Ears are an important part of equine body language, but are often misunderstood or completely ignored. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as “ears back means the horse is mad and ears forward means they are happy”. That’s something you get told during summer camp as a kid, but is an extreme over simplification of what your horse’s ear movement means!
Part of the problem is that the ears are just one part of the whole picture. If you only pay attention to the ears you may completely miss out on what’s actually going on. For example... ears forward can mean a horse is eager and attentive, but it can also mean they are frightened and about to flee or fight. By paying attention to the WAY the horse’s ears are forward along with the rest of the body language we are able to decipher soft forward “happy” ears and hard forward “alert” ears.
Another example, and a complex one, is ears back! If you’re looking at JUST the ears it’s hard to tell whether the horse is simply listening to what’s behind them or if they are distressed and maybe even fearful! “Ears back” is also an overly simplistic way to describe any way the ear is positioned when swirled around; from gently back to plastered against their poll. HOW the ears are back, along with the rest of the body language, tells you a lot about what’s going on.
And then we have ear positions that aren’t talked about frequently; sideways and split. All too often I think we see split ears and think it must just mean the horse is listening to multiple things. While often this is the case, the cause for the divided attention is important! Sometimes split ears shows conflict and worry. It can be a sign that a fear response is coming or that the horse is being put between “a rock and a hard place” and is uncertain who/what to give their full attention to.
With sideways ears we are often seeing appeasement; the act of attempting to appease or calm someone/something more aggressive. But, again, context and other body language is necessary to get a full idea of what’s going on, as sideways ears are present in resting and relaxed horses as well; horses that are not actively trying to appease anyone. Now I do want to say that the slide shows are a quick collection of some examples of how ears communicate, meant to be an example of how much more complex equine body language is than we are usually taught, but it’s by no means an exhaustive or “final” guide to equine body language. I still believe we have much to learn in this area, and as new research comes out we may discover new things! However, I’m a big believer that equestrians of all ages and experience levels should learn to read body language to the best of our abilities. Without it we can never truly understand horses. We have to be able to listen to what they are telling us if we ever hope to gain their trust, have a truly willing partner, and be effective in our training.