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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

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.

Even more serious injury can be suspected if the horse is standing three-legged, not putting any weight at all on a front leg. If the pain is temporary and he soon walks normally again, he probably just banged the leg during playful antics, or was kicked by a pasturemate, or landed wrong while running and bucking. But if he continues to be three-legged, you should get professional help to diagnose and treat the problem. He may have a foot abscess, a strained or sprained fetlock joint, nerve or muscle injury, or even a fracture. A close examination of foot and leg can give some clues, if you check for heat and swelling, exaggerated pulse, punctures or embedded foreign objects in the hoof, or hoof tenderness (with a hoof tester).

Hind legs are generally not injured as frequently as fronts, since they carry less weight, but accidents sometimes happen. A horse standing three-legged, resting a hind foot, is usually nothing to worry about, but might be an indication of pain and trouble. If your trusty steed seems abnormal in his hind leg resting position, check the foot and leg more closely and make him move a bit, to see if he favors the leg while walking.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

If he’s standing with one hip dropped and hind leg dangling, or the fetlock joint and pastern knuckled under (the front of the pastern resting on the ground, bottom of hoof pointed upward behind him), suspect a serious injury. A few horses rest a hind foot this way, but if yours generally does not, you’d better check it out. The odd hind leg stance could mean a broken leg or a ruptured ligament or muscle high in the leg. If he’s unwilling to move, or his leg will bear no weight, do not try to make him move, since this could make his problem worse. Get prompt veterinary help.

Another instance in which a horse will be reluctant to move is when his major muscles (especially in the hindquarters) “tie up.” Due to painful muscle cramping, he will stand with hind legs riding, often behind their normal position, and he’ll generally paw the ground with his front feet, due to pain and frustration. He’ll probably break out in a sweat, especially around the flanks.

This problem generally occurs early in a workout when the horse is being ridden, or right after a ride (most cases in horses fed high-energy feeds), but can also occur any time a horse over-exerts. You might come upon him standing this way after he has been running and bucking in mud or snow, or racing around with his pasturemates. His pain and anxiety might be mistaken for colic, but the astute horseman can often tell the difference by the horse’s stance, actions and his reluctance to budge from the spot. Do not try to move him. Exertion will only make his problem worse. Your vet can give him medication to help relieve the condition.

If you find a horse standing with front legs too far back and hind legs farther forward than usual (front and hind end bunched together), this is generally a sign that his body hurts. He may be standing this way to try to relieve pain in his back. Or he may have discomfort in his chest. A dull horse standing “camped under” like this could be seriously ill.

If he seems normal in all other aspects (alert, eating and drinking, with his usual attitude about everything) he may just have a simple strain or bruise causing him pain. But if he is dull, sweating, trembling, unwilling to move, staggery or in any way acting strangely, you’d better have professional diagnosis. The horse may have a seriously injured back, severe gut problems, or a respiratory condition such as pleuritis (inflammation of the chest lining and lung covering, which would be accompanied by fever, fluids in the chest cavity and painful breathing).

A horse standing with his weight shifted back onto his hind legs, trying to take the weight off his front feet, is giving a clue that bearing weight on this front legs is painful. This could mean founder, though sometimes a horse with neck pain will also stand like this. Founder should be your immediate suspicion, and you should check his feet for heat or a pounding pulse. See if he will move. If he tries to carry most of his weight on his hind feet and is very reluctant to move or turn to the side, you are probably dealing with founder and great pain in his feet.

A horse standing with his back humped up and stomach muscles tense is exhibiting signs of severe body pain (injured back or ribs, chest pain or peritonitis, or serious gut pain). He will be reluctant to move, since any movement hurts. He needs immediate medical attention.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

The horseman must be alert to any changes in his animals’ normal behavior. Often a horse acting “funny” can be the first hint that something is seriously wrong. If he is showing unusual alarm or alertness, agitation, personality change, or is dull and preoccupied, droopy and unresponsive, disoriented or abnormally aggressive, take heed. Behavior and posture changes may signal an insignificant or temporary problem, or could be the first signs of serious injury or illness such as rabies, encephalomyelitis or tetanus. If a horse is sweating, trembling, straining to urinate or defecate, drooling, grunting, wheezing, panting or showing any other obvious or alarming changes, this should warrant a quick call to your vet. More subtle changes may be nothing serious, but they could be early warning signs of a major problem.

The alert horseman who knows his animals well, can be aware of signals the horse is giving about how he feels, and can learn to differentiate between minor and major problems. A subtle signal detected early by the horseman, can often make the difference in the outcome of a serious condition.

Obvious Signs of Trouble

  • Rolling or pawing
  • Sweating when at rest (unless weather is very hot)
  • Fast respiration when at rest
  • Not eating at mealtime
  • Spending too much time lying down
  • Lying in an abnormal position
  • Unusual posture or stretching (legs bunched under the body, or stretched out) or trying to carry most of the weight on the hind legs
  • Refusing to put weight on a foot
  • Reluctance to move when you ask him to
  • Changes in usual personality or behavior

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

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The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Basic Blacksmithing Techniques

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

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.

Apples of North America

Freedom has been called the ugly duckling of disease-resistant apple varieties. But that shouldn’t detract from its many merits. These include the freedom from apple-scab infection for which it was named, a high rate of productivity, and an ability to serve as a good pollinator for its more attractive sibling, Liberty.

One Seed To Another: The New Small Farming

One Seed to Another

One Seed to Another is staggering and bracing in its truths and relevance. This is straight talk from a man whose every breath is poetry and whose heartbeat is directly plugged into farming as right livelihood.

Old Man Farming

Old Man Farming

Long after his physical capacities have dwindled to pain and stiffening, what drives the solitary old man to continue bringing in the handful of Guernsey cows to milk?

Storey's Guide to Keeping Honey Bees

Storey’s Guide To Keeping Honey Bees

It is well known that the value of pollination and its resultant seed set and fruit formation outweigh any provided by honey bee products like honey and beeswax.

The Horsedrawn Mower Book

Removing the Wheels from a McCormick Deering No. 9 Mower

How to remove the wheels of a No. 9 McCormick Deering Mower, an excerpt from The Horsedrawn Mower Book.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

Art of Working Horses Another Review

Art of Working Horses – Another Review

from issue:

One could loosely say this is a “how-to” book but it is more of an “existential” how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. Maybe we need to explain what a working horse is. A working horse is one, in harness, given to a specific task. So, in that context, the book illustrates the many ways Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years – helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals.

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.

Retrofitting a Fireplace with a Woodstove

How to Retrofit a Fireplace with a Woodstove

Because the venting requirements for a wood stove are different than for a fireplace you need to retrofit a stainless steel chimney liner. A liner provides the draft necessary to ensure that the stove will operate safely and efficiently.

Why Farm

Farming For Art’s Sake: Farming As An Artform

Farming as a vocation is more of a way of living than of making a living. Farming at its best is an Art, at its worst it is an industry. Farming can be an Art because it allows at every juncture for the farmer to create form from his or her vision.

"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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT