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The Equine Semaphore Code - the horse talks back

Updated: Apr 8

Chapter 1

Creating ‘The Equine Semaphore Code’

Language has always fascinated me. Over the years I have studied several: Urdu, Punjabi, French and German. When my daughter was younger, we even tried making up our own language, called ‘Googu’, so we could talk to each other in public with no-one else understanding what we were talking about!

Like many things though, that you do not use continually, you can forget. It's the same with any language, the less you use it, the more likely you will lose it. Before using a language however, you need to learn it first!

The biggest misunderstandings come with communication, or miscommunication, and not fully understanding the intentions of the other party. I have struggled with miscommunication with people all my life, especially with back-to-front speaking and inability to get my words out. This meant I ended up isolating myself for a long time. It was not until I tried going to college at the age of forty, that it was pointed out that I had dyslexia, with back-to-front speaking, mis-understanding of the meaning of words and short-term memory issues, you can imagine my relief, I wasn't going mad!

My speech is sometimes forced as I try to connect my brain with my mouth. This means that people sometimes think that I am shouting, but I'm not, it just takes effort to form the words, let alone control how they come out of my mouth.

You can say something to me and I'll fully understand what you say. Then, if you ask me again in a while, I may have forgotten what was spoken. It all comes back eventually, with the correct prompt, but I have always had the view of listen well; it must be in there somewhere even if you can't remember it immediately. If you ask a question and I do not give the right answer, you have asked the wrong question to draw my thoughts out. Which reminds me of the hologram in I-Robot, saying to Will Smith ‘Ask the right question and I will give you the right answer’.

Disabilities should not be hidden and covered up; they should be accepted and supported, so everyone can have the freedom to express themselves, despite difficulties. However, when it comes to writing a book or blog, it helps to have someone proofread and change the mistakes you might have missed. No one can do all things perfectly, so doing what is your best, must be of value. The aim is to understand the context and keep enjoying what you do.

There is so much support on the internet now for learning disorders; getting a mentor or coach, to help you express yourself, will help you on your way. My advice is do not do it alone when it comes to learning, always aim to reach your highest potential at each given moment. Remember always: progression comes with practice.

When it comes to working with horses, the more I saw people with horse problems, the more I saw there was a miscommunication on both sides: horse and human. The more opinionated a being is, the greater the miscommunication. This has caused some terrible wars through the generations between humans. It is no different when we bring a different species into our lives, especially when we cannot fully understand what they are saying. In horses, this has led to increased stereotyped behaviour, dangerous behaviour, and so called ‘problem’ horses. As the price of purchasing a horse has dropped, these problems have risen due new owners of horses not always taking the trouble to get the education and knowledge they need to care for a horse. It is not just low-end purchasers, though, that have issues with horses and we need to understand the horse better to make sure those we domesticate are fully cared for in exchange for their work. It is time to learn its language and bridge the gap of miscommunication.

Studies are on the increase to improve the welfare of horses, looking at ensuring the care of the horses is sustainable and, more importantly, ethical. This is the aim of this book and my long-term research.

It has been long understood that animals will conform to what their owners want. For animals in domestication, it is very difficult for us to see what the true nature of the animal would be. Horses are housed in small stables or fields, completely away from the environment they were designed for.

Training methods involve small-sized work areas, be it a round pen or a rectangle school. Saddles are attached, bits placed in their mouths, shoes placed on their feet and more. What effect are all these things really having on the horse? Is the horse telling us, but we are just not seeing it? Horses are very good at hiding who and what they really are, including the pain they can be in through injury or illness. Therefore, studies are on the increase; to find out more about how these amazing creatures respond to certain things that humans put them through.

Before you say, ‘I know my horse’ (if you have one, or access to one), you should consider the following: When you ask a horse to do something new and it flicks its left ear from a forward position along the sagittal line, keeping it upright to a backward position and returning to the forward position, this usually means that the horse is telling you something. In the context here, the sagittal line is a hypothetical horizontal line from the base of one of the horse's ears to the base of the other ear.

In the same scenario; you ask a horse to do something new and it flicks its right ear from a forward position along the sagittal line, keeping it upright to a backward position, then returning to the forward position, what did it say?

Plus, what is a flick of the ear and what is a rotation of the ear? Is there a difference? If so, what do the differences mean and how does the horse use this to communicate its intentions.

When it comes to horses, it has been documented that they use various ear movements and can give communication with those ear movements. We generally see in books that ear movements relate to mood, be it alertness, anger or resting. However, in my research with the herd at the sanctuary and other horses with behaviour issues that I have worked with, I have found that this is the minimal of what they are communicating. This is not only between themselves, but also with other species of animals and us humans.

