The Horse's Ears and Hearing

Horses’ ears are a means of communication and listening for sounds. Using ten muscles, a horse can rotate each ear independently, up to 180 degrees, to locate, funnel, and magnify sounds. This allows the horse to position itself towards the sound that is making the noise.  Horses hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies than we do. In general, horses are good at hearing both higher and lower frequencies than humans. Horses can experience a reduction in hearing as they age. Hearing loss can be reflected in changes in behavior, such as not responding to voice cues or being more anxious. .

Horses ears tell a story. Humans can easily evaluate the ears to assess the horse’s behavior. When a horse is attentive to happenings all around him, the ears will actively move in all directions. A relaxed or drowsy horse has ears that are almost loose and drooping. The ears are held loosely, with the openings facing forward or outward. Neutral ears are held loosely upward, openings facing forward or outward. Ears pointed forward indicates the horse is interested in what is in front of them. Ears stiffly, pointed forward with flaring nostrils indicates the horse is anxious and extremely interested in what is ahead of him. Ears angled backward (with openings directed back towards a rider): usually mean attentiveness to the rider or listening to commands. Ears laid back tightly against the top of the neck indicates aggression or annoyance. This is also a warning to other horses or people. It is best to use caution when a approaching or working around a horse with tight, laid back ears.  Examples of positions of a horse’s ears are shown below.

Examples of Horses Ear Positions
Drooped ear

Drooped ears indicate drowsiness, mild sleep, or at ease

Resting ears
Drooped ears, lowered head, relaxed eyes indicates the horse is resting
Half back ears

Half back and flat are submissive and relaxed

Ears back while being ridden
Ears back while being ridden indicate the horse is attentive to the rider or listening to commands
Ears pricked forward Fjord ears forward

Ears held stiff with openings pointed directly forward indicate concentration, the horse is alert or focusing in front.

Ears back Horses ears turned back

Ears turned back are submissive, frightened, listening to noises behind them

Ears pinned back

Ears flat and pinned back indicates territorial protection. These ears should alert the handler or rider that the horse might be angry or irritated. 

Aggressive ears

Alarmed horse illustrating a tense neck, raised heads and ears pinned backwards. The horse may act in a hostile manner towards people or other horses.


  1. Beaver, B. 2020. Equine Behavioral Medicine. Academic Press.
  2. Williams, C. A. Basics of Equine Behavior. Extension Horses.