If you’ve taken any of your cues from the movies, you might think horses whinny at the drop of a hat: basically any time they’re on screen, there’s a whinny thrown in for good measure. In reality, horses are generally much more quiet, though they do have a range of vocalizations, which they use in a variety of circumstances to mean different things. Here we’ll take a look at the standard horse noises, along with video to demonstrate what each one looks and sounds like.
You don’t need to approach these as technical terms… the horse doesn’t say “neigh” to every person speaking every language. In your world, perhaps a whinny is called a bugle, or a stallion thunders his challenge. Whatever words you choose to use, hopefully this guide will help you match up the sound to the behavior, and insert those little details of equine noises where they belong… instead of just throwing them in every ten seconds the way films do.
WHINNY or NEIGH
The most easily recognized of equine noises, probably because in films it’s inserted every time a horse appears on screen! In reality, horses tend to make this noise in a limited set of circumstances; it’s most often used to locate and communicate with other horses. It’s a very loud noise that carries: a whinny can be heard from three-quarters of a mile away. You’re most likely to hear a round of loud and emphatic whinnies in circumstances where horses that are accustomed to being together are separated: if a foal is being weaned from its mother, a horse has been isolated from its herdmates, or a stallion is trying to ascertain the presence of other horses nearby. Horses will often whinny when they’re in new environments, like they’ve been transported to a showground or trail, and they’re trying to figure out where they are and what other horses are around.
In this video you can hear both a nice clear whinny and also the sound of another horse responding:
NICKER or WHICKER
This is a soft, low, throaty greeting sound often used by horses to communicate with their favorite humans. (It often means, “Hi, hello, have you got any food?”) Stallions also nicker to mares as part of their courtship ritual, and mares nicker to their foals. Regardless of the reason it’s used, it’s a quiet, intimate, affectionate sort of sound. Sometimes they even make this sound in their sleep, like mini whinnies!
GROAN or GRUNT
Horses groan for a number of reasons: reluctance, laziness, sleepiness, exertion, a nice satisfying roll. A horse will often groan as it wakes up and hauls itself to its feet; often the getting up and down will force some air from their lungs and it comes out as a moan. Mares will also often grunt and groan in the process of labor.
This horse is particularly theatrical about its delightful rolling technique:
This short, typically high-pitched, obviously displeased sound is usually accompanied by an angry stomp or a swift kick, and is the horse’s way of telling another horse to get lost or move away. The most common time to see this behavior is when two new horses are introduced to each other. It’s also common to see when stallions meet each other, as part of their posturing before a real fight, and when stallions are approaching mares to see if they’re receptive to breeding (if she’s not receptive, she’ll let him know!). Typically the two horses will stand nose to nose, blowing and exchanging scent information, and then somebody will squeal and probably paw with a front leg. That could be the end of it, or things could escalate; it all depends on the horses and the cause of the conflict. In this video clip, there’s quite a bit of squealing as these wild horses interact:
The horse in this video uses a more prolonged, less high-pitched sound, but this would still be considered a squeal (and is still happening for the same reasons). In this video you can see a pretty typical squeal-and-strike reaction from the full sized horse, and the young miniature is doing an appeasement behavior called “tooth clacking” that’s most commonly seen in foals; it’s sort of an “I’m just a kid, don’t hurt me.”
SNORT or BLOW
This one’s just what it sounds like: a blowing of air through the nose. It can be a softer, more casual sound (I think of that as a snort) or a forceful, emphatic one (a blow, as demonstrated by the horse below). They’re both deliberate noises — not like a sneeze— and used in specific situations.
A horse may gently or forcefully snort, and is prompted to do so for different reasons. Snorting may help to clear out the airways, to allow the horse to better parse scent information, or just to help clear the nostrils (like blowing your nose) when it’s thinking about running. This horse lets out a series of long snorts and then something of a sneeze, before taking off in high spirits; this one’s a little alarmed and trying to get a better smell of his new environment; this mule’s snort is obviously relaxed and contented. You can tell the difference between the alert snort and the relaxed snort not just with body language but also how forcefully the horse is blowing air out through the nostrils.
This kind of snorting and blowing is often a precursor to actual combat between stallions, or a horse may blow this way if it’s alarmed and anxious. This stallion blows repeatedly as he tries to decide what to do about a toy horse that he’s been confronted with (his decision is both correct and hilarious):
It’s also considered blowing when a horse makes a similar sound during exercise; it’s most frequently heard at the canter. This is more of an involuntary sound, because it’s caused by the horse’s movement forcing air from its lungs.
