The Eye of Eagles

It is often said that “an eye is the window into the soul,” but there is little known about the possibility that horses communicate with each other through eye expression. However, there was some reference to this fact in Robert Vavra’s book, Such Is The Nature of Horses, where he he refers to the rolling of the eye as a warning signal to other horses.

I myself have been able to judge character, intelligence, athletic ability, vigor, health and a horse that would make a champion. I also know what a horse is thinking by the expression in his eyes. But, before I read Robert Vavra’s book, it never occurred to me that horses communicate to each other through eye expression even though I knew the way they communicated was with body language, and my life study has been horse behavior and communication.

I thought eye rolling, when the whit of the eye can be seen on a horse who has a normally solid eye, was a sign of fear not aggression. I never guessed that horses instinctually communicated to each other with their eyes. It seemed strange to me because body language is so effective.

I then went about trying to prove Robert Vavra’s theory. When I tried to communicating with a horse in this manner by opening my eyes wide as sign of threat when confronting a horse I found it worked better if I used body language.

I have since learned that halter horses are much more attentive when I use eye expression and stallions are quicker to better behavior when they got out of hand. I have now learned that body language not only includes facial expressions, it also includes eye expressions.

Here are four basic eye expressions in horses, so that you may develop your ability to communicate and understand your horse better. I will be as descriptive as I can to help you. These observations came from my training journal of a young, aggressive two-year old stallion. I keep records of horses I am training as a reference journal to help guide me in my training programs. I chose these particular ones to share with you because fear, aggression, apprehension and anger are the least subtle and the easiest to recognize.

Normal Relaxed Eye
When the young stallion first arrived at my ranch he had a frozen look in his eyes expressing aggressive fear. His normal relaxed eye did not appear for six weeks. In a normal relaxed eye, you may still lines from past negative thoughts and feelings. But you will also see a pleasant, hopeful look created by the softening in the upper and lower lids.

What caused me to do a study of this young stallion’s eyes was that he would ‘freeze’ or wear an expression that is usually only momentarily seen in horses. His frozen expression made it possible to do an in-depth study of horse’s eye expressions. I have learned from this study that all horses have a frozen expression but these expressions are so subtle they are overlooked and are often considered part of the natural confirmation of the horse.

This young stallion went through four major changes before he was brave enough to relax and give up his aggressive behavior of attacking anything that got too close to him. I didn’t treat him like an aggressive horse, however, because his behavior was fear based (I made this determination based on his eye expression), I spent hours with him, just visiting. I made it possible for him to watch me training other horses. I let him greet every horse that passed his stall. In a few months of a lot of attending and love and direction, he came around.

I pay attention to the behavior of each horse I have in training by eye expression, body language and behavior. These are the the three windows I draw upon. Eye expression can sometimes be the most important.

The Fearful Eye
The fearful eye is wide open, the eye even pops out slightly, upper and lower lids are tense and hard. Every muscle around the eye is hardened. All white areas are exposed. That the pupil becomes small, due to the protrusion of the eye allowing extra light that enters the eye from the telescoping effect to the eyeball and the wide open eyed expression. A fearful horse can be either aggressive or shy. This colt was fearfully aggressive, showing white sclera all around the iris.

Some horses will have the white of the eye showing as their normal confirmation, which must not be read as an expression of intent. You can determine this by the upper and lower lids. If the eye looks relaxed and the upper and lower lids are soft, the white that is showing is a natural condition. When a horse has natural areas that are white, its fearful expression will expose greater areas of white.

The Angry Eye
When a horse gets angry the lower lid pulls up and sinks in. The outside corners of the eye open to increase the size. the horse seems to be able to pull down the white sclera to give a ghost-like appearance to intimidate. Upper lid opens wide to increase the size of the eyeball. The eyeball takes on a darkened look as it flashes a mirrored reflection of light. The eye does not telescope like it does on a frightened horse. In some horses the angry eye even takes on a sunken look. Angry horses will either raise or lower their heads to what they are angry at.

The Apprehensive Eye
A form of what many people call a “bright eye.” There are many kinds of bright eyes. When I observed this eye, the young stallion was apprehensive. He was no longer afraid. he was more concerned about what could take place than what was truly happening. The upper and lower lids are tense as in the fearful or angry eye. The upper and lower lid are only as tense as to create an ability to see better He is alert to the surrounding areas. Not as much white of the eye showing but still a little white is exposed around the whole area.

It is important to be able to read the eye expression of a horse to predict his conduct.

