Horses are beautiful, powerful animals that have captivated humans for millennia. Their expressive eyes and intuitive nature have led many horse lovers to wonder what horses are thinking when they make eye contact.

If you’ve ever locked eyes with a horse and felt there was some deeper meaning behind its gaze, you’re not alone.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: When a horse looks directly at you, it is simply observing its surroundings and gathering information about you. However, prolonged eye contact can signify intelligence, curiosity, and a desire to connect.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the significance behind a horse’s gaze, what various horse eye expressions mean, and tips for building bonds and reading horses through their eyes.

Why Horses Make Eye Contact

Natural Curiosity and Awareness

Horses are naturally very curious and aware of their surroundings. When a horse spots something that catches its attention like a person or another animal, it will stare directly as a way of evaluating if that object poses a potential threat.

According to equine behavior research, horses look directly at things primarily out of curiosity and assessment of potential dangers.

A horse’s wide-set eyes on the sides of its head give it a panoramic, 350° view around itself with minimal blind spots. This visual range adapted to spot predators while allowing horses to continue grazing.

So if a horse stops what it’s doing to look at you, it is sizing you up and seeing if you seem safe to be around. But it is not necessarily a sign of aggression or fear if taken within proper context.

Assessing People and Situations

When a horse encounters a stranger like a random visitor or new caretaker, it will intensely observe eye contact and body language cues to determine if that person is trustworthy. Things horses may look for include calmness, confidence, friendliness and consistency in the person’s overall demeanor while approaching.

If the person stares back the entire time in a tense way or makes sudden movements, this can cause the horse to feel threatened or uneasy as well. So soft eye contact that averts occasionally, relaxed body language and slow movements may help put horses more at ease when they intently look at someone.

Beyond people, when a horse hears an unusual noise or senses something is off, looking eyes wide and nostrils flared is one way they assess risk. Research shows horses evaluate situations primarily through their vision versus other senses like smell or hearing.

So if your horse is looking alarmed, pay attention to where its attention is directed to evaluate the environment for potential threats.

Interspecies Communication

Recent studies have found that sustained eye contact activates the same hormonal bonding processes in both horses and humans. So when a horse deliberately gazes at its caretaker or a person interacts with the horse using mutual eye contact, oxytocin levels increase on both ends of this interspecies communication.

Higher oxytocin correlates with more trust and willingness to interact cooperatively. Horses are intuitive creatures and this eye contact phenomenon might facilitate human-equine bonds and understanding.

So if a horse seems intensely interested in connecting with your gaze, it is likely trying to “speak” on some level beyond just visual evaluation.

Eye Contact Duration Meaning to Horses
Brief look <5 seconds Curiosity and routine awareness checking
Sustained gaze >10 seconds Assessment of potential threat or attempt at interspecies communication

The amount of time a horse spends staring may differentiate routine environmental scanning from feelings of potential unease about something to important bonding moments between species. But regardless of why horses look at us, eye contact is a window into understanding equine psychology and building bridges between our species.

Horse Eye Expressions and What They Mean

Soft, Relaxed Eyes: Calm and Content

When a horse has soft, relaxed eyes, this generally signals the horse is calm and content with its surroundings. Its eyes will appear large, round, and soft around the edges. There’s no tension or hardness visible, and the horse may even have a dreamy look.

This relaxed demeanor shows the horse feels safe and has lowered its guard. According to equine behavior specialists, when horses allow their eyes to soften, it signifies they consider their environment non-threatening.

Staring Eyes: Heightened Focus

In contrast to soft eyes, a stare is much more intense. Horses stare to hone their focus on something specific. Stares often look unrelenting, unwavering, and very concentrated. When horses stare, their eyes remain wide open and fixed.

The experts at KER Equine explain that this helps horses examine stimuli closely. Staring gives horses visual information to determine if what they see poses potential danger. So a horse’s stare signifies heightened attention and evaluation of a particular sight, sound, or smell in its surroundings.

Blinking Eyes: Processing and Thinking

Rapid blinking is also an important eye expression in horses. Blinking helps lubricate horses’ eyes. But interestingly, horses may also blink more frequently when their minds are actively processing information and stimuli from their environment.

According to equine behavioral researchers, blinking seems connected to mental activity and thinking in horses. So if you notice a horse blinking more than usual, it could indicate the horse is intrigued by something and is taking time to further examine it.

Worry Eyes: Anxiety or Suspicion

Horses also exhibit “worry eyes” at times. This look features tightened facial muscles around the eyes coupled with a slightly distracted or darting gaze. Worry eyes signal that a horse feels apprehensive about something. Its eyes convey anxiety, uncertainty, or suspicion.

Experts think this look helps horses widen their visual scope to take in more landscape details. This may allow them to identify sources of concern. In the wild, vigilance and worry are critical to safety and survival.

Ears Forward: Interest and Connection

While eye expressions communicate a lot, horse ears also provide meaning. Forward-pointing ears typically signal engagement, interest, and connection with others. When a horse puts its ears forward towards something, it demonstrates curiosity, attentiveness, and focus.

Much like a stare, ears forward can signify inspection and information gathering. And when ears face forward towards people, this may convey trust, relationship building, and bonding.

Building Bonds Through Eye Contact

Mutual Gaze: Establishing Trust

When a horse looks directly into your eyes, it is engaging in mutual gaze to build rapport and trust between you. Maintaining a gentle, relaxed eye contact allows the horse to evaluate if you are a friend or possible threat. Staring too intensely may cause unease so try blinking softly while gazing.