Studies are probing deeper into the facial expressions of horses. Those of us who spend lots of time with our horses will already know the facial expressions they pull when we are with them. What though, if there was something about the way that horses communicate, which could be translated into an understandable language that anyone could learn, and implement to their horse?

This became my aim in 2011 when a horse at a riding stables, which my daughter used, started to communicate with me, quite unexpectedly. The more I looked at and watched this horse, the clearer it became that he was trying to communicate with me through his facial expressions.

I love languages, they have always fascinated me, so I learnt the basics of several languages over the years. Now I realised I had a horse who was clearly trying to tell me something! My attention was caught and I found myself drawn into learning another language: this time it was the equine language.

We know that if our horse is across the far side of the field, when we arrive, we can call out its name and it will come over to us. However, what if we knew the ‘call’ the horse would give to bring the herd running to them? To enter a field and give a loud neigh to say, ‘I'm here’, ‘Where are you?’, ‘I've missed you’ or ‘Come to me’. I can hear some of you say, ‘She's lost it!’, but consider how we expect the horse to learn our language ‘Woah’, ‘Walk on’, ‘Canter’ and so forth.

More studies are looking at using symbols to teach to horses, so they can communicate their preference. We expect the horse to learn anything human that we want it to learn for whatever purpose we want. All this is showing us, however, is that horses have a vast capability to learn, not just words, but also images, movements, tricks and so on. On top of that being able to communicate using symbols shows they have clear cognitive thinking to be able to use these human things we teach them, to communicate back to us.

Am I missing something here? Humans consider themselves the more intelligent beings because we are inventive in a myriad of ways, can put pen to paper and create many scientific things; be it the atom bomb that could kill all life or a lifesaving inflatable devise to prevent us drowning. Here we feel we are clever in teaching the horse to do so many things from tricks, to specialized training moves such as piaffe (this is a horse manoeuvre) by learning our requests, but we have not taken the time to learn their language.

We have not taken the time to look deeper in how they communicate beyond what is already known such as the ears back means they are angry, or the ears are forward it means they are alert.

When I say we have not looked deeper, I am not speaking of ones who have come to have an understanding with their horse or horses, but from a scientific point of view as an intelligent human race, pen has not been put to paper to define all the actions and communication systems that horses use.

This book is looking at changing that. It is time that we looked at what the horses, and indeed animals, are having to say. They have survived this earth longer than us, be it whether you believe in evolution or creation, the animals were here first. Let's turn the tables and learn what the horse is saying, what does it mean when their ears flick or was it a rotation? Is it only because they have heard something? Or are the ears pointing to where the eyes are looking? Common interpretations in the horse world seem to be missing the bigger picture, and it is this bigger picture that became a focus for me when a horse started to catch my attention because he needed to say something.

We then come to the sounds of the horse, in which more and more studies are starting to record the frequencies a horse emits, however they do not include the meaning of the frequencies of the sounds, just observations that they are different.

Differences in sound would signify something if connected with humans, as language, so why is the human animal ignoring the fact that the horse animal makes all these sounds and they have real meaning? In learning these meanings we could come to a greater understanding of the horse and its needs.

In 2012 my daughter and I obtained a pony, a scrawny wreck of a pony to be precise, but something about him just said ‘look after me’. This led to my personal studies of looking deeper into what the horse is trying to communicate. More rescue horses came to us and the start of the sanctuary began. Initially we operated as a non-profit organisation, but for some reason, whilst they were in a state of needing help the funds came in, but once we had rehabilitated the horses the money stopped coming in because they looked well, as if in the minds of those donating that financial help was no longer required. So, we ceased operating as a non-profit organisation and support the horses ourselves. This book contributes to the expenses of caring for the horses.

Initially my observations at this point were to do with the different types of blinks the horse did and at the times they did them. A definite blink once seemed to indicate the word ‘Yes’, so I started asking the horses simple questions, ‘Are you all right?’, ‘Are you hungry?’ and ‘Are you cold?’. The horses would either give a constant stare or blank face, or they would give a definite single full blink. This opens two avenues of thought; first, that horses do want to communicate with us; second, that horses understand human language more than we could possibly imagine. I do not mean the technology side, but the basics of general daily needs and requirements.

I started putting this to the test, by being specific with what I asked, looking for the obvious signs that I had now started to learn. This was the start of creating a new ethogram: the dissertation I produced at university had an ethogram in it with precise measurements and actions. From there it has increased to the ears, tongue and the connection between the facial expressions and the movements on the body and how all of these, when put together, create a language.

