his nose tucked around toward his belly or flank.

Or he may stand off in a corner away from the herd, or stand with a slightly abnormal posture. His front legs may be stretched a bit forward and his hind legs back, trying to ease discomfort in his abdomen. If he is acting strange or looking dull, check his vital signs and abdominal sounds. Use a stethoscope if you have one, or even just your ear pressed to his side, to see if there are any gut sounds. Keep him under observation for awhile. If he has a mild colic, it could worsen, depending on what is causing it.

How the horse is standing—the position of his legs, and overall body stance—can give clues to other problems as well. If he’s standing with one front leg in front of the other (pointing), it usually means he is trying to relieve pain in that leg by not bearing much weight on it. It may mean he has bruised the heel of that foot, or he may have a more serious injury to the deep flexor tendon, flexor muscles or related ligaments. Pointing can also be indicative of navicular disease. Or the horse may be trying to ease the discomfort of a strained biceps muscle, bruised shoulder or injured elbow. If a check of his leg (feeling for heat and swelling, checking his heel for soreness with hoof testers) does not reveal the cause, have your vet do a more complete examination. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Basic Blacksmithing Techniques

Illustrated guide to basic blacksmithing techniques, an excerpt from Blacksmithing: Basics For The Homestead.


Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Chicken Guano: Top-Notch Fertilizer

Whoever thought I’d be singing the praises of chicken poop? I am, and I’m not the only one. Chickens are walking nitrogen-rich manure bins.

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

How To Prune a Formal Hedge

How To Prune A Formal Hedge

This guide to hedge-trimming comes from The Pruning Answer Book by Lewis Hill and Penelope O’Sullivan. Q: What’s the correct way to shear a formal hedge? A: The amount of shearing depends upon the specific plant and whether the hedge is formal or informal. You’ll need to trim an informal hedge only once or twice a year, although more vigorous growers, such as privet and ninebark, may need additional clippings.

Honoring Our Teachers

Honoring Our Teachers

from issue:

I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.


Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

Build Your Own Earth Oven

An Introduction To Cob

Mixed with sand, water, and straw, a clayey-subsoil will dry into a very hard and durable material; indeed, it was the first, natural “concrete”. In the Americas, we call it “adobe”, which is originally from the Arabic “al-toba”, meaning “the brick.” Invading Moors brought the word to Spain from North Africa, where an ancient mud building tradition continues today.

How To Prune

From Dusty Shelves: Pruning Guide from 1917

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

Book Review Butchering

Two New Butchering Volumes

Danforth’s BUTCHERING is an unqualified MASTERPIECE! One which actually gives me hope for the furtherance of human kind and the ripening of good farming everywhere because, in no small part, of this young author’s sensitive comprehension of the modern disconnect with food, feeding ourselves, and farming.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

How to Store Vegetables

Potatoes may be safely stored in bits on a well drained spot. Spread a layer of straw for the floor. Pile the potatoes in a long, rather than a round pile. Cover the pile with straw or hay a foot deep.

Woodstove Cookery at Home on the Range

An Illustrated Guide To The Wood Fired Cookstove

Illustrated guide to the wood stove and it’s accoutrements.

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Journal Guide