Monday, December 11, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 13


Hello again and welcome back to this 20–part series discussing the equine head. Designed for realistic equine artists, this series interprets this complex structure from evolutionary, anatomical, and artistic perspectives since we must weigh all of them as we sculpt. We’ve plowed through a lot to get here, but now with all that understanding, we can apply it to function and gesture. So in this Part 13, we'll discuss the biomechanics of the equine head along with the kaleidoscope of his fascial expressions. And despite everything, neither is as straightforward as they seem! A lot happens in a relatively small, tight space, and things can build on each other, and happen in a blink of an eye, so we'll miss it if we aren't paying close attention. For the totality of our sculpture, however, we also need to pay attention how all this affects the rest of his body, but that's for another series. In the meantime then, let’s dive right in!…


The equine skull is a marvel of bioengineering. It’s light enough not to hinder a large herbivore dependent on long distance speed, yet expansive and sturdy enough for all it must accomplish. Being so, the equine head is defined by pure biological function—yet look how beautiful function is! Indeed, there are few animals as beautiful as the horse, yet his beauty is a direct result of utility alone—a curious biological fact that can inform our creative decisions.

The movement of the head itself is actually affected by the articulations of the neck. However, the joint between the back of the head and the first cervical vertebra is relevant for our discussions here. The first neck bone is the Atlas bone, and attaches the head to the neck with an obvious and prominent “wing” on either side. Being the broadest of the neck vertebræ, when viewed from above, the span of the Atlas (from wing–to–wing) is roughly as broad as the brows. At this joint, the only possible motions are predominantly an up–and–down “yes” movement (extension and flexion) and a bit of “side slippage” when the head is tucked. Therefore, a horse cannot laterally turn (moderately or sharply) or corkscrew his head directly behind the ears. A handy rule of thumb then is that the back of the skull, along with the line of the brows and ears bulbs, should be relatively parallel and “seat into” the back of the Atlas wings when viewed from above. Again, however, when the head is tucked and the horse has achieved self–carriage, a bit of side slippage is possible, referred to as “head twirling” in horsemanship lingo. This is how we can see the back corner of the horse’s eye when we ask him to bend properly. 

Mechanically, there exists a joint between the maxilla and the mandible for the opening of the mouth. This joint is located behind the zygomatic arches of the eye and in front of the cavity of the ear. The coronoid process of the mandible pops up through the maxilla’s temporal fossa at this junction. Its function can be easily seen when a horse chews as this joint area undulates, making the cavity behind the eye (the “Salt Cellar”) pop in–and–out in synch with the opening and closing of the jaw. This means the entire lower jaw drops at this one hinge joint when the mouth is opened. Being so, this joint is capable of up–and–down motion and also of rotary motion such as we see when the animal is chewing or yawning. There’s negligible fore and aft motion. 

The Hyoid Apparatus articulates within the skull at cartilaginous attachments of the Stylohyoids to the Petrosal bones in a ballandsocket joint. The Stylohyoids also articulate with the Keratohyoids at their cartilaginous joint in a hinge–like fashion as do the Kertatohyoids with the Basihyoid. There’s more play in this latter joint, although it, too, has primarily a hinge–like motion. Together, this rigging forms the basis of the “glug–glug” motion we see when he's swallowing—observe him drinking water for a clear demonstration. Likewise, understanding the delicate Hyoids is important not just because they're vulnerable to injury by people, but they can indicate the quality of horsemanship he’s experiencing—even his emotional state. For example, the head and neck posture of false collection can “close his throat,” essentially locking his Hyoid Apparatus. This makes it difficult for him to swallow or breathe which is why horses ridden in false collection will often drool or exhibit raspy or “gruntly” breathing. Therefore, an artist who understands how the jaw and swallowing mechanism work will be better able to identify irresponsible riding to avoid portraying it in their art. 

Anyway when he eats then, his lips nimbly pull choice bits to his incisors which he nips off and then he uses his tongue to push against the ridged hard palate to convey the bolus back to the grinders for pulverization, soaking it in saliva for softening. The Buccinators also squeeze the sides of the cheeks to help push it inwards for backwards movement. The molars then grind up the bolus in a circular motion, often on a favorite, “handed” side (we can often tell which side a horse is “handed” by the direction he chews his food). Also when he chews or swallows, the flesh between his jaw bars undulates, bulges, and hollows in the "glug glug" motion and coronoid process "pops" in and out within the Salt Cellar. The bolus is then pushed back through the Palantal Drape slits and into the pharynx as the epiglottis closes, and then into the esophagus with the help of the Hyoids and muscular squeezing of the throat. We may even see the penate striations of the Masseter appear and disappear as they're activated. When he drinks, he forms a slight “O” with his lips and sucks up water as through a straw, taking in gulps about 1/2 pint (.24l) per swallow. The tongue acts like suction pump to draw water in and the digiastric sling works the Hyoids to directly “glug” water back into the pharynx and down into the esophagus. 

Psychologically, a horse can hold a lot of bracing tension his jaw joint, just like people, due to stress, anxiety, habit, or poor riding. We may even hear a horse grind his teeth when stressed, sometimes heard in the show ring. For horsemanship then, the jaw joint is crucial for achieving collection; if this joint is locked due to psychological stress, poor horsemanship, bad posture, tack contraptions, or malocclusion of the teeth, it’ll be very difficult for him to round his spine in self–carriage and “drop his head at the poll.” Locking the jaw can also be a defensive strategy against irresponsible riding that tugs on the bit, puts constant undue pressure on the bit, or clamps his mouth shut, sometimes seen with Figure–8 or dropped nosebands. Locking the jaw can also force the tongue to the roof of the mouth, making it difficult the horse to swallow saliva, which is why horses with locked jaws often drool profusely. More still, a lot of bracing tension can be held in the tongue and the walls of the pharynx due to tension, stress, discomfort, tack contraptions, and poor horsemanship. For all these reasons, learning to "twirl the head," or induce the jaw, tongue, and pharynx to relax and loosen is imperative for achieving collection. Head twirling can be seen when the joint between the back of the skull and the Atlas can attain that minor bit of "side slippage" to slightly spin the head so we can see the back of his eye as we curve and turn in that direction. In these ways, the jaw, throat and Hyoids are all directly involved in achieving selfcarriage.

