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Horse Behavior: Your horse’s Squeal–What It Means

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

I have a 9 year old quarter horse mare that for the most part is a very good horse. She is a pleasure horse that I go camping with or trail riding on. The only time she acts up is when she makes eye contact or gets too close with a strange horse she doesn’t seem to want to get to know. She makes a horrible squealing noise and then moves her rear end into the other horse and kicks. The last time I was on the ground and I was pinned between the two horses. Luckily, I wasn’t too badly hurt. Can you help?


Answer: Dear Cathy,

The squealing sound you hear is one of only four audible communications a horse makes. Audible expressions count for relatively little of the horse’s language—mostly horses use gestures and postures to communicate their needs and wants. And there’s no clearer a statement than a hoof flying at your face to suggest, “Get out of my space!”

Like all four audible communications, squealing has a very specific meaning and it means ‘aggression is about to ensue’. In other words, it means, “I’m about to kick your butt!” Sometimes it’s a just a threat and sometimes the horse will take action. Anytime I hear a horse squeal, I make a quick check of the environment to make sure all humans are safe; my next concern is for a horse getting kicked (but I cannot walk into the middle of that fray without risk of a casualty). As you’ve seen firsthand, horses becoming aggressive is a dangerous, potentially deadly event if people are in the middle of it.

That explains what and why your horse is acting that way, but does not excuse her poor training and very bad manners. As I’ve mentioned and written about on numerous occasions, horses must be trained, from the earliest possible age, that absolutely NO herd behaviors can be demonstrated when being ridden or handled. There should be zero tolerance and the harshest of punishment when a horse acts this way. Check the training library on my website for more info.

You must get this horse trained right away so that you can be safe and polite with others and so that no one gets hurt! Do not tolerate any social fraternization between any horses when you are riding. Give a harsh correction (yell, spank, back up hard, work hard, etc.) anytime the horse so much as notices another horse and let the punishment fit the crime—a slight glance at another horse gets a bump of the rein while the horse moving toward another horse with any part of his body or making an aggressive gestures gets hard punishment and time in solitary.

You have to find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to change his behavior and sometimes that can be a lot of pressure. If you’ve used enough pressure, you’ll know by the horse’s reaction to your correction—it should be, “Wow! What happened and why? I didn’t like that at all and how do I avoid it happening in the future!” If your horse barely notices your correction or if he continues the bad behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate him to start thinking about why he got in trouble.

By the way, there’s also more information in my Training Library on the audible expressions horses make and their specific meanings. Horses communicate constantly and it’s very handy to know what they are saying to you. Next time you hear your horse whinny or nicker, know what he is saying.

Good luck!


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  1. Hi Julie we have been given an 18 year old ex racehorse who has been a brood mare for many years she loves attention and getting brushed and she has regular bath with special wash for queensland itch she stands still and really enjoys the attention about 2 weeks ago she started comming up to the house windows whining and literally jumping both front and back legs off the ground she has almost hit the windows. Now she has started squaling and jumping and hitting the house with her hind legs . I have cut down her treats (carrots) and when she does this my husband hits her rump with a small riders whip she runs away but stands and watches us. Then eventually comes back again . Today we put up star pickets and rope around the house she has Today at least not tried to push through the rope. Also today she stood at one one watching me on the phone for quite sometime then she closed her eyes and seemed to go to sleep she stood like this for about 30 minutes.
    Why do you think she is doing this ? What should we do to stop this behaviour we dont want her to become agressive .

    I was feeding her about 3 carrots a day but have cut down to 1 every day .

    Kind regards Jo Dutch

    • Hello Jo, Julie has a Library Membership with hundreds of articles, videos and podcast. Here’s the link to her website.

      Here’s an article I found:
      LOVE Me Not

      Defining love between humans is complicated enough. Defining love between two disparate species, predator and prey; when one party is meant to capitulate and is incapable of expressing their feelings with words, it is nearly impossible to define.

      Humans and horses think, communicate, and behave differently. It’s hard to step outside your human mind and truly understand the horse’s point of view. Sometimes what people think is expressing love to a horse, is actually counterproductive and ends up with angst and animosity.

      For instance, if you are in the habit of hand-feeding treats to your horse every time you arrive at the barn, your horse is eager to see you and greets you with that throaty whisper of a nicker that makes your heart sing. But the nicker does not mean “I love you.” It simply means “Come to me.” Or in your case, come to me and bring me the food, I know you have it!”

      The horse is not beckoning you because he loves you—it’s because he thinks of you as his personal cookie jar. Unlike dogs, horses are not reliant on the herd for food. They are quite capable foragers and can eat almost any plant material. Therefore, using food as bribery—either to make the horse “love” you or to make the horse do something he doesn’t want, often leads to disdain from the horse (not disdain of the treat, but of the subservient human relinquishing it).

      What is LOVE?

      Many believe that love (from the human point of view) involves multiple components like attachment, caring, and intimacy. Attachment is the need for approval and physical contact, caring means that you value your partner’s needs as much as your own, and intimacy is the willingness to be physically close and share thoughts, desires and feelings.

      After countless hours in the barn, unburdening my grief with my neck buried in a horse’s mane; after too many long, cold nights spent in the barn caring for a sick horse; after losing my first horse, perhaps my greatest love of all, at the tender age of 14, and thinking it was surely going to kill me; there’s no question that what I feel for my horse is love. But can a horse love me back?

