Farming Magazine - March, 2012


Working Horses: Hears to You!

By Vicki Schmidt

Though your horse doesn't know it, he shows a lot of what he's thinking, feeling and giving attention to with his ears. Pay attention to your horse's ears, and he'll reveal what's going on in between them. Learning to read your horse's ears is a skill mastered by all those having successful working relationships with their horses.

A horse's ears are sensitive and funnel-like in shape, which captures and moves sound into the ear canal. This is done at higher and lower frequencies, and much more efficiently, than our human ears. Combine this with an ability to rotate both ears independently and up to 180 degrees, it's easy to understand why horses are such sound-oriented creatures. Studies have also shown horses can hear sounds that originate over 2.5 miles away! While no horse reacts to every sound it hears, they instinctively pay attention to the vocalizations of other equines, as well as sounds that are not part of their normal environment. Much like humans, they filter out the majority of what they hear, which allows them to act on sounds relevant to their survival; or as with our modern times, sounds relevant to working with us.

Studies have shown horses can hear sounds that originate over 2.5 miles away.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

Horses use their hearing to detect sound, to determine the direction the sound is coming from, and to obtain sensory information that enables them to recognize and identify the sound. They also hear much lower pitches by "listening" to vibrations. Horses feel these vibrations through their ears and also deep in their hooves.

Our horse's ears are of great use to us as drivers, especially when working our horses. Like humans, horses have binaural hearing, meaning they can hear several sounds concurrently. It is the subsequent processing of these sounds that results in a horse's actions. Ideally, we want these processes to result in actions that are harmonious with our work. Paying attention to your horse's ears gives you information on how well he's receiving your cues.

Make it a point to watch your horse's ears while at work and also while he's relaxing or out grazing and playing with his herd mates. Understanding how your horse reacts to different sounds by watching his ears move back and forth will give you valuable insights into his behavior. The independent action of each ear will help you realize what sounds he tends to detect and focus on. Is your horse more a leader or a follower? Is he the one that notices every odd sound and filters it for "friend or foe" for both himself and the herd? Or is he more laid back, spending time enjoying his hay and depending on others to let him know if there is something with which to be concerned?

Horses also have a wider range of the frequency than humans, which means they can hear low to very high frequency sounds that the human ear cannot detect. Remember this when you're working your horse and wondering why he's not paying attention. Note too that horses can locate the general direction of a noise, but not its exact origin. If you are in a new or different area, he may be especially attentive to his environment and may be hearing, sensing and reacting to sounds that you are not able to hear. When a horse hears something it can not see or smell - and thus identify - concern and worry instinctively take over, with the choice of flight a dominate possibility.

When you notice your horse's attention interrupted by something you don't hear or see, and his body stiffening as if to move quickly, stay relaxed and in a soothing voice tell him "everything is OK." Take a deep breath and keep your own body and spirit calm as well. This will often soothe a horse's nerves and allow him to understand "my human is not afraid so there must not be anything to fear."

Reading Ears 101

  • Ears Forward: Alert and attentive, usually expressing interest and happiness.
  • Ears to the Side: Relaxation, sometimes with a degree of concentration (head low in height, eyes partially closed, on a lazy leg is relaxed and resting).
  • One Ear Back: Listening, sharing attention in different directions
  • Ears Mobile: Detecting something of interest. If accompanied with high head carriage and intense eyes this signals uncertainty or anxiety.
  • Both Ears Back: Frustration, impatience, defensiveness, warning.
  • Ears Flat Back: Aggression or anger, especially when combined with tail swishing and/or kicking (horses probably adopted this posture to prevent their ears from being damaged when fighting).

Learning to stay relaxed when your horse is reacting to a major distraction is not always an easy skill to master. In addition, your horse's reaction and "flight" response might be so strong that your attempt to calm him doesn't even register with him. Do your best not to tense or punish, as this will begin to give the horse reason to believe there really is something to fear. It is always a goal for your horse to think of you as his guardian and to have confidence in the fact you will not allow, or put him into a situation, that would cause him harm.

Especially with a new or young horse in a new area, take the time and allow your horse to matter-of-factly check things out. It's fine for them to want to inquire and understand their environment as part of their job. Once they are comfortable with their surroundings - its ambient sounds, sights, and smells - they often settle into a productive and working nature.

Horses also have what we like to call "emotional hearing." Realize that in a horse's natural environment, only other animals or the weather generate noise. As a general rule, predators make no noise when stalking prey, so horses are instinctively aware for sounds of stealth, such as the rustle of grass or a twig snapping. Non-natural and stealth-like sounds will trigger strong emotional reactions, very often in the form of fear. Some horses are more emotionally reactive than others. The watch-dog horse or alpha type may react more strongly as they feel their job is to alert or to protect the herd by suggesting "flight" in answer to a perceived threat.

Horses are instinctively aware for sounds of stealth, such as the rustle of grass or a twig snapping.

Desensitizing a horse to sounds by creating a positive environment with the sound helps many horses overcome sound-associated anxiety. Feeding a horse his grain while clippers are running nearby is often a trick used to desensitize a horse to small motors and buzzing sounds. Other tricks that help reduce a horse's reactivity are earplugs that block out a majority of noise. Where as horses are subject to degeneration of their hearing around loud noises, such as gun shots, chain saws or loud motors, definitely consider earplugs if your horses is subject to these on a regular basis. Tack stores and supply catalogs carry earplugs designed for horses. You can easily make your own using cotton balls stuffed in lightweight short nylon socks. One-inch black yarn balls with a string of beads attached are also a fashion trend for some horses. Realize your horse may take awhile to adjust to having earplugs, but once he's accustomed to them, they'll wear them for hours without issue.

Along with humans, dogs and most living creatures, a horse can lose his ability to detect sound as he ages. With horses, this often starts around age 15 and with higher-frequency sounds. If you suspect a loss of hearing in your horse at any age, consult your veterinarian. There maybe another cause, such as ear mites, a tick or ear infection that is having a negative impact on your horses hearing. Hairs inside the ear generally keep dirt and insects from getting down into the ear, but tiny biting black flies (which are extremely aggravating), are also thought to spread the virus that causes aural plaques. These flat, scaly gray-white lesions form in a horse's ear and typically cause no problems, which leads to the recommendation to leave them alone. Outside of plaques, any redness, scratching, hair loss in or around the ears, as well as head-shaking, are all signs that your horses ears and hearing may need attention.

Take time to practice studying your horse's ears and the ears of horses that work well with their teamsters. You'll begin to see the seemingly magical communications taking place. Once understood, the talent will begin to develop and take hold for you and your own working equine companion.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manger of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The farm harvests an average of 86 tons of hay a year. Comment or question? Visit, and join in the discussions.