Similarly, despite convention, a frothy or foamy mouth doesn’t constitute a “soft mouth,” but quite the opposite: psychological anxiety and tension, even to the point of abuse. Horse saliva is the consistency of egg white, and what do we do to turn egg white into froth? We whip it, don’t we? And that’s what’s happening inside the horses mouth—he’s whipping his saliva into a froth with his tongue as an emotional expression of stress and anxiety. In contrast, a horse that’s calm and properly collected may have slightly wet lips or a slight pooling of saliva at the corners of the mouth, demonstrating he’s psychologically “100% OK” and so has a “quiet mouth.”

The lips are very fleshy, able to be distorted, stretched, bulged, and squished into many different configurations. Highly sensitive and mobile, he uses his lips to explore, often seen when he “mouths” new objects. It can even be likened to his "hand" since he uses his mouth to manipulate objects. He also uses his lips to grasp and gather food into his mouth to grind with his teeth and to suck in water. His lips are very expressive, too, indicating his mood able to be stretched, "pooched," distorted, snarled, or be held loose and floppy or pinched and tight, with a spectrum of possibilities in between. They may also slightly twitch, or the lower lip might bob up and down, or might even become droopy if he’s feeling relaxed, lazy, or dozing off. The muzzle can also express pleasure such as twitching or tweaking such as with a scratched itch, snarling when annoyed, becoming “pooky” when excited, drooping pendulously when relaxed, or becoming tense when angry, excited, or stressed plus a host of other distortions. Similarly, his chin can relax, pinch, tense up, distort, buckle, squeeze, or shift, lending even more expression. Indeed, closely studying how a horse uses his lips and muzzle to communicate can reveal lots of possibilities for sculpture.

His ears are set on the crown of the head, on the sides, with the ear canal located just behind the joint of the jaw. Sound is focused by the delicately fluted pinæ into the eardrum via the ear canal which is quite narrow and turns inwards to join the middle and inner ear which converts sound into impulses the brain can decipher. The inner ear also helps to maintain balance. Only its cartilaginous attachment to the skull’s ear canal and the ear muscles themselves lash the ear onto the head; otherwise the ear floats on the top of the head. But this allows the ear to have a rather fluid range of motion in its rotation and to be slightly drawn up or down, often depending on mood. As such, the ears move independently and without requiring motion of the head or neck, capable of 180˚ motion. Also serving as communication between horses as well, they indicate his emotional state, and so are often busy, typically indicating his focus of attention. Also note that his ear subtly changes shape during rotation, even to the point of flattening when pinned back.

Also, if we're observing closely, we can see his ears wiggle and twitch when he swallows! The Parotidoauricularis muscle, which is flat and straplike muscle about 1" wide (2.5cm), connects to the base of the ear and to the parotid gland, a wad of lymph nodes and saliva nodules. It's located on the external wall of the pharynx, right below the skin just behind the angle of the ramus in the space between the ramus and the wing of the Atlas bone. Embedded in and supporting the pharyngeal wall at this point is the Stylohyoid so every time the Stylohyoid moves, it pulls on the Parotidoauricularis muscle, making the ears twitch, like Dumbo flapping his ears. However, the horse has to be very relaxed for this effect to happen, but it's certainly charming and curious when it does! When moving, the ears can also wiggle or flop in synch with the gait when the horse is relaxed. In particular, this typically happens with gaited horses, and especially with gaited mules.

The nasal bone is long and thin, especially at the tip above the nasal cavity, and so is delicate and easily broken if the animal bangs his head. The horse will naturally protect this area as a result, which is why mechanical hackamores and bosals work by applying hindering pressure to this vulnerable area (which means they aren't as "kind" as they purport to be). As for the nasal passages, they're responsible for channeling air into the throat on its way to the lungs. On the way, they warm and moisten the air and filter out particles. The comma cartilages and nostrils themselves are quite flexible, capable of many shapes and sizes, able to be expanded (flared) to pass more air, or pinched to block air flow or to snort and blow. Where the two rims meet at the top, the fold is more or less fixed, but the rest of the nostril can be independently moved and shaped by the facial muscles connected to it. At rest, the fold between the two rims can be a deep channel while the meeting of the rims on the bottom of the nostril forms a slight depression. However, when the nostril is dilated, the fold can be stretched and flattened a bit while the bottom depression can nearly disappear as the flesh stretches. In response to flaring, the curve of the comma cartilages is expanded and the two halves are drawn closer together, sometimes even lifting up a bit. This causes deeper wrinkles between them and a different profile to the muzzle. In turn, the posterior nostril rim is likewise flared, and can be in many different ways from more outward to more backward. Conversely, when the nostril is pinched, the comma cartilages collapse and fold a little bit, but most of the distortion happens in the lower rim, which is fleshy. This allows the nostril to be pinched in any number of ways, and gives it those peculiar shapes and folds when it is. That said, the nostril motion is also synchronized with motions of the muzzle, specifically the upper lip. For example, if the upper lip is “pooky” it tends to pull the bottom of the nostril slightly forward. Furthermore, the nostrils and lips can be moved independently on both sides, and being so flexible, are capable of many motions such as from side to side or up and down to create any number of interesting expressions, effects, and gestures.

The eyelids help to protect the eye and sweep debris from the cornea. They also play an active role in expressionhorses have eyebrows! The upper eyelid does most of the motion and the lower eyelid remains relatively stationary though it can deepen more, "rounding" the eye, or help with squinting. The horse can also retract his orb back into the socket if he’s triggered by pain (or disease such as a tetanus convulsion), stress, or fear, sometimes causing the third eyelid to partially cover the cornea. This reaction is induced by the retractor muscle connecting the back of the globe to the inner surface of the orbit. As for the pupil, it will open up more or reduce depending on light situations. Equine eyes have a wide range of motion, too, helping to add expression to his face and amplify vision. Sclera often indicates the position of the pupil and iris in the most obvious way. The eyes can move together forward or backward (sclera to the back of the iris or the front of the iris, respectively), upwards or downwards (sclera under the iris or above the iris, respectively), both can rotate around to some degree (like a “cat clock”), often seen when he’s turned his head to look behind him, or alternately up and down (sclera under the iris in one eye and above the iris in the other), usually seen when he shakes his head. Stallions often also roll their eyes when they're posturing and aggressive. The orb can spin clockwise or counterclockwise in the socket, too, tending to keep the pupil as relatively level with the ground as possible (there's a limit to this ability so do lots of research and use good reference photos).


The equine is consummately expressive through his face so field study, research, and reference photos are handy tools for deciphering his facial body language. This is because every facial muscle is capable of motion, lending myriad options for expression and manifestation of flesh and structure. Fascia also plays its part in motion and expression, providing more nuance and texture. As such, every bit of his head is used to communicate, and with so many possible combinations, he offers a sizable "dialogue" to make our sculptures "speak." Indeed, the various movements, stretches, pulls, twitches, pooches, crinkles, snarls, squints, stiffening, relaxations, asymmetrical movement, pock marking, and numerous other quirks of texture and motion add complexity and a spectrum of gesture from nuanced to intense, with a bevy in between. Field study is imperative here, however. We won't learn the letters, words, and sentences, and all the colloquialisms, inflections, insinuations, and subtleties without spending a goodly amount of time observing "EquiSpeak" action. We have to live it to become fluent. It's not something we can learn with reference photos alone (though they can be helpful supplements). Indeed, horses are talking every minute with their bodies and fascial expressions (and vocalizations and chemical signals), so if we learn to decipher them, we'll find a rich discussion going on all around us! Truly, if we ever hope to convey emotion and narrative in our work, we must learn the equine language as deeply as possible. For this, we need to pay attention first with our eyes since equine language happens with body language first, vocalizations second, and chemical signals somewhere all over the place. 

Unfortunately, however, many of us who aren't fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time observing equines in a natural setting with other equines. For this reason, they often can't "read" equines very well and so misconstrue the conditional situation of both the animal and their sculpture. And this is problematic. If we aren't fluent, we may not recognize certain signals for what they are and so may inadvertently end up imbuing something in our sculpture we didn't intend. The more fluent we are then, the better our choices and the stronger our compositions. (I'll be writing an article for Equine Collectibles touching on this subject in the future, so stay tuned!)

Before we start, however, we need to understand some core concepts of EquiSpeak because they form the discriminating foundation inherent in the language, allowing us to better decipher the signals, as follows:

  • Complexity: Horses don’t speak with a superficial, perfunctory understanding of things, but with a complex lexicon that’s dependent on the situation and behavioral context. Horses also have their own personal spin on the language with individualistic lingo and mannerisms, essentially having their own “accents” and way of speaking, which can be a fun addition to grasp.
  • Combination: Most of these cues can be combined to create complexity, simultaneous meanings, amplification, eccentricities, and nuances to what the horse is trying to communicate. However, some cues are almost exclusive to certain emotions such as pinned ears while others can be used to convey a bevy of emotions such as a pooky upper lip. We only learn the kaleidoscope of options in field study so it's important to spend a lot of time with horses in a natural setting with other horses.
  • Context: Each signal can have several different meanings depending on the context to the situation, the rest of the body, vocalizations, and chemical signals. The slightest alteration can change the whole meaning in the blink of an eye! Also, different signals will be layered, mixed together, or interchanged in a constant flood of communication. For these reasons, each moment should be regarded as a new "sentence" since so much can happen so quickly. 
  • Speed: Along those lines, these cues can occur from a slow build to here and gone in a fleeting moment; expression can change slowly or quickly. And the different speeds at which cues are communicated can layer on each other, too, so horses can be saying "long sentences" with "interjections" peppered throughout. That is to say horses can "talk in tangents" and then come back to the driving idea. So we have to remain constantly "open" to what they're saying longterm and shortterm.
  • Repetition: Horses can repeat what they say depending on the circumstance. Like if they want to amplify their point, they'll repeat it. In this way, many horses give us plenty of notice, however, still others won't, giving us only one mention of what they're trying to convey. It all depends on the idiosyncrasies of the individual personality.
  • Degree: Any of these cues exist on a spectrum of intensity depending on how pronounced the horse wants to communicate the meaning or emotion. So we have to be highly sensitive so we don’t miss a single tiny cue since they can be expressed very subtly.
  • Neutral state: Horses can flow from one expression right into another, however, sometimes they can revert back to a blank slate and then go into a new expression. It all depends on the individual idiosyncrasies. So this is something we should be aware of during field study to avoid misinterpreting something.
  • Tension: This component isn’t often discussed, but if we’re paying close attention, his face (and body) can be held with different levels of relaxations or tensions to convey his changing states of mind. Tension can be expressed independently with a single feature, in groups of features, or holistically (including his body, posture, or gait), depending on what he wants to say. Learning to see this tension takes a bit of experience, but once learned it becomes obvious.
  • Holistic: Expression manifests in the spine, too. For this reason, emotion isn’t just seen in his facial expressions but also in the posture of his spine and therefore the posture of his entire body. This literally means that what appears on his face is reflected by his whole body which has its own signals. This means that to catch the true gist of the facial expression, we often have to pay attention to the body as well to gain more complete context. So pay close attention to “everything he says” since this adds layers of meaning. (That said, the entirely of his body language is beyond the scope of this series, so we’ll save that for another time.)
  • Truth: Horses generally don’t lie—they’re almost always honest, especially with their emotions. Now they may be clever and try to fool us, but equines truly wear their emotions on their proverbial sleeves, usually giving themselves away if we’re versed enough to see the slip. There are three exceptions, however. The first is the expression of pain. That is to say, some horses tend to hide their pain—actually stop showing these signals—around “their” people for reasons unknown. Currently, it’s hypothesized that—as a prey animal—they don’t want to appear vulnerable. Another hypothesis considers if they may be so pleased to see us that this kind of body language overrides the pain expressions. Nonetheless, we have to be particularly sensitive then, and stay alert and conscientious. Being so, setting up cameras in the stall can be useful for determining the true nature of his condition if under medical care since he’ll let his guard down when we’re gone. Secondly, some horses can be brutally trained to mask their pain signals such as “stewarding” with the Big Lick TWH. So while these horses may be extremely distressed, they’ll appear normal, “not that bad,” or their revealing signals will be misinterpreted by the uninitiated. However, for those who are versed in EquiSpeak, the horse’s trauma is clearly communicated with all the other little cues that cannot be trained into submission. And, finally, there’s a third potential “lie”—pranking us. Horses have a sense of humor and have been known to play tricks on their herdmates and us and, in so doing, try to fib about their intentions before they spring the joke.
  • Breath: Not often mentioned, equines communicate a lot with their breathing, so we should always pay attention to this when trying to read them. 
  • Vocalizations: The horse has a host of sounds for communication, using his nostrils and vocal cords. Snorts and blows are good examples as are nickering, whinnying, roaring, and bellowing. And just like the rest of his physical cues, these can be altered in meaning. For example, a whinny can be made quite softly to be followed by a loud snort or, on the other hand, a nicker may be loud with a soft squeal afterwards. Indeed, a horse’s vocal array is as complicated as his physical indications of his mood, then combine them together and we have a plethora of emotional options.
  • Chemical signals: Unfortunately we lack the ability to pick up on a horse’s chemical signals since we don’t have the physical organs to do so. So we can only imagine what sort of things are being conveyed with this means of communication. There are some times when it seems these situations are really obvious like with a mare in season or with the flehmen response, but other times, we can only infer.

But before we start, it should be noted that we’ll be dealing exclusively with the expressions found with the face because, for one, the expressions here are many and varied, and for another, they’re a good start for developing a better sense for how expression manifests throughout the rest of his body. Indeed, horses express with their entire physique—from nose to tail—so we need to be mindful of the cascade of these additional cues in the context of the situation. Yet in order to do so, we first need to develop an astute awareness of even the slightest tweak, and a good place to start is how the horse expresses with his face since expressions here can be so subtle and fleeting. It should also be mentioned that this discussion only touches on a few components of EquiSpeak. In fact, there’s much more to it in terms of the number of expressions, their amplification, and also how they’re combined for additional meanings. So for a more developed inventory, research and ample field study are a must. We have to spend a lot of time with the real thing in a herd environment to really build up our repertoire. In the spirit of getting started then, that’s where we’ll focus…so let’s learn a bit about how horses talk!

Yet to make best use of all this, we first need to remain sensitive and open to what a horse is saying. This animal tries to communicate with us all the time, so if we aren’t aware or we misunderstand, we aren’t only missing important information, but we may be causing the animal anxiety. We also lose the opportunity to reflect and so choose to recreate such expression in our sculptures. On the other hand, we may inadvertently depict expressions that portray distress if we can’t translate EquiSpeak, something we’d probably want to avoid. The more adept we are at interpreting their language then, the more authentic and consistent our portrayal.

Learning Some Simple Phrases

Let’s explore a basic inventory of some of the “phrases” equines use to talk to each other to get started with our own exploration. And it’s just a start, remember—other expressions and variations occur, so pay attention in field study. On that note then, let’s start with the eyes—as a visual animal, we typically look to them first for emotional cues, don’t we? And so do horses. And luckily for us, the horse is quite expressive with his eyes thanks to his mobile lids and orbital musculature, and so…

So all that said, here's a short inventory of some of the "phrases" equines use to talk to each other to get us started with our exploration. And it's just a start, rememberother expressions and variations occur, so pay attention in field study. On that note then, let's start with the eyes—as a visual animal, we typically look to them first for emotional cues, don't we? And luckily for us, the horse is quite expressive with his eyes thanks to his mobile lids and orbital musculature, as such…

Open, round eye:
I am feeling calm, relaxed, and great!
I am in my happy place
I am interested in what's happening around me
I am friendly and happy
I am engaged with my surroundings

"Bright" round eye:
I am curious and interested
I am playful and quirky
I am excited and energized
I am friendly and happy
I am joyful and estactic

Blank, vacant eye:

I am about to completely freak out in a bad way
I've gone "elsewhere" because I'm stressed, afraid, or anxious
I am "not here"
My stress is building and I'll eventually lose it soon

"Doeeyed" or "softeyed":
I am calm, gentle, and friendly
I am loving and affectionate
I am trustworthy, reliable, and honest
I am interested and engaged in what's going on around me

Halfclosed eyes:
I am sleepy
I am dozing off
I am very relaxed, chill
The light is very bright
My eye hurts—help
I am about to lose my mind—get ready
If the lids are also tense, he may be in pain

Squinty eyes:
The sun is bright
The breeze is bugging me
I am a annoyed
Stop pestering me!
Knock it off!
I am in pain
I am in distress

Closed eyes:
I am asleep

I am dozing off

Tension above the eyes so that the orbital crest is seen:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very upset

A little whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am interested or curious
I am looking around, engaged in my surroundings
I am looking at that
Yeah, what are you looking at?

A moderate whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am a bit nervous
I am excited, fired up, and energized
I am playful
I am interested and curious
I am looking at you!

A lot of whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am very nervous—be careful
I am afraid
I am startled
I am really wound up
I am totally spazzing out

Eyewhites behind the iris:
I am interested in what’s in front of me
What’s that?
Eye rolling (often done by stallions):
I am aggressive and powerful
I am feeling playful

"Frowning" upper eyelid:
I am so angry!
Watch out!
It's over for you!
You’ve got it coming now!

"Peaked" or "tented" upper eyelid:
I am worried
I am anxious and nervous
I am unsure
I am interested
I am curious
I am a bit excited and energized
I am in pain

"Tense" eyelids:
I am very nervous, anxious, and upset
I am frightened
I am about to explode and spook
I am in pain

Sunken eyes (when not caused by old age or starvation):
I am very afraid
I am in terror
I am very sick
I am having a convulsion
I am in great pain
I am in great distress!
Help me!

Winky or squinty eyes:
The sun is bright
Something is tickling my eye
Darn dust!
That fly is bugging me
I am feeling quirky
I am in a funky mood

"Hard" eye or "stink eye":

Get out of my way
I am so over you
Move over
You are annoying me
Do not bother me anymore
This is tedious

"Laser eye" (when a horse looks us or another horse directly in the eye in a highly focused manner more so than the "stink eye"):

Move over there
Get out of my way
We are going this way
Pay attention to what I am saying to you

Slow blinking (aside from normally swishing the orb clean):
I am showing you affection
I like you
We are friends

Deliberate blinking (aside from normal orb cleaning):

I am thinking this over
I am considering what you just said
I am mulling this over

His mobile ears don't just collect sound, they clearly communicate his inner experience, too, with their positions, movements, and tensions. That's to say the horse has two windows to his soul! Not just his eyes, but also his ears! He virtually cannot say anything without using his ears, they're that central to the equine language.

Ears forward "neutral":
I am looking ahead 
“What is that?," something has my attention
I am interested and curious
I am on alert
Don’t kick me

Ears forward "tight" (sometimes being drawn closer together and higher on the crown):
I am alert and excited
I am fired up!
I am anxious about something in front of me
I am ready to spook in just a second
I am wary of something up ahead

Ears forward "loose":
I am alert and relaxed
I am paying attention to what's ahead, but calm
I am having a good time

Ears forward in a loose "V" (or floppy when walking):
I'm very relaxed and "100% OK"
I am confident and calm
I'm calm because I know what I'm supposed to do and I'm confident in my person
I am content or sleepy
I am in deep concentration
I am waiting for your next request

Inverted ears (when the ears are softly held backward and a little downward, often seen with nursing mares):

I am not paying attention to much because I am in my own headspace
I am zoned out
I am very serene and peaceful
I am enjoying this sense of unity, affection, and friendship

One ear cocked back passively:
I am paying attention to something behind or to the side of me
I am paying attention to my person on my back
I am paying attention to things in both directions
I am thinking and pondering
I am taking stock in what's going on around me

One ear twitching back and forth:

I am curious
I am engaging with my surroundings
I am paying attention in part, but also curious about all this other stuff, too

Ears twitching quickly back and forth:
I am anxious, worried, or nervous
I want to get away!
I am about to panic and spook!
Help me!
I am very excited and full of beans!
What's going on, everybody?! Let's spaz!
There are so many things happening around me!
Boy, it's windy! Time to cavort!

Both ears cocked back passively:
I am paying attention to something behind me
I am listening to my person on my back
I am relaxed and maybe a little sleepy
I am curious, but wary…I'll touch it with my nose but my ears "have my six."
A polite way of standing next to or behind other horses 
I recognize your seniority, please don't kick me (when standing next to or behind another horse)
I’m the boss, but you can relax, I won't come after you (when standing next to or behind another horse)

Scoping ears (when they're held straight forwards but only for moments at a time):

I am on the look–out for danger or situations of concern
I am scouting out the situation 

Scoping ears with a high head (often seen with stallions challenging each other, or in sport, often with a jumping horse as he approaches a jump):

I am big and bad!
Don't mess with me!
I am powerful and dangerous!
I am really on the war path
I am very concerned about what's going on up there
What's in front of me is of intense interest to me 
That up there is something to be very concerned about

Scoping ears followed by pinned back ears (often seen with cutting horses when they're about to start cutting a cow):

I am on the attack!
Watch out! Here I come!
You've got it coming now!

Ears pinned back passively:
I am very nervous and frightened
I am not sure what to make of all this
Please don't hurt me!
Help me!

Ears held stiffly backwards:
I am in pain
I am anxious, nervous, and tense
I am in distress
I am very upset

Ears pinned back aggressively:
Oh no you didn't!
Go away!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
I am angry
I am scared and very upset
Nope nope nope!
Don’t hurt me!
You are toast!…I am going to attack (when they're particularly flat)

Tension at the poll and around the ears:

I am anxious, tense, and upset
I am in pain, in discomfort
I am not "100% OK"
I am moody, not feeling good
I am about to spook
I want to get out of here

Shaking his ears:

I am releasing tension and anxiety
I am trying or starting to relax
I am letting this disagreement or disagreeable situation go
I am moving on emotionally
I am over all this

Twitching and twirling ears:

I am playful
I am laughing
This is amusing and enjoyable
I am having a really good time with you

As for nostrils, they're very expressive as well due to their mobility, fleshiness, and ability to express quirkiness, relaxation, and tension. They can also communicate through breathing, snorts, and blows. Learning how to read nostrils takes a bit of practice since they're also involved with breathing and so will change shape and nature depending on the breathing circumstance, but keep at it. 

"Neutral" nostrils:
I am relaxed and calm
I am mellow
La dee dah…doot dee doo


I am curious about this
What is this?

"Tense" nostrils:
I am angry
I am anxious and nervous
I am in pain
I am frightened
I am excited and full of beans
I am feeling aggressive and pushy

Twitchy nostrils:
I am a little bit perturbed
Flys are bugging me
I am relaxed and a bit lazy
Maybe I'm falling asleep…

Flared nostrils: 
I smell something curious (especially when quivering)
Something has my attention
What is that?
I am getting full of beans

Flared wide nostrils:
I am on alert
What is that?!
Hello! (for the first time, a part of greeting)
You have something for me, don't you?
I am curious
I am afraid
I am worried
I am full of beans! I am so excited!
I may start cavorting! boing! boing! boing!

Pinched or puckered nostrils:
I am feeling quirky and funky 
I don't really want to do that
I am angry
I am annoyed and irritated
Watch out!
Don't even think about it!
You'll want to rethink that
Leave me alone!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
I am aloof and disinterested
I am intolerant of what's happening

Strained, slightly dilated nostrils with elongated lips and flattened profile:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very upset
I am very anxious and tense

Fast, "pinched," or broken breathing:

I am stressed, anxious, fearful, tense, excited, or angry

Snorts and blows, of varying degrees:

I am excited
I am anxious
I am curious
I am alert
I am wary

Relaxed and regular breathing:

I am calm, mellow, "100% OK" and chill. 

Deep, regular breathing:

I am sleepy, actually asleep, deeply relaxed
I have a serious mellow

Three huffs with an extended outbreath at the end, often at a distance but still visible:

I am greeting you in a friendly way
Glad to meet you!
Glad to see you again!

Widened nostrils with soft breathing:

I am inviting you to come closer

Short intakes of breath, taking quick whiffs:

I am interested in this or you
I acknowledge you

Inward sniff or soft snort:

I am nurturing you
I am encouraging you
I am soothing you

Long, soft blowingout of breath, sometimes in groups of three:

I am helping you relax
I am here for you
You can trust me, be calm
Let's chill together

"Letting out the butterflies” with a drawn out sigh:
I am releasing a build up of stress and anxiety (domestic horses do this as a way of releasing inner tension)

Shuddering breath (when he sucks in two short half–breaths and then exhales a long breath out, or inhalation and exhalation that's "chattered"):

I am releasing stress and tension
I am trying to relax after a stressful experience
I was so tense and anxious, but now I'm trying to calm down (like our breathing after a good cry)


I am kinda done with this

I am resigned to this

Big sigh:

I agree with you
Yes, I understand what you mean

Short, bold snort:
That is of concern to me
I am worried about that over there
I am troubled by something over there
I have become alert and wary

I am sleepy
I am mellow
I am letting out stress
I am trying to relax
I am bored
I am lazy

Let’s relax

The muzzle, chin, and mouth also "talk" when it comes to equine communication, relaying volumes about his emotional state both in terms of body language and noises. Nuzzles, nips, and bites are also a part of equine speech, and like the rest of his body signals, its meaning changes depending on how, where, and when they're delivered and in context to the rest of his body language, vocalizations, and chemical signals.

"Neutral" muzzle:
I am relaxed, chill, and mellow
Everything is okay

Slack, droopy, relaxed muzzle:
I am relaxed
I am friendly
I am calm
I am half asleep
I am drugged

Tense "tight" muzzle:
I am excited and full of beans
I am really concentrating
I am irritated with you
I am so annoyed
I don't like this!
I am getting put out
You’ve been warned
I am upset
I am in discomfort
I am aloof and disinterested
I am intolerant of what's happening

Snarling muzzle:

I'm warning you!
Knock it off!
Bug off!
I am getting seriously pissed off
I'm building up to wiping you out

Twitchy muzzle:
I am feeling quirky and funky
I am full of beans
Let's play!
What's this?!
Oh, that feels good!

"Grimace" muzzle:
I am in pain
I am afraid
I am incensed
You've got it coming!
Charge! Attack!