      I think we can all agree that horses love other horses. They are instinctively gregarious animals (always drawn to the herd) and they tend to form special bonded relationships with only one or two horses in the herd. We know them as buddies; behaviorists call them associates.

      Have you ever seen two bonded horses involuntarily separated? I think they display an abundance of love. Attachment, check. Caring, check. Intimacy, the closer the better. Based on what happens when we separate those horses, I think we can all agree that horse-to-horse love exists.

      From a behavioral point of view, I think the more scientific definition of love more aptly reflects the love between horse and human– a rational exchange in which the partners make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. This may give you pause for thought, but the more you think about it the truer it gets.

      Horses are masters of negotiation. Picture the unwilling horse being forced to step up into a horse trailer, only willing to go so far, before flying backwards. Or the school horse, negotiating with the newbie rider where the corners of the arena are, suggesting when to stop, or sidling up next to a cohort. Its negotiation skills are honed on scores of unwitting riders, who often had no idea they were at the negotiating table.

      When Horses Love You Back

      After more than a half-century of riding and training horses, I am grateful to have had some amazing relationships with a few incredible horses who I think of as having “made” me as a rider. I’m not naïve enough to think that these horses loved me like they loved their same-species soul mates, but there was definitely something there.

      If love involves negotiating for each other’s needs, it begs the question, what is your horse negotiating with you for? What needs of your horse do you satisfy? Some things are obvious—food, water, protection, shelter, enrichment. With horses, it’s quite simple, when it comes to their needs and wants. What motivates horses most is the feelings of safety and comfort.

      What may not be quite as obvious is what makes your horse feel safe and secure around you– so secure that it willingly leaves its bonded herdmate behind, to go anywhere you ask and do your bidding? Is it your benevolent leadership and your ability to keep your horse safe? Is it your strength and wisdom? Your reliable sense of judgment and fairness? Your kindness, acceptance and approval? These are the intangible qualities horses adore.

      Horses are creatures of comfort too– seeking shade or shelter, soft places to lay down, time to rest, engagement with herd mates. They are tactile animals that touch, scratch, massage and mutually groom, so having companionship is important.

      Your horse’s sense of safety and comfort and the enrichment you add to its life are the things you bring to the negotiating table. In return, your horse offers you loyalty, duty, adventure, entertainment, enrichment, and yes, even adoration if you’re lucky.

      None of that comes freely or easily but once the negotiation process is mastered, the results are pure joy. Realistically, I cannot expect my horse to love me like his bonded herd-mate, but I’ll take what I can get.

      Love Like No Other

      When horses and riders reach the pinnacle of their connection, they can think and move as one, they know what each other is thinking, they can predict each other’s actions, and feel their reactions before it happens. They share a unique language known only to them.

      When a significant relationship between horse and human exists, forged over time, there are deep bonds of mutual trust. When one party is off their game or under the weather, the other party is always aware. I don’t know of any other sport or activity where this kind of unification of mind, body, and spirit occurs between two disparate species.

      All of this is made possible by some unique characteristics of horses. Their reliance on communication through body language gives us the potential for a shared language. Their prey mentality causes them to be wicked-fast learners, eagerly seeking answers to your questions.

      Horses are exceptionally sensitive to touch and to mental and environmental pressures that cause them to respond to nearly invisible cues. When riding a horse that you are deeply connected to, sometimes all you have to do is think of a movement and the horse executes the maneuver.

      Few things in this world are more satisfying than this kind of loving relationship with a horse. But us humans are greedy- always asking for more and constantly moving the target. It’s important to remind ourselves to give something back to horses, in return. To love my horse is to be mindful of my horse’s needs, both physical and emotional. No love exists when one party does all the taking and none of the giving.

      Show Me Some Lovin’

      We are experts at what we want for ourselves and what makes us feel good, but from the horse’s point of view, things may look much different. Predators and prey view the world from opposite perspectives, sometimes making it hard to empathize with the other.

      It’s important to take time to bond with your horse and there are plenty of activities you can do together towards this end. Beyond just grooming your horse, there are a few relaxing, calming and bonding activities I like to encourage people to do with their horses.

      Head down cue: outfitted in rope halter and long training lead, use two fingers to put slight downward pressure on the bottom of the halter and the fiador knot. The instant the horse’s nose moves the slightest amount down, release the pressure and praise the horse by cooing and stroking. Once you’ve coaxed the horse’s head all the way to the ground, the horse will be very calm and content. Article: Your Horse’s Quiet Place
      Facial rub down: Use a soft shammy to rub and massage the horse’s face and ears, work slowly and satisfy your horse’s itchiness. This is especially important after riding or when your horse has worked up a sweat. Check out my favorite shammy here!
      Sweet spot: bonded horses mutually groom each other, scratching and massaging deeply with their teeth at the withers, neck and chest. You’ll use your fingers (otherwise hairs get stuck in your teeth) to rub and probe until you find your horse’s sweet spot. You’ll know by watching his upper lip for puckering. It’s a kind and affectionate gesture and serves as a nice “thank you,” after riding. Article: 3 Leadership Activities
      Recognize effort: How hard horses attempt to comply with your wishes is way more important than the actual response. If you learn to recognize when horses are trying hard, and then give them the release, praise, and rest they seek, they will try harder and harder to please you, knowing that they get something in return. Horses are notoriously indifferent in terms of showing outward signs of affection, but they crave recognition and acceptance. Article: Nurturing the Try in Your Horse

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