What is the horse saying with his ears?

After posting yesterday’s blog, I noticed several people comment negatively about the horses ears during the performance. The common thread seemed to be that the viewers of the video seemed to think that the horse was saying, with its ears, that it was irritated or annoyed.

On the surface I can see how some people would think this. Even looking at the chart below it could appear that the horse was annoyed or worried. The difficulty is that the horse chart below is made for ‘reading’ horses that are in the pasture or generally in hand. Many of the ear positions are the same but some do change.

Many riders have never had the experience of riding a highly trained horse. Many horses that rely strongly on the bridle and less on the riders body/leg cues feel free to be less than fully focused. As a horse training advances to read the riders body more it is common to see the horses ears get more focused on the rider. As this happens the horses tend to hold their ears back, not flattened, but clearly focused on the rider. Not pinned, but intently listening.

The young lady with the mustang only had 130 days of training (see below). Watch her ride and then watch Roxy’s ride with me at the Quarter Horse Congress (also below). Roxy had more times when she looked relaxed because she has had more years to get comfortable with the cues. She doesn’t have to ‘think’ about it as hard because it is second nature. The younger horse is trying hard to focus.

What face do you make when you concentrate?

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 6.12.22 PM

This image and much more are available in the CHA Composite Horsemanship Manual. Click photo for more info.



Watch Roxy’s ears change between intense and relaxed. When I ask for big moves she is more intense and when we are doing easier things her ears are more relaxed.

Here is the young lady with only 130 days of training on her mustang. This is the video that the ears were questioned. Think about how much this horse has learned in a short time…this explains his focused look.

Here is another bridleless just for more ear watching:


  1. Lisa Abel-Alton on April 15, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    thank you for posting this in a enlarged fashion.. I couldn’t read it before

  2. Rachel Babitz on April 14, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    As always both horse and rider were breathtaking. Thank you for sharing this beauty with me, I loved every moment of your performances!

  3. Lisa Abel-Alton on April 13, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    I couldn’t read the ear picture and when clicked it was to buy the book… I enjoyed the mustang..

    • Stacy on April 13, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      Sorry about that. The photo wasn’t mine and they asked for a link to the book where the photo came from. Google ‘Reading a horses ears’ and you should see a bigger version.

  4. Mary on April 5, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Since everybody left Vaquero out, let me say that his expression, body language and performance all seem to me a beautiful example of a horse that not only “gets” what he is doing but is eager to do it! Simply a stunning ride!!

  5. Ruth Squires on April 4, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    This is my dream to do this with my horses I have Arabians a d and an arabian/mustang stallion as well as his off spring I break and train them myself the horse whisper way and he is as gentle as a kitten, but still has his mustang spirit, got to love them Ruth

  6. Bonnie on April 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    I was at that Mustang Makeover last weekend and saw all the rides leading up to and including this one. The horse did quite well in every aspect of the competition, but he did especially well without the bridle. I’d say better without, even. There was a real connection between him and Madison. Something the video does not show is how stinking cold it was all weekend. Saturday evening when the freestyle was going on, it was in the thirties with a wind chill making it feel like 26! I’d never seen a Mustang Makeover competition before and was both amazed and appalled at the things I saw there. There was some really good horsemanship going on as well as some pretty sad examples. That’s true of most places one can go to watch people with horses though, so nothing out of the ordinary. The ones who ended up with the top four placings really deserved them and had given their horses awesome starts.

  7. […] What is the horse saying with his ears?. […]

  8. Bambi Brusco on April 2, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Most of my horse friends (Parelli) thought the horses was listening to his rider and being a great partner.
    Great job!!

    • Bambi Brusco on April 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      Also, no swishy, angry tail.

  9. Brittany on April 2, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Well I will go against the flow and say I do not agree with the try so hard attitude. I am basing this on the overall feel I got from the horse which was stiff and tense. The ears tell it, the mouth tells it, the overall feel to me just isn’t good. He is “trying hard” so he doesn’t mess up, not to make his rider happy. Just my opinion.

  10. erica on April 2, 2015 at 11:40 am

    I saw “trysohardtrysohardtrysohardtrsohard!!” In his body language as a whole. I think many times people forget the ears are not the be all and end all of the horse’s language.

  11. Chrystal on April 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Really amazing to see someone as talented and qualified as Stacey Westfall to show the other side of things in such a polite way to teach everyone. It’s nice to see trainers try to lift each other up instead of jump on a band wagon of putting someone down. I still cry when I watch Mrs. Westfall ride in that tribute to her Dad. I felt it, her bond and connection with her horse, as her Dad….beautiful.

  12. Janette Hess on April 2, 2015 at 12:52 am

    I watched the video yesterday and also noticed the horse’s expressions, but I also noticed how hard he was trying to work for his rider. I also noticed what he WASN’T doing: he wasn’t wringing his tail or arching his back or kicking out or tossing his head or otherwise trying to dump his mistress. It’s so impressive, all the different moves that he learned in only 130 days! With practice/repetition he will smooth out and relax…maybe!

  13. Sheryl on April 1, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    I don’t imagine you would have posted it if you thought there was anything negative about her performance. It is inspiring to see how far she was able to bring her horse in 130 days. Thank you so much for showing me things to inspire me.

  14. Kelly on April 1, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    I thought the horses yesterday was concentrating mostly. I squint when I concentrate. I was also thinking being with that many people may have contributed to some of the ear movement.

  15. Pamela Jean McNab on April 1, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    It never occurred to me that the horse’s body language said anything other than “What’s next?” It was a beautiful connection between the horse and rider. You are, of course, spot on to remind folks that it’s a horse with minimal training compared to what most riders are used to. Also, I think the drawings illustrate what is “normal” for “most” horses under “normal” circumstances. Each horse is going to vary their expressions depending on their individual style of expression and also on the individual circumstances in which they find themselves. People shouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about an animal with which they have little or no direct experience, especially when nothing else about the horse’s body language indicates that he is stressed or upset.

  16. Kim Campbell on April 1, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    the mustang – while some have made comments regarding his appearance … I would like to say, the young lady has done an amazing job of training him. His focus on her and the commands – total. It did not appear that he has been in the public arena with all of the sound echo and photo flashes. while he flinched – he did not spook!! One more year and they will work wonders in the ring. I look forward to it! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Julia on April 1, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    He looked attentive and like he was concentrating really hard to me too. It didn’t even occur to me to think he was annoyed because so much more of his body language was saying he wasn’t – instead saying, “I’m really trying to do what this rider wants – I trust her and want to please her and this is all new and challenging for me and I really need to concentrate!” I think that if people saw that video and immediately said “that horse is annoyed cause his ears are back” it is just because they haven’t spent enough time yet with horses really watching everything they do to communicate. Not their fault, but I think it’s important to remember not to make snap judgments about things until they’ve spent more time learning.

  18. ordinaryripple on April 1, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Actually my first thought about the horse in the performance from yesterday wasn’t so much his ear set, is that I believe he has a ‘hammer-head’. Where the upper segment of the neck is short, to the effect that he can’t arch well at the poll. If those ears were on an arched-neck horse where the upper segment of the neck was the longest segment, or even a flat neck – where the upper and middle segment are of equal length, the overall expression would be very different.

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