Just observation was not enough, video footage of horses' behaviour together in a herd and the herd of horses I work with started to grow. By accident, however I do not believe in accidents as all things must happen for a reason, I thought I saw something when watching back one of the videos, but the quality of the video makes it too quick to identify on normal speed, so I slowed the video down.

I was amazed at the precise lip actions and tongue actions two horses had displayed between each other, that if I had not known how to lip read and use some sign language, I would have missed it. The lip speech between the horses was ordered and showed a conversation, one thing was lacking. I'd not learnt their language yet, so I didn't have a clue what they had said.

I started to live out with the herd as much as possible, they started to accept me as part of them. Having an understanding how the lead mare operates, I followed that lead and established my role within the herd while I was there. When that role was understood, the horses started to be more open with their communication and I started to see more and more of the lip speech conversation they had between each other.

One day the lip speech was obvious between two of the horses, which changed my perspective on the hierarchy ranking of horses as it was understood. The quiet gelding, a ten hand high Chestnut Shetland Pony, Barney, was in the carrel eating with the main herd and I had, what I call the ‘protector’ of the herd, Pye, near me. Pye is the bossy one of the herd and the one that will fight first when new comers enter the herd, currently understood in the equine world as the hierarchy. He was on watch duty while the others ate and the Shetland pony Barney turned around from eating and started the lip speech movements, Pye turned and watched and then responded with lip speech back to Barney. I gave the expression of questioning Pye what was said, Pye promptly turned around and demonstrated; moving all the herd away from the hay except for... Barney. Barney turned back to where he was and carried on grazing all on his own. Pye then positioned himself between Barney and the rest of the herd, leaving Barney with all of the hay to himself.

This was the first time I had seen Pye respond to something Barney had asked, which, to me, demonstrated that there was an order system that put Barney as the hierarchy and not the bossy Pye. Pye turns out to be the protector of the hierarchy gelding and mare. This may also explain in studies why some stallions allow other stallions to be within the herd, it is a protective role of those taking the lead. It has been fascinating to watch this in detail over the years.

In 2016 I went to university, even though it has been a big gap since I left school with just CSEs in 1984. My chosen course was a BSc in Equine Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation. Not only did going into mainstream education show up why I struggled so much at school with writing, with dyslexia being diagnosed only when I was forty years old, but also a higher form of autism that in group scenarios completely blew my mind away; panic attacks, meltdowns and big explosions in the classroom for tutors saying silly little things like ‘It's easy really!’ I must laugh that I can understand a communication system between the horses, yet when it comes to a ‘simple’ figure to work out a maths sum on paper, I have a meltdown. Give me a spreadsheet every time with codes and I will be happy. It made me re-evaluate the journey of my life I had already gone through and focus more on where I want to go.

Being in an equine university environment was distressing in many ways, not only from my dyslexia aspect, but also from understanding what the horses were communicating. I was five years into my learning and understanding the equine communication system when I started university and seeing the horses' frustration being in confinement most of their time, and much more, was all clearly identified to me by what the horses had taught me.

They were identifying their pains to me, but I was unable to help because of rules and regulations, and others not understanding that the horse had just told me something.

It was clear as I observed people around the horses that they do not understand the equine language, with only minimal understanding of the meanings of the ear actions; ‘ears pinned back equals aggressive’ and ‘ears forward means alert’, etc. There is so much more that has not been documented, not only in studies, but also books that just keep repeating the same old things over and over.

How could I possibly get the message over that horses have a language that human beings can (and should) not only learn, but also use in communicating back with the horses?

The more I read journals and books it became clear that I was not the only one looking, in more depth, at the communication system of the horses. Studies focused on facial expressions, be it horses pulling expressions or horses recognising our facial expression.

These studies looked at how they reacted to things that humans did and so forth, but it was all still restricted and as I read and continue to read the journals and books the capacity of what they found were minimal. Watching the appendix video footage of experiments showed so much of what they were missing while trying to identify their hypothesis. It became clear to me that they did not have a baseline to work from, without a baseline, nothing can be understood.

The focus of my personal study became the ears, and the more time I spent out with the horses, observing them, it was clear that the ears were not just an indicator of mood, but also a signal to others of the direction they were going to take. This all made sense, how can horses galloping across the plains or waters know exactly what each one is going to do, or where they will go, to prevent accidents. I started watching YouTube videos of horses, falls, bolting, jumping or refusing to jump and it was so clear that the ears said it all! But that was not all, when new horses I met realised I had just said ‘Hello’, or acknowledged them in their language, their ears started moving all over the place in patterns that I could recognise, but I had no understanding of the meaning. I would respond in their way I did not understand, and they again responded that they understood.