Maybe someone will write a book on eye language. What I have learned is that there are as many different expressions as there are words in the dictionary because of the combinations that can be used. The combination includes upper lid, lower lids combined with where the eye is looking in relationship to the situation the horse is addressing.

Since I read Robert Vavra’s book I’ve discovered most horses pay attention to eye expressions, especially dominant horses who are generally more observant than less aggressive horses. I now do horse evaluations through eye reading. Not only do I do evaluations for character analysis, you get a program to balance any problem you might be experiencing with your horse. If you are interested in sharing your experiences on eye reading or in having your horse evaluated, let me know at info@carolynresnick.com. Thanks.

Speak to you on Thursday

Carolyn

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Polly du Pont - 7 years ago Reply

Hello Carolyn, first I would like to tell you how much I enjoyed your book Naked Liberty. It is near my bed, and I reread parts of it often.

But my main reason for writing to you is that I have a very nice woman from Sweden staying with me. Karolina is an aprentice of Leslie Desmond’s ( for a year and a half) and came to the US with Leslie and went across the country from CA to MA with Leslie who was doing demos to people involved in training horses from rescue groups ( she has started her own horse rescue group in NY State recently). Karolina has only a 6 month visa and has been here with me helping with a few young lipizzans that due to my 69 years and some recent injuries, I had not taught to tie, nor actually in several cases even halter broken them. She also worked with a friend’s hyper year old dog. She uses some Linda Tellington Jones techniques which she has also studied and I can see watching her that she has that understanding and fluidity of motion that Leslie has. Aside from being a terrifically NICE person to be around, great work ethic and very positive, no negative vibes out there. I am hard of hearing from nerve deterioration that started when I was about 20, so very vulnerable to bad vibes, perhaps like the horses themselves.

Anyway, yesterday, talking to Karolina, it came up that she would be really interested in seeing one of the BLM training sites and how they work with the horses. The only thing I can think of is to write to people like you and ask for suggestions. And to a few friends who HAVE adopted mustangs either from the BLM or ???? And to the field offices that are listed in the fliers that were given out at the Equine Affaire in Springfield this past weekend..How do I go about getting this opportunity for her. Unfortunately she has only these 4 or 5 months left on her visa ( until mid April), and it is winter, not the best time to observe the mustangs on the range, which may not be possible?? even in good weather? ANY suggestions are welcome. She has a standing invitation to stay here as long as she wants, but I can see that she has really done so much for my three horses that she is working with right now. and winter here is VERY unpleasant ( not that it is not also unpleasant in Sweden), but it could keep her from doing much of interest, I have no indoor, and LOTS of mud and ice in the winter. I feel that going on and seeing as much as she can, while here in the US is a much better idea than just hanging around here. I can easily pass her on to friends that breed lipizzans all along the east coast and through out the US actually ( she has a lipizzan and a lipizzan cross at home). But I think ALSO the mustangs are so unique, she should see that if she can add it to the agenda.

I look forward to reading more of your web site and blog, had never thought of doing THAT, I was just waiting for a new book from you.

Most sincerely, Polly

Michelle Twohig - 7 years ago Reply

This is a link to a slideshow of (copyrighted) photos taken (mostly) of horses’ eyes by various members of the Equine Photographers Network that you all might enjoy: http://snipurl.com/t7lnw

Evelyn - 7 years ago Reply

Hi Carolyn, I have also studies the eyes of horses because when I started riding 11 years ago I didn’t know about body language. I suppose it is natural predator thing to look at the face first so that is what I did. I concur with Henry who said he also sees that ‘worried’ eye. My horse who was practically autistic when I first met him had a chronic worried eye. He showed no white around the eyes, in fact I never saw white until he got really sick recently and lost a lot of weight.

I did work with him to find ways to relive his worry and after several years of gentle and dedicated work he now never looks worried. It is such a lovely thing to see him relaxed an dinterested in life now!

inge - 7 years ago Reply

When i go for walking i always check the horses eyes. Why? Then i know what he wanted to do, were to go during the walk in the woods. A place to eat, searche for routes, if he is afraid of something, hear or see something, or go back home, happy or sad times. They can say 1000 of words whith their eyes.

When i go for a long walk, furter then normal, i can see at one moment that he realy wanted to go back because it is to far for him. He doesnt trust his environment anymore, because it is new. He makes it very clear to me also with bodylanguage.
i can ask him to go furter and explain why i wanna go furter. Then he will follow me again. But still he give some signs that he is not realy agree with it but do it only for me.
He got then a special look, i can not write it down you have to see it before you understand it.
And when i said okay….this is far enough we go home and he got a reward for following me. His eyes changed directly and his bodylanguage change too.
And we can go home.

