Author: Eclectic Horsemanship

Signs of Relaxation and Stress

Signs of Relaxation and Stress

This post will list and describe some some signs of relaxation and stress. It is important to know what signs to look for in our horses so we know when to take stimuli away if we are desensitizing them, or even just to know how they are feeling. Two, three or more of these signs of relaxation or stress are a good indication of how your horse is feeling.

Signs of Relaxation

Sign of relaxation


When your horse starts to relax they will start blinking repeatedly and their eyes will be soft and relaxed.

Yawning and Snorting

A relaxed horse will yawn; it is usually followed or started by the horse breathing out long and long making a snorting noise.

Low Head

Relaxed horses hold their head low. Depending on what breed your horse is their low head position may be higher or lower than other breeds of horses.

Soft Nostrils and Lips

Horse relaxed
This horse’s bottom lip is lower than it’s top, and it’s nostrils are relaxed and even.

A horse’s nostrils are usually wrinkle free while they are relaxed, there should be no tension in them and the tops of the nostrils should be even with each other. The horse’s lips should also be loose and wrinkle free, they should not be holding their mouth tight. When the lower lip is even, or overlapping the top lip, that means the horse is relaxed.

Licking and Chewing

When your horse starts chewing the air and licking his lips, he is beginning to relax.

Signs of Stress

High Head and Tense Eyes

A horse who is holding their head high is usually alert and stressed. Some breeds of horses may hold their head high compared to other breeds, keep that in mind while observing yours. The horse’s eyes may also be alert and tense, with some whites of the eye possibly showing.

Tense Nostrils

If the nostrils are tight, uneven or have wrinkles.

Sign of Stress
This horse has tense and wrinkly nostrils, a high head, and alert eyes.

Tense Lips

Tight wrinkly lips are a sure sign of stress. It may be hard to get your finger in the horse’s mouth due to the tightness, and their bottom lip may be farther back than the top.


A stressed horse may exhibit vices if they have any.

Stable Vices

Stable Vices

Horse stable vice in Stall

A stereotypy is a repeated action that seems to have no purpose. Stable vices are stereotypies. Vices develop from the horse being stressed, usually because of boredom, lack of exercise, being confined to a stall, or other possible explanations. Below is a list of common stable vices, and brief descriptions of what they look like.


This is when the horse sways back and forth, shifting their weight and swaying their head. It can cause wear on their joints because horses that typically have vices can do them for hours on end. Here is a video of a weaving horse:

Cribbing and Wind-Sucking

Cribbing is when the horse bites down on a solid object with its incisors, arches its neck and sucks in air into the upper part of the esophagus. This creates a gulping noise. Horses that crib may do it from stress and boredom, but it can also be a sign of ulcers. Some horses may also lose weight because they would rather crib than eat. Wind-sucking is when a horse does the same cribbing action, but without grasping an object. Here is a video of a cribbing horse:

Wood Chewing

This is a vice that bored horses develop where they chew the wood in their stalls or the wood fence in their pen. Some horses may do it if they are vitamin deficient. This is not like cribbing because the horse does not intake air while chewing the wood.

Tongue Vices

If your horse sticks its tongue out when the bit isn’t in its mouth, or when it isn’t eating, this can be a vice that is a sign of stress or boredom. Some common tongue vices are when the horse sucks their tongue with the mouth closed, sticks their tongue through the lips and possibly shakes it around, opens and works their mouth, or opens their mouth and sticks their tongue out. In the following video the horse has most likely developed the vice due to boredom, as it does not look extremely anxious.

Are You on the Correct Diagonal?

Are You on the Correct Diagonal?

It can be hard to know whether you are on the correct diagonal when you first start riding. It’s important to know the footfall of the horse so you know exactly which diagonal is moving when. When you are on the correct diagonal you are posting when the outside front leg and inside hind leg are on the ground. If you can’t feel when you should be posting then look down, you should be posting when the outside shoulder is moving forward and sitting when it is back. If you are on the left rein then you should be on the right diagonal. If you are on the right rein then you should be on the left diagonal.

Horse trotting diagonal.
This horse is on the right diagonal, the rider would be standing now.

It may help to get into the rhythm of saying “up” when the shoulder moves forward, that way you don’t have to constantly look down, you can just post when you say “up.” Eventually you will feel the horse’s movements and you won’t have to even think about when you should be posting.

When you want to change directions then you have to change diagonals too. All you have to do is sit for two beats then start posting again. When I say two beats I mean two strides of the horse’s gait. If you have the pattern of saying “up” then replace two “ups” with counting (“one, two”) instead, and then continue saying “up” in the same rhythm.

Footfall of Gaits

Footfall of Gaits

Horses have five gaits; walk, jog, lope, gallop, and back up. Of course gaited horses may vary from this, but this post will only discuss the footfall of non gaited horses. It is important to know where and what our horses feet are doing so we can time things such as lope transitions and do more advanced moves such as haunches in. After reading about footfall I encourage you to lunge your horse and watch for the footfall of these gaits.

Walk Footfall

The walk is a four beat gait, meaning that each hoof hits the ground independently. If you start counting the beats when the horse steps on his left hind, the footfall will go left hind, left front, right hind, right front.

Walk Footfall
This horse has stepped on his right hind, and is now going to step on his right front.


The trot is a two beat gait with two diagonal pairs, meaning that two feet diagonally away from each other are on the ground and the other two are off the ground at all times. The left front and right hind hit the ground at the same time, the same goes for the right front and left hind.

Trot Footfall
This horse has just landed on his right diagonal.

Lope Footfall

The lope is a three beat gait, with one diagonal pair. When a horse lopes on their left lead they start with their right hind hitting the ground, then their left hind and right front in a diagonal pair, then their left front followed by a moment of suspension with no feet on the ground. The pattern then repeats itself and is the opposite on the right lead.

Lope Footfall
You can see the moment of suspension is ending. The horse is about to start the pattern over on her right lead.


While the gallop may look like a faster version of the lope, it is actually a four beat gait. The four feet hit the ground independently it goes: left hind, right hind, left front, right front. And the opposite for the left lead.

Gallop Footfall
This horse is in a full gallop. You can tell there is no diagonal.

Back up

The back up when done properly is a two beat gait. When we ask our horse to back up we want their legs to be in diagonal pairs, when they are, we know that not only are they moving backwards but also thinking backwards with their hind end engaged. The footfall is left hind, right front, and right hind, left front.

You can see the horse will back up on her left diagonal.

Horse related activities are inherently dangerous and caution should be used at all times.