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Dear Julie,
My mare makes a sound like a Donkey when she returns to her corral after being turned out, or when greeting a new pasture mate. What could be causing my mare to bray instead of whinny?
Sounds Painful,

Dear Sounds Painful,
Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate: the whinny, nicker, snort, and squeal. I am guessing that you are describing a weird sounding squeal. Let’s look at each of the possible horse sounds to see which matches most closely to that of your “braying mare.”

Each audible expression has a specific meaning. The squeal is a high-pitched outcry used as a defensive warning or threat—warning that the annoyed horse will become more reactive if further provoked. This is what I’ll bet is happening with your mare. She may be warning her pasture mates and corral buddies to stay away and not to bother her.

Squeals are also 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.

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 a sexual encounter and it seems to signal the stallion’s sexual interest. A mare can make a third nickering sound when her young foal is in danger or seems sickly. 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. The sounds are the longest and loudest horse sound. The whinny seems to be a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or peer companions are separate–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 communicate alarm and serves to alert other horses. Your horse may snort when he’s restless and constrained. If he does, take his snort as a serious sign that he’s feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.

Horses also groan and snore, but these sounds usually signify a reaction to feeling—instead of a means of communication. 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 collicking or a mare is in labor. The snore is usually labored breathing in a recumbent horse and sounds a lot like the human snore.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight