Earlier this year, I attended my first Julie Goodnight clinic at the Washington State Horse Expo in Ridgefield, WA. For those of you who don’t know her, Julie Goodnight is a multidisciplinary rider and clinician, with experience in dressage, jumping, racing, reining, colt-starting, cutting, and wilderness riding. She teaches natural horsemanship, emphasizing doing what is best for the horse, and also the rider’s safety at her clinics and on her television show on Horse Master With Julie Goodnight.
Julie’s clinic are a combination of “show and tell.” She was working with another rider, while riding her own horse and explaining what she was doing. Suddenly, the participants horse started to whinny and whinny and whinny. Julie advised not to punish the horse and went on to explain the way horses communicate “verbally.”
“Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate: the whinny, nicker, snort and squeal, all of which have varying deliveries and subtle inflections. The four audible expressions each have specific meaning.
Nickers are the guttural, low-pitched pulsating expressions and occur most often just prior to being fed and announce the horse’s presence and anticipation. Stallions will also nicker at mares during reproductive behavior to draw the mare’s attention. Mares typically give a third type of nicker to their young foals when the mare is concerned about the foal. Basically all three types of nickers mean, “come closer to me.”
Whinnies or neighs are high-pitched calls that begin like a squeal and end like a nicker and it is the longest and loudest of horse sounds. The whinny is a social call and seems to be a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or peer companions are separated or when a horse is inquisitive after seeing a horse in the distance. The whinny seems to be a searching call that facilitates social contact from a distance.
Snorts and blows are both produced by forceful expulsion of air through the nostrils. The snort has a rattling sound but the blow does not. The snort and blow communicates alarm and apparently serves to alert other horses. The snort may also be given when a horse is restless but constrained and in this case it should be taken seriously as a sign that the horse is feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.
The squeal is a high-pitched outcry with meaning as a defensive warning or threat that the annoyed individual will become aggressive if further provoked. Squeals are typical during aggressive interactions between horses, during sexual encounters when the mare protests the stallion’s advances and when a pre- or early-lactating mare objects to being touched anywhere near her sore teats.
Horses also make body noises that are not communicative but may tell you more about the horse’s physical state. They may groan and snore; the groan occurs mostly when the horse is lying down on his side (lateral recumbency) and is often made by a tired horse as he lies down. The groan may also be an expression of prolonged discomfort like when a horse is colicking or a mare is in labor. The snore is usually labored breathing in a recumbent horse and sounds a lot like the human snore.” – Julie Goodnight, 2007.
Many of us have experienced working with our horse and suddenly they go off on a bout of whinnying, i.e. looking for a friend. Horses can feel insecure, especially when working alone in a large space. The best way to overcome this is to working with your horse to establish that YOU are the herd leader. You are the one in charge of keeping him safe. He doesn’t need to call for a friend because you are already there to take care of him. Once he accepts you as the alpha, the whinnying should cease.
Next time there’s a clinician in your area, don’t miss it because they may be focusing on a discipline you don’t practice. I ride just for pleasure, but it was great to learn something new about horse behavior.
Photo credit: Julie Goodnight