How do I move forward now, to show that horses want to communicate and create a system that is able to be learnt? A book is just a book without science to back it up, so I needed to find out how to make that science. It was during the last part of my first year at university that gave me the answer, but I nearly quit before then.

At nearly fifty years of age I knew I was not cut out for higher education, it's not my aspect of learning. I've always learnt best in my own ways, in fact, the first semester at university it was about what type of learner are you, with the traditional four suggestions of; visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic, but none of these seemed to fit me fully.

Finally, I found other methods of learning and one that fitted me - solitary learner. However, being a solitary learner meant I could not put to paper what my tutors wanted to see in assignments and exams. I was even worse at remembering the information they wanted me to learn for exams, without prompting.

I had a meeting with the head of equine and year tutor and it was suggested I had a year gap and came back to it, but I knew if I did, I wouldn't go back. I'm glad I kept going despite how difficult it became for me. My dissertation had to be the way forward, but how? I asked if I could use something connected with my horse whispering experience and it was agreed I could look at the equine language, after all language is science.

When I submitted my first proposal to the dissertation board, I was informed it was big enough to be a PhD and was told I had to reduce it down. I had only chosen two aspects of the ear movements, but the activities connected with it would have been too much data. Reducing the dissertation down in the final year to just one ear action – the ‘at rest’ or ‘neutral’ position, as most horse people know it as. In the study by Waltham et al., (2015), it was stated that the ‘neutral’ ear position, which generally can be seen when a horse is at rest, is not always consistent and there are variations of the position. That was my topic, the variations of the ear positions at rest. There is a reason for this and, as my book goes on to reveal, that this ear position is not only used in the ‘at rest’ position but used in other areas of the horse's communication.

There was another problem after writing my literature review; how to measure the data. Collecting the data and starting to sort it I was, once again, told I have too many variables with the code system I had created and had to reduce this down, again! This opened my eyes to why no-one else has gone this deep before, the restriction of what is expected is so tiny that it would take years at this pace to achieve anything in documentation.

The only time that a consistent ear position is used at rest is when the horse is at rest either when on its own, or in a herd where the spaces between the horses are far enough away from each other. But first I had to identify the ‘at rest’ ear position, as everyone seemed to have a different idea as to where that position was or mentioned variations of it. Again, there is a reason for this and it relates to how horses communicate.

A person who might have their horses in a stable will see it resting with an ear position that's different to that of a horse that is resting on its own in a field and, again, if resting in a herd. Each position has a different meaning, this also reveals something about the horse and its comprehension of its environment. It was observing only that one position that led me to realising that it could mean multiple things; ‘I am standing’, ‘I am slowing’, ‘I am stopping’, ‘I am adjusting speed’. What I was observing among the free moving herd at the sanctuary needed to be put to the test fully. I couldn't have been the only person with this opinion, there had to be a way to document this scientifically, which I did for my dissertation.

During the study however, I collected the data I needed to show that horses do not just use their ears for listening, but they use their ears to communicate the direction they are going to take. Even more so, that they use their ears to chat to each other in a form of code which reminded me of the Maritime Semaphore Code, hence the title of the dissertation was - The Equine Semaphore Code (TESC) – An ethogram of the horses ear movements.

Part one involved identifying the ‘at rest’ ear position in other areas of the horse's activity. This led to me deepening my understanding, looking at things from a different point of view and putting in writing what I am sure many people already know, but it has yet to be documented. One thing I learnt at university: if it has not been critically reviewed, it is just an opinion.

After a second reduction and a third submittal of my proposal a problem arose yet again... I had to reduce my study even further! This also meant changing the title of the study and the hypothesis. I insisted that the code that I had created remained in the study, but all I could do was create a tally from the code using the lateral point of view of the different ear positions of horses resting. This proves nothing except horses can move their ears, which is disappointing, or so I thought. The new title of the dissertation was now - “The Equine Semaphore Code (TESC) – An ethogram of horses' ear movements”. Part One: “Identifying the variations of the ‘at rest’ ear position”.

In university seeing the horses contained, most of the time with crowds of students around them, I saw the horses' continual communication with each other from the stalls, over the tops of the heads of the students. It was amazing to watch, with the students and staff being completely oblivious to the conversations happening between the horses.

Unfortunately, there was also a downside, the horses did not like the confinement or the way they were being used. The worst expression I struggle with is a horse saying, ‘Help me’. You already know that expression in humans. We see it on the appeal advertisements around Christmas, of children struggling and that look on their faces that says, ‘Help me’, it is the same with the horses. Studies have already identified the equine ‘pain face’ in both ridden and non-ridden scenarios, and it is clear to see if you know what you are looking for.