Also during some groundwork training i can see if it is difficult for him or just easy or he is not in the mood or wanna do an other movement.
When he doesnt wanted to do a particular exercise it have no effect for training so why would i force him to do that movement? when there is not a very good reason for it, because of savety (thats always a good reason)
i do something else and maybe later i try the exercise again.
So i keep a happy and willing horse

stina - 7 years ago Reply

very good post, i am just recently (after an earlier blog post on facial expression) becoming aware of using my eye expression in the training of my horses through the water hole rituals.
again very interesting and we can again enjoy a new awareness

stephani - 7 years ago Reply

i think of the lead wild brumby stallion in the movie “man from snowy river” when i think of an angry, aggressive, “i will kill you if you don’t leave” eye.
He is starting the young colt at the ranch and the wild herd comes running by and he goes after his mare that is running with the herd…as he attemps to jump the fence to go after the herd the horse he is riding shyes and he is flung onto the path of the wild herd as they pass him the wild stallion rears above him and the movie shows a close up of his eyes. it is very clear that the stallion has killing on his mind. the eye is almond shaped and white shows on the top.
i have seen this eye before at a farm i use to work on. there was an older gelding who took a piece of arm off a stable hand who entered his stall. the horse had the lower part of eye sunken in and white above as he lunged toward the target.
i was lunging an older mare last week and she lunged aggresively at me as i asked her to turn directions but this white was not in her eye. The eye was sunken but no white…it was a bluff and i called her on it but i wonder if the white only shows if the horse is not bluffing. as it seems that the horse definetly strikes when white is in the aggressive eye.

Becky - 7 years ago Reply

Tonnya,

I remeber too reading sally swift’s observations on soft eyes and hard eyes. Sometimes when we think we are focusing, we have a hard expression. Her book changed the way i used my vision in riding and also on the ground. Soft eys are like Carolyn’s alert yet relaxed state, we take the whole perifferal in so we see more like a horse does in a state of relaxation and forward free movement.

I think it would be great for us all to get together a collage of different horse eyes and different human eyes – it would look awsum and tell a tale! We could then observe all the different eyes and what state of minds they are percieving.

When i’m working as an Equine Shiatsu practitioner, i always glance at the eyes to see where the horse is at. It helps me back up what i am getting through my hands in terms of energy status and i can cahnge my touch or hold it appropriately.

So what do you think Carolyn? We all take photos of our horses eyes?! And if we want to our eyes in that moment of particular interaction?

Ofcourse, the expressions are always changing depending on the envoironment and mood. It’s nature and nurture i guess, you can tell a lot by the general nature of a horse, where he/she might stand in the herd etc, but also like Evergreen said about her horse, she could also see ‘behind the eye’, what was going on under the fear – the true sweet nature of her horse….

tine laperre - 7 years ago Reply

The look in his eyes! To fall in love with!
Popov is a cushion-victim. The illness is damaging his body but his eyes still have a roguish, warm expression. His soul is still untouched.

Tonnya - 7 years ago Reply

Hi Carolyn,
This is a great topic and a natural part of your method (in my opinion). Great read !
I know that Linda Tellington Jones has a bit about eye-expression in her book ‘ Horse personalities’ also I suddenly remeber Sally Wift (Centered Riding) talking about how important it is to ride with ‘Soft-eyes’.
So maybe this is part of a new book from your hands, Carolyn ??
Eye-expressions seem to be very important for all animals (incl people).

Joanna - 7 years ago Reply

Thank you for your post. I think I chose to buy my mare because she had a kind eye that had a long but quiet stare into the distance, which indicated inner depth to me. Also, another horse in the herd has a very apprehensive eye alot of the time and I instinctively give him far less eye contact than I do the others and he responds well to that.
Describing your experiments with your own eye language with horses has inspired me to do the same. I think I have quite staring eyes, where the whites are prominent. It never dawned on me that perhaps I look more dominent than I realise with the horses! I’ll experiment with softening my eyes over the weekend.

Bitja - 7 years ago Reply

I remember a horse I bonded with once. A beatuiful morgan mare that looked at me with very suspicous eyes when I met her the first time as she didn’t like strangers. After a few moments of scratching I remember her turning her head to me and the look in her eyes had changed completely…they were so soft and curious, and at that moment I felt such a strong bond with her. I was looking to buy her and tried her out bareback in the roundpen. She stood still for me when I mounted, comletely relaxed (she didn’t do that with the owner) and when her owner was going to take her back from the roundpen she wouldn’t leave before me. I still think of her wondering where she is now…
Also my horse is the first horse I’ve ever experienced that shows me so much with her eyes and facial expressions…I probably miss a lot that she tells me but it also fascinates me that she looks for my facial expressions, especially when she tries to do something she knows she shouldn’t (like eating my book when sharing space. If I look upset enough she might actually stop her action).