Pooky upper lip:

I am wound up and excited
I am a bit tense
I am full of beans!
Ooooo, that feels so good! (like with an itchy spot)

Pooched muzzle:
I am excited and energized
I am full of beans
I am anxious and nervous
I am upset
Oh, that feels really good! (like with an itchy spot)

Foaming mouth:

I am not "100% OK"
I am very tense and nervous
I am anxious
I am in distress

Drooling mouth:
I am in distress because I cannot swallow
I am being ridden in a way that closes off my throat
I may have tooth problems

Dry corners, or slight drool at the corners of the mouth:
My mouth is calm and relaxed because I am, too

I am “100% OK” with this


Oh, that feels good! (if being scratched and rubbed)

Tongue sucking or lolling (nervous tics):

I am not "100% OK"
I am anxious and nervous
I have inner tension
I am in discomfort
I am bored

Tongue sticking out to be rubbed:

This feels goodweird, I know.
Be my friend.
Hi there, I'm friendly

"Neutral" chin:
I am calm and mellow
Everything is chill
I am happy and content

Slack, droopy chin:
I am very relaxed, even sleepy
I am feeling lazy
I am very mellow and chill
I am really super relaxed (especially if his chin is "bobbing" or twitching

Tense chin:
I am anxious, nervous and upset
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am angry
I am annoyed
I am very put out

Pooched chin:
I am excited, wound up, and energized
I am full of myself
I am bean filled
I am anxious, nervous, and upset
That feels so good!

Tense muzzle with pronounced, stiff chin:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am upset
I am resistant
I am full of beans, full of myself
I am about to spaz
I am full of nervous tension, I am anxious

Lip licking, chewing and sometimes swallowing (and a audible sigh):
I am releasing tension and anxiety
I am understanding something, the stress of concentration is over
I am starting to relax after I was really stressed
I am relieved
I am thinking this over, pondering it
I am digesting what you are saying to me
I am starting to accept the idea
I agree with you
I just "digested a thought"
I submit to you
Please don’t hurt me
I am not a threat
I am being friendly and affectionate
I am hungry…again
Oh, that feels good! More please! (if giving him scratches and rubs)

"Baby talk" (Most often seen in foals and weanlings which normally stops around 2 to 3 years):
I am just a little guy…don't hurt me!
I submit to you!
I am harmless!
I am not a threat!

Jawing in female donkeys (similar to baby talk):

I am in season

I am bonding with you
I love you
I am affectionate
I am relaxed and loving 
I acknowledge you in a friendly way
I want your attention

Pair grooming:
I am your friend
Let's be buddies!
Let's chill together
Let's bond!
I like you!

I am analyzing smells better…hold on
That smells weird
That's a new smell!
What smell is this?
I am in pain (There's a point between the nostrils that is a pressure point for the limbic system. It runs from that point to a corresponding point under the upper lip at the gum line. Massaging this point releases endorphins so by doing the freshmen, the horse is self

Light nip:
Tag…you’re it!
I am teasing you
I feel playful and mischievous
It's a love bite!
Don't bug me…go away
Back off!
Remember who's boss

I'm establishing or maintaining the pecking order
Move it! I am in charge!
Yes, I am the boss of you!
Go away!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
Say your prayers!
I am very afraid
I am very angry

Biting the air or at an object:
I am very anxious, upset, and nervous
I am in distress
I am in pain
I am afraid
Please don’t hurt me!
I will defend myself!

The tension seen in the jaw muscles also communicates a horse's inner landscape, so look for the pennate striations of the Masseter muscles, as such

Strained Masseter:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very nervous and anxious
I am not okay
I am upset
I have a lot of nervous energy
I am wound up and excited
I have a lot of inner tension

Teeth grinding:

I am anxious
I am tense
I am stressed out

I am strung out and unhappy
I don't like this
I am in pain

Tension in the jaw joint:

I am in pain
I am stressed and anxious
I am tense and upset
I am not "100% OK"
I may have dental problems

Head position is also a part of the equine language. This is in part to how the equine sees his world, but also a function of expressive posture conveyed through his spine, often through his neck and head position. Just like how our head position influences our body language, the same is true for the equine, offering us lots more options for our expressive palette, as follows…

Lowered "neutral" head:
I am chill and relaxed
I am sleepy or asleep
I am content, mellow, and happy
I am totally okay

Very lowered head:
I am depressed and sad
I give in
I am defeated and broken
I am distressed 
I am in psychological pain

Reactive head, adverse to touch:

I do not trust you
I do not like this
Leave me alone!
I am anxious and tense
Something hurts

Head "chattering" (often accompanied by a pooky upper lip and lip licking):

Ooooooh that feels soooo darn goooood!

Raised head:
I am attentive to what I am looking at
I am alert
What is that?
Who is over there?
I hear, smell, or see something!
I am curious about and interested in my surroundings
I am feeling a little bit energized and engaged
This is very interesting!
I may spook or bolt
I am not paying attention to you anymore
(If he raises his head when ridden in synch with a footfall, he may be in pain)

Arching the neck, even subtly:

I am taking this discussion to the next level

Arched neck and tucked head:
Do you have something for me?
What have you got there?
I hear the treat bag!
I am curious and keenly interested
I am feeling playful and happy

Head extended with an outstretched neck:
I want to touch it without getting close
Do I dare touch it?
What is it?!
I am very curious but wary
I am not sure about this
I am going to bite you (if the ears are pinned back)

Swinging head with pinned ears or squeals:
Get away from me!
Back off!
I am warning you!
Go away!
Not now!
You're asking for it!

"Snaking" (typically seen with stallions when they herd their mares and foals):
Get going!
Move along!
I am boss!
Don't defy me!
Bust a move!
(If he's doing this to people, that's a big red flag of acute danger. This is a signal of aggression.)

