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My daughter is a horse lover. I hope you can help me with a couple of questions she asked me yesterday!

Do horses cry? Do they have tears?
Do horses talk to each other?

M. T.


Wow! Your daughter sure asks some interesting -- and hard to answer -- questions!

Do horses cry? Do they have tears?
Well, yes, but not like people do. A horse has tear glands (the vets call them "lacrimal glands") to keep the eye moist and clean. If the tear ducts get plugged up, it can be a serious problem. When a horse's eye is irritated, or if it has certain diseases, the tear glands may put out more moisture and you'll see teardrops coming from the horse's eye.

Now comes the hard part for us humans to understand. Yes, they cry -- but not like we do. You'll never see a horse grabbing for a box of tissues during a sad movie or at a funeral. That doesn't mean that they don't feel sad. They just express it differently than humans do. Which leads me to your second question....

Do horses talk to each other?
anxious horse Yes. Sometimes they talk out loud -- what vets call "vocalization." You've probably heard horses talk to each other by neighing, whinnying, or nickering. They usually do that when it's hard to see the other horse. Most of the time, they "talk" to each other with body language. The position of the ears, raising or lowering the head, stamping their feet or pawing, various motions of the mouth, even nipping or rubbing against another horse, all mean something to the horse. Laying the ears back and baring the teeth indicate anger, for example. Pawing can indicate boredom or anxiety. Lowering the head almost to the ground and making chewing motions with the mouth say, "I'm submitting to you."

Humans, if they spend enough time around horses, can even learn to understand and use some of that body language. Say, for example, you are standing next to your horse's head and you want to tell it that you want it to walk across the field with you. When a lead horse wants to send that message to another horse, she will "collect" herself -- raising her head a little, pulling her chest muscles together, etc. A human can do something similar. Face in the direction you want to travel, lift your head a bit, raise your chest a bit and push your chest slightly forward. Then, when you start to move, if the horse is willing, it will walk along with you -- especially if you are in the "heart" position (a foot or two from the horse's head and between the nose and shoulder). When a horse is getting ready to make a turn, it will signal it by pushing the outside shoulder forward. When walking with your horse "at liberty" (with no lead rope on it) you can send the same turning signal by raising your outside shoulder and pushing it forward in an exaggerated movement that's easy for your horse to see. These are just a couple of examples.

Now back to more about your first question -- Do horses cry? Although they don't weep (at least I've never seen or heard of them shedding tears of sadness), they do express sorrow or mourning. They will give a mournful whinny like you may hear from a mare and foal who have been separated at weaning time, or from a herdmate whose close companion has just died. You will also see the horse standing with a drooping head, but showing little or no interest in grazing.

I know that some folks think horses don't have emotions -- that their behavior is all a matter of instinct and/or training. I don't buy that idea.

There was a recent example of a horse communicating a very subtle emotion to someone who was very skillful at "reading" a horse's emotions. In the third of the 2008 "Triple Crown" races -- the Belmont Stakes -- a horse named Big Brown was expected to win easily. Instead, when the jockey asked Big Brown to cut loose, he realized that Big Brown's heart just wasn't in the race. It may have been the high heat, or the fact that Big Brown had lost so many days of training due to a quarter crack, or perhaps Big Brown was discouraged by the way Da Tara blazed ahead of the pack. We'll never know for sure. Whatever it was, in the jockey's words, he "had no horse." The jockey could have whipped and fought Big Brown. Doing so probably would have "soured" Big Brown and possibly turned him into a mean, rebellious renegade. Instead, the jockey did what was -- in my humble opinion -- the right thing. He listened to his horse. That jockey took a lot of criticism for coming in last, but he understood Big Brown's subtle body language and pulled back. That's the kind of fellow I'd want riding a horse of mine.

In short, yes, horses cry, have tears, and talk to each other.

And if your daughter is observant and sensitive to what the horses are communicating, one of these days she will have the beautiful experience of saying to herself, "I know exactly how that horse feels!"

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