Just like a human sigh, it’s a heavy and audible exhalation that often comes from relaxation, contentment, boredom, or maybe just existential angst.
This vocalization is contentious in the sense that some horse people will tell you it doesn’t exist — that what’s being described is simply another form of the whinny or squeal. I’m including it here so you’ll have a frame of reference for choosing to use or not use it, since if you search for information about horse sounds, it will come up from plenty of sources. Personally, I think of a roar as the particular sound of horses (usually stallions) engaged in a fight: not quite a whinny (and communicating a totally different message), but louder and more sustained than a squeal. It’s a deep, throaty, grating sound. You can hear the sound I’m describing in this video, in which two young stallions meet each other for the first time (the clip starts at 1:13, and the sound immediately follows).
The problem with writing the roar is that many horse people will dispute that there is such a thing, and most non-horse people would imagine a roar like a lion, which horses obviously don’t produce. “Roaring” is also the term for a form of equine respiratory disorder, so it can be confusing as well when used for a vocalization. If you’re going to include a horse making a sound of this type in your work, I’d avoid the term entirely and write about the visceral quality of the sound: how it grates from the throat, the primal quality of it (if you heard that right behind you, you’d run, am I right?), the violent physical reaction that comes with it. You can certainly describe this behavior without slapping an iffy label on it.
This is another vocalization that some modern horsemen claim doesn’t actually exist. I’d counter that most modern horsemen haven’t been faced with the mass slaughter of horses on the battlefield, or handled horses at all in an absolutely bewildering and terrifying setting surrounded by death, and so probably have never been in a circumstance where they’d hear horses screaming. A horse’s scream is the sound of a dying or mortally wounded animal. Horses in general are very stoic animals; they can be suffering from a fatal injury and just lie there as if nothing’s wrong. It’s part of their survival strategy as a prey animal: a horse that’s loud about being injured is probably going to become somebody else’s lunch. But this stoicism simply doesn’t apply in some circumstances; sometimes an injured animal can’t help but cry out.
There are plenty of war-time sources, particularly from World War I (which claimed the lives of 8 million horses and mules), that refer explicitly to horses screaming in those specific conditions. (I won’t quote any, because graphic descriptions of animal death are probably not what you came here for.)
If you use the term in your works to describe a horse in the midst of immense suffering (that’s probably the only circumstance I’d use it for, personally), and anybody chooses to write you an angry letter about it, they’re probably letting their own personal experience dictate what they think all horse behavior looks like. In the modern era, a person can live their entire life surrounded by horses and probably never hear a sound like that, and I think we can all be thankful that this experience is usually only one that we see in fiction.
On a lighter note, I thought I’d also throw in a few other equid noises, though people don’t often write these animals into their fantasy worlds:
The bray is a uniquely donkey sound (also produced by their offspring the mule), and sounds a lot like the swing of a rusty gate. It’s also a very diverse sound; there are brays that sound at points like a crying baby, a whining dog, or a screeching violin. This singing chorus of donkeys shows some of the vocal range you’ll hear from different individuals.
Though braying is a sort of all-purpose sound for donkeys, in comparison to the more varied whinnies, squeals, and nickers of horses, it can certainly have different meanings. A donkey will have a bray for happiness and greeting, and a bray for distress, and the discerning owner — and most definitely another donkey — can tell them apart. Donkeys can also be induced to bray with the right sound, sort of like the right pitch of wailing sound can get dogs going into a group howl.
How does one describe the sound of a zebra? They’ll blow and snort just like horses do, and can produce a braying call similar to a donkey’s, but the real stand-out vocalization for zebras is typically called a “bark.” Mostly, it’s just a sound you wouldn’t quite expect any equid to make. I’ll let the zebras speak for themselves:
If you venture onto Youtube to further research horse sounds, just remember that many (if not most) of the videos are mislabeled. I’ve done my best to choose good representatives of each sound here.
That’s our tour of equine noises! I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, and here’s one last video that I hope will delight you:
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If you found this information helpful, you might enjoy my book, The Writer’s Guide to Horses! Learn about travel on horseback and by carriage, equine habits and personalities, the basics of riding and driving, worldbuilding a horse culture, creating fantasy horses, common tropes to avoid, and much more. Includes illustrations and quick reference guides to body language, color and markings, and vocalizations. Available as ebook or paperback!