Understand Ear Pinning

A mare pins her ears at other horses; her rider asks why she does this and how to correct it.
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Q I recently acquired a somewhat high-strung Arabian/Andalusian cross. When I ride her, she pins her ears every time another horse comes close. She doesn’t kick or threaten to kick, but I don’t know how to stop her from pinning her ears—or what she means by it. Do you have any ideas?

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LINDA STRATTON, Washington State

A Ear-pinning indicates tension in a horse’s body. In general, horses are social animals and usually find comfort in the presence of other horses. How an individual horse was socialized with other horses, however—or a lack of such socialization altogether—can cause it to be fearful in the presence of other horses, independent of breed or gender.
Your mare’s pinned ears definitely indicate she’s feeling tension. She might feel threatened by the presence of an unfamiliar or even familiar horse, and this fear can then be displayed with a variety of body language, including ear pinning. She might also show such signs as changes in her breathing pattern, tightening of the mouth, or tightening of other muscles in her body—all of which may be noticeable as you ride her. You may also notice a lessening in her responsiveness to your aids.

Whenever a horse is tight and scared, there’s increased risk for injury to itself, its rider, and to other horses and riders. You, as the rider, must carefully observe your horse’s signals in order to keep her at the distance from other horses where she feels safe. If you don’t, this behavior can easily escalate to kicking or fleeing/taking off when other horses draw nearer.

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To lessen this behavior in the future, watch for any expressions of discomfort. Address the situation immediately to direct her away from any other horses, avoid punishing her, and then work to help boost her confidence in you (see box).

JEANNINE BERGER, DVM, DACVB
Director for Behavior Resources
San Francisco SPCA

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