One day in university, during a lesson, students put paint on a horse to show where the muscles were.

The horse had stood patiently for the painting and gave no indication that it was stressful for him, but when it came to washing off the paint, with seven students all around him scrubbing in every direction and cleaning him, he could not cope. I had been standing too long already, having lower back issues and I was in pain, so I was standing outside the pen while they washed him. With so many hands scrubbing him all over, he, not surprisingly, started to become stressed and fidgety. Because of this, they then held his head collar to keep him still, to finish cleaning him. Still fidgeting, he looked over the students' heads directly at me and gave the ‘Help me’ look. (The layout was a rectangle pen, the horse and students were inside the pen and I was outside it watching) I just wanted to cry knowing I had no power to intervene with what was happening, all I could relay back to the horse was ‘I'm sorry’ and I could feel the tears welling up inside me.

No-one could see the emotional distress that the actions around him were causing, even as they were holding him to make him stand still. That was not the only occasion that the horses said, ‘Help me’. Although the memory of those faces sticks in my mind, I record everything to aid my dyslexia for the written side of the work and I have those images captured also on video, which give me a greater reason to define the language of the horse.

Why should we, the intelligent race, be so narrow- minded when it comes to realising that animals communicate with us - or at least want to - on a much greater scale than just saying, in effect, ‘Feed me’.

It is not just the ears that are used to communicate. Facial expressions, movement of the tongue, the lips and movement of the eyes all pointed to communication between the horses. The more I watched, without intervening with the horses, the more I saw. From being a part of our herd, including stopping out overnight with them, the more I came to understand.

One thing I noticed on the videos from university was that, during handling, the handlers rarely looked at the horses' faces. It hit me; how could they possibly know what the horses are saying if they never look at the faces? It is the first port of any conversation.

The hours of video recordings of the sanctuary horses and others that I worked with, brought to light the speed at which horses communicate. Our lips move fast with our speech, but horses' can communicate even faster when connecting all of their actions together.

Ears, eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, head, body, legs and tail, move in unison with each other to create a discernible language and one which we can interpret and use in return to communicate with the horse. Books always seem to pick up on a couple of actions, but it is time we started putting all these actions together.

A new coding system has been created and is detailed later in the book, with the aim of connecting the variations. The coding system, as I've said, has been named The Equine Semaphore Code (TESC).

Let's start looking…

‘Humans take the time to learn an established language that exists among the animal species, breaking the barrier of communication between the human and non-human animal’.

As a global species, we human beings pride ourselves on being the greater thinking beings, understanding binary, radio waves and creating more and more technology, to aim and advance the human race. But we often lack the ability to see what is right in front of us; a simple repetitive language that we can learn. This language is the language of the horse, you will find that most animals have some kind of language, but for this book we focus on the horse.

The horse: a species that is so willing, touchingly willing if you think about it, to do things for us. It learns what we want it to learn, be it they are handled with care or through violence and inflicted pain. We owe it to them to learn to understand them better.

This book is not about telepathic communication with horses. My focus is the visible language that exists in the animal kingdom, in which our domesticated friends are already using to communicate with us, but we fail to understand.

Let's see where the twenty-first Century takes us!

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More in the book for your enjoyment, learning and muse.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Monty Roberts






Chapter 1


Creating ‘The Equine Semaphore Code’


Chapter 2


Who am I?


Chapter 3


Horses' Ears and Commonly Understood Meanings


Chapter 4


Visual Signs


Chapter 5


Defining Language


Chapter 6


Finding the Equine Ear Muscles


Chapter 7


The Equine Semaphore Code:

TESC - The Code


Chapter 8


How Fast Do Horses Communicate?


Chapter 9


Head Shaking and Nodding


Chapter 10


The Tongue, the Lips and the Mouth


Chapter 11


Eyes and Communicating


Chapter 12


Silence and the Neutral Face


Chapter 13


The Ears - Isolated Actions


Chapter 14


How Horses' Ears Enable Them to Avoid Colliding


Chapter 15


The Ears and the Stay Apparatus


Chapter 16


Mimics and Mimes


Chapter 17


Every Horse Has Its Place


Chapter 18


Our Ears Are Not Like A Horse's!


Chapter 19


Horses Are Sentient Beings


Chapter 20


What Next?






The Equine Semaphore Code

Proofreading, Typeset and Cover Design by Change Publishing in the United Kingdom 2020.

Copyright © Meljay Turner, 2020.

The moral right of Meljay Turner to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

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Meljay Turner
Creator of The Equine Semaphore Code
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