Research shows that mutual gaze activates the reward centers in mammal brains, releasing feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin. This helps forge social bonds between two individuals. So when a horse voluntarily locks eyes with you, it is an indication that it feels safe and is open to connecting.

Maintaining Respectful Distance

If a horse approaches you unprompted and stares from a slight distance, it is often exhibiting curiosity or desire for attention. However, take care not to infringe on the horse’s personal space as this may cause anxiety.

As prey animals, horses have a flight zone around them for safety. When you are within this zone, the horse may turn to orient its eyes on you to prepare for retreat. Respect the horse’s boundaries and wait for it to come closer voluntarily before attempting to touch or interact.

Using Voice and Body Language

While your eyes connect during mutual gaze, use gentle tones and relaxed, open body language to help set the horse at ease. Speak to the horse soothingly and avoid sudden large gestures which may startle it when in close proximity.

Let any movements be gradual and fluid. Extend your hand low and to the side, allowing the horse to smell and inspect you first. This calming communication ensures your actions match the caring intention behind your eye contact.

Being Patient and Letting the Horse Initiate

Don’t rush to touch, pet or hug the horse even after it locks eyes with you. Still allow the horse to call the shots for next steps. It may be simply enjoying your company. Stay patient and let the horse make the first move physically when ready.

By respecting its space and following the horse’s lead during your eye-to-eye conversation, you build greater trust and reinforce that wonderful gaze between species.

How to Read a Horse’s Thoughts Through Their Eyes

Observe the Whole Picture

When attempting to understand a horse’s thoughts and feelings through their eyes, it’s important to take in the whole picture. Consider the horse’s full body language – are their ears pricked forward in interest or pinned back in irritation? Is their posture relaxed or tense?

Taking all signs together allows you to make an informed evaluation of the horse’s state of mind.

Look for Sustained Focus and Relaxation

Horses communicate a positive mood and receptiveness through a soft, relaxed facial expression and sustained eye contact. According to equine behavior experts at KER Equine Research, when a horse looks at you with a relaxed focus for more than just a fleeting second or two, this often conveys they are paying close attention, are at ease in your presence, and are open to interaction.

Consider the Horse’s Background

To accurately read a horse’s eye signals, it helps to understand their history. Abused horses may show more pronounced white of the eye due to past trauma. But with patience and proper handling, an anxious horse can learn to be more trusting over time.

Knowing the horse’s past allows you to consider context when interpreting their gaze and ensure you respond appropriately.

Check Other Body Language Cues

While eye expression offers insight into a horse’s thoughts, always check other physical cues as well to confirm your interpretation. Relaxed eyes paired with pinned back ears and tensed muscles would indicate mixed signals about the horse’s attitude.

But relaxed eyes together with pricked forward ears and loose posture reinforce an overall positive disposition. Considering the whole picture allows most accurate understanding.

Eye Cues Matched Body Language Indicates
Soft, relaxed Loose muscles, pricked ears At ease
Tense Pinned ears Anxious

When to Be Cautious of a Horse’s Stare

Signs of Aggression: Ears Back, Nostrils Flared

If your horse pins its ears back against its head and widens or flares its nostrils, this is often a clear sign your horse is feeling aggressive or irritated (Yikes!). Horses use these visual cues to communicate they are upset and may lash out with a bite or kick if you get too close.

It’s best to give an aggravated horse some space until it calms down. Stay attuned to your horse’s body language and avoid approaching if its ears are pinned and nostrils are flared. As prey animals, horses rely heavily on these nonverbal signals to display their emotions and intent.

Nervous Energy: Wide Eyes, Tense Muscles

Horses have excellent panoramic vision, with eyes set widely on each side of their head. When your horse’s eyes are very wide open and it is holding its body in a tense, stiff posture, it is likely feeling fearful or nervous.

Some causes could be a loud noise, fast movement, or perceived threat that startles your horse. Talk in a calm, soothing voice and allow the horse time to settle before interacting. Sudden movements from you could escalate its stress.

Let your horse’s eyes and body relax before trying to pet, groom, or saddle it up.

Fear Response: Big Eyes, Head Raised

If your horse’s eyes look larger than normal and its head is raised high, it is most likely feeling fearful and cautiously observing its surroundings. Horses raise their head to see and hear better when tense or alarmed.

The wide eyes and high head suggest your horse is on high alert assessing a potential threat. Stay calm and still to avoid adding to its fear. Speak gently and reassure your horse until its head lowers and eyes soften, indicating its fear is subsiding.

Then maintain slow, smooth movements to help your horse remain relaxed.

Pain Response: Glazed Eyes, Tight Facial Muscles

Eyes that appear dull or glazed over accompanied by tight facial muscles can signal your horse is in physical pain or discomfort. The eyes may also water excessively. Signs of teeth grinding or strange head movements can also indicate pain. Look for swelling or injury on your horse’s body.

If your horse seems distressed and its eyes appear glazed, consult your vet to identify and treat the source of discomfort. Be especially attentive if the horse recently had surgery, illness, or injury. Medication and rest can help your horse’s eyes brighten up as the pain subsides.


A horse’s eyes can speak volumes about how it’s feeling, if we know how to interpret the signs. While it’s normal for horses to look at their surroundings, prolonged eye contact can reveal deeper connections.

By approaching horses respectfully, reading their full body language, and letting relationships progress on the horse’s terms, we can gain amazing insights into how horses see the world – and us.

The next time a horse pins you with its soulful gaze, appreciate the privilege of sharing such a moment. With time and trust, those equine eyes may start to feel less mysterious and convey the potential for an interspecies friendship unlike any other.

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