Farah - 7 years ago Reply

One of the ways I learned to shift what I was doing in my training work was by how my horses eye looked. You can definitely see apprehension, fear, curiosity, anger, distraction, friendliness, introversion, happiness and the way a horse can completely “check out” from there body. You can tell they are not even there. Some TB’s I work with get that look from being at the race track. Also some heavily shown or lesson horses. They seem to have checked out of their bodies. But that is where the WHR come in. Perfect for those types…

Debi - 7 years ago Reply

When my house is asking something of you I have noticed wrinkles over his eyes, there is no white, just the normal amount. He is very exsprsive when he wants to be. I have learned to answer him with a slitely lowered head and use my voice to answer him. If I do this them the rest of the play time gos much better. Thank You for your insight. Debi

Evergreen - 7 years ago Reply

I bought one of my horses because of the look I saw in her eye. Her eyes were apprehensive, and filled with latent fear, but at the center, if I looked past the surface, I could see a kind and loving horse wanting to come out. It was that horse that I bought and have spent many years and had many teachings with her.
Horse eyes, cat eyes, dog eyes, human eyes, all can communicate volumes. I have found that when working with any animals, keeping all of our six senses open is the best way.

Silje - 7 years ago Reply

This is really interesting! I’ve never thought about horses using eye impressions, but now that you wrote about it, it made me think of my cat. I’ve had my cat since she was born, she’s 9 years old, and we know each other better than best friends. I understand everything she says, and she understands everything I say. (She even speaks. Cats have a verbal language that people often don’t notice, because all the words are miaow.) When reading about eye impressions I remembered how much my cat can tell me with her eyes, and I started thinking that maybe I’ve seen the eye impressions of horses all the time, but haven’t been thinking about it. Maybe I saw it as part of the face impression. But I will look for this from now on when I talk to horses.

And I would recommend every one to notice what cats are saying, if you start understanding “cattish” you can have some great conversations:)

Also, I just got my “Naked Liberty” in the mail today, and I already read half of it. Thank you for the wonderful stories, Carolyn! Your descriptions of the desert makes even me who am used to rain and cold long for it:)

Becky - 7 years ago Reply

I especially like your evaluation of the ‘apprehensive eye’.

I have always instictively noticed the eye of a horse in first greetings. I think people do, the saying ‘he/she has a ‘kind eye’ or ‘hard eye’ is quite common. But it is good to understand what we mean by kind or hard.

I think that in communication between us and horses, the eye simply follows the body, and the actions of the body simply follows the energy/emotional status within that body. So all of these expressions work as one, and i don’t think I could communicate with a horse with eyes alone.

If i lift my internal energy to ask my horse back if he get’s invasive of my space for instance, i have to remember to do this whilst keeping my heart rate steady. Because if i lifted my energy – followed by maybe the raising of hands and the grounding of feet to back up my energy status – if i then let my pulse rate rise (this is quite a natural ‘accident’ as sometimes lifting energy effects pulse rate so one has to learn to come from the centre) my eyes would be the transmitter of fear (because that is what my body would be leaking through them even if it wasn’t my intention to do so).

So what i am saying is that the eyes transmit what the body is saying. And to just change eye expression alone could not work because they follow the rhythm of the body.

It is very good thing to be aware of though, and also another learning tool. We could get our friends to watch our eyes when we are working with our horses as eyes cannot lie! It’s a good way to assertain whether we are in fact being authentic in our actions.

I pretty much feel the same way about the horses. Their eyes are a natural back-up to their feelings. I don’t think they consciously use them to comminicate, more they are an indication to eachother to the situation they are in (are we running? Grazing? Playing? Initiating mutual grooming/affection? Saying ‘Get off my hay – now!’)

My feelings anyhow.

Great blog post Carolyn!!! Love this stuff.

Henry Heymering - 7 years ago Reply

I have long been aware of another eye expression, that I refer to as ‘worried.’ The upper eyelid has a fairly sharp peak, or angle, in the middle, while a relaxed, calm horse has a smoothly curved upper eyelid.

Dave Weldon - 7 years ago Reply

I agree with what you are saying but also that there are many more expressions including the appearance of the eye and that they could be easily confused if not taken in context with what the rest of the horse is doing, enjoying your thread. Have book, will be reading it soon.
Dave

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