Head tossing or "twirling fling" (often seen when waiting for food):

I am impatient
Hurry up!
I am excited for something
Stop dragging your feet!
It's comingyay!
I am feeling pugnacious
I am feeling playful
I am energized and fired up
Let's spaz!
I am strong and powerfuldon't mess with me (when done by stallions while posturing)

Head shaking, bobbing, tossing, or nodding:

Something is bugging me on or in my head
I am impatient
I am laughing 
I am feeling quirky
That is amusing
I am feeling playful

Head pull, using the neck to pull you in closer to him:

I love you
Let me "hug" you (equines hug with their necks)
More please! Don't stop! (if getting rubs)

Head bump:

I am feeling playful
I am feeling dominant
Move over

Head rub:

I am comfortable with you
You are my friend
I have an itchy spot on my face and you make a good rubbing post

Laying head on another horse's back:

You are my friend
I am relaxed and chillin'
I like being with you
I am about to play mount you

Head bowing (often when two stallions approach each other):

I am strong so beware
Mind yourself, I'm here
I am full of myself
I am feeling playful
I am showing dominance

Turned head:
Indicates what direction the horse is interested in due to a sound, sight, or smell that triggered the response. Equines don't really do the "head tilt" thing that we or dogs often do though they will tilt their heads to look at something differently or listen at a new angle.

Vocalizations, breathing, and other noises pepper equine speech with even more meaning, so we not only need to pay attention to them, but also notice how their physics manifest on the body so we can capture that "living moment" in our clay. For example, a whinny will activate the abdominals and cause them to "chatter" in motion while a snort will also cause his nostrils and false nostrils to curiously distort. 

Snorts and blows:
I am excited and energetic
I am feeling playful and quirky
I am interested and curious, and a little excited about it, too
I am a bit wary
I am alarmed
I am nervous and anxious
I am standing my ground (often when also stamping his foot)
Measured blows usually indicate interest, playfulness, curiosity, or power play (as with stallions)

Soft nicker:
Hello, my sweet baby
Greetings, dear friend
Hello, friendly biped
I am friendly
I want your attention
Where are you going?

Loud nicker:
HI, baby!
HI, friend!
HI, biped!
What are you doing over there?
Anyone there?
Hey, I'm over here!
Where is everybody?
Where are you going?
There you are!
You have something for me?

Soft whinnie:
I am politely saying "Hi!"
I am noncommittally inquiring where others are or indicating my presence
I am a bit shy and unconfident 
I am a little bit unsure of things
I am feeling a little quizzical 

Loud whinnie, or "trumpeting":

I am here!
Where are you?!
Where is everybody?! Anyone there?!
Don't go!
I am excited and wound up!
Hey everybody, let's spaz!
I am nervous and anxious
What is that over there?! I am very worried!

Roar, scream, or bellowing:
I am big, powerful, and dangerous (especially when stamping a foot)
Watch out!
Don't mess with me!
I am the biggest, baddest boss
I am in charge!
Don't even try!
Back off!
You talkin' to me?!

Grunts and squeals:
I am playful, feeling naughty and mischievous
I am afraid
Don't hurt me!
I am going to give you a piece of my mind while I get you!
I am standing my ground (while stamping a foot)
Back off!
Get out of my way!
Can also indicate fear, anger, or playfulness if also running or cavorting 


I am about to blow snot through my nose
I am in discomfort
I am bored
This is tedious 
I am done with this

Science has also identified a grimace scale on the equine's face as an indicator of pain. It's imperative that we recognize these signals to be informed for our work. The details have already been discussed above, but as a convenient roster, here they are again, but as a group:
  • Tension above the eyes so that the orbital crest is seen
  • Halfclosed eyes with tense eye lids
  • Ears held stiffly backwards
  • Strained Masseter
  • Tense muzzle with pronounced, stiff chin
  • Strained, slightly dilated nostrils with elongated lips and flattened profile
All said and done, perhaps we should consider this: why be so dour with horses? So agendadriven? People tend to be so goal–oriented when they interact with horses that they lose sight of the real gift right in front of them! If we love our horses and enjoy our time with them, why not simply relax and show them we care about them as individuals rather than just what they do for us? Learning to speak their language helps us to do that since it gives us the tools to communicate our affection back to them. Horses appreciate knowing they're more than just a means to an end! For this, it's also best to adopt a sense of humor, and to love and allow ourselves to be loved in return, and this will open the floodgates to a horse's inner landscape that will enrich our relationship in so many welcome and untold ways. Allowing ourselves to see our horse beyond our agenda and for the individual soul he is gives us the first step towards true union, a true bond. And there's nothing in the world quite as special as a true bond with a horse!

Conclusion To Part 13

Clearly there’s a lot more to equine head mechanics than simply the opening of the mouth. A whole slew of mechanisms are crammed into a relatively small, tight place, and each movement influences the whole system. This again confirms the holistic nature of head mechanics, just like the body—nothing happens in a vacuum.

The same can also be said for his expressions. In few other animals can communication be so subtle and complex, and since his underlying anatomy influences how he can manifest it, knowing how it’s all structured helps us to get those expressions right. Understanding cranial anatomy also lets us See the full spectrum of those expressions in the first placedon't we have to know the "neutral" state in order to recognize changes?

And expression goes far beyond fun options for our clay—it actually speaks to the kinds of narratives we wish to portray. In other words, we may not want to inadvertently convey things such as anger, distress, or pain. We may also create expressions inconsistent to the "living moment" in our composition or inconsistent to the rest of the depicted body language, compromising the believability of our work.

Most definitely, all this contributes to the difficulty of sculpting the equine head. There’s always something going on with it—it’s a busy place! But once learned, EquiSpeak becomes a fascinating aspect that will lend depth and richness to our compositions as well as to our appreciation of him. So until next time…get ahead with careful observation!

“I explore the particular with the hope of discovering something microscopically universal.” ~ Lynda Gaelyn Smith

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