Why Does a Horse Whinny?

Learn about equine vocalization and how horses might or might not use whinnies to communicate.

No account yet? Register


Why Does a Horse Whinny?
Because it is loud and carries over a distance, the whinny seems to be a means of seeking social contact with others who are far off or out of view. | Photo: iStock
Q: Why does a horse whinny or neigh?

A: Last week I described the nicker as a quiet, affiliative vocalization. The whinny, or neigh, is a louder, longer call. The whinny is defined in “The Equid Ethogram” by animal behaviorist Sue McDonnell, PhD, as a “loud, prolonged call … beginning high pitched and ending lower pitched. The head is elevated and the mouth slightly opened.”

Because it is loud and carries over a distance, the whinny seems to be a means of seeking social contact with others who are far off or out of view. You’ll hear it between a mare and foal who are separated, between pasture-mates who have been separated, or from a horse that is temporarily separated from visual contact with others, such as a horse on a trailer at a show. It differs from the squeal or scream, two other loud and high-pitched vocalizations, which both tend to be used in the context of more agonistic or aggressive interactions.

There is a little bit of research into how well horses identify specific individuals by their whinny, but it’s not definitive. Some work shows that foals and dams can recognize each other by their whinny. But it’s been suggested that as an adaptive behavior, it may not be that important to be able to recognize a specific individual by his call. If a horse or foal is separated from his band, as long as anyone responds back to his call out, they’ll be able to be rejoined. And it might be more efficient for horses to respond to the call and not worry about discriminating who the caller is. Loud vocalizations might elicit the attention of predators to a horse separated from his band-mates on a wide open grassland

Create a free account with TheHorse.com to view this content.

TheHorse.com is home to thousands of free articles about horse health care. In order to access some of our exclusive free content, you must be signed into TheHorse.com.

Start your free account today!

Already have an account?
and continue reading.


No account yet? Register

Written by:

Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

Related Articles

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with

FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com

Sponsored Content

Weekly Poll

sponsored by:

Which skin issue do you battle most frequently with your horse?
233 votes · 233 answers

Readers’ Most Popular

Sign In

Don’t have an account? Register for a FREE account here.

Need to update your account?

You need to be logged in to fill out this form

Create a free account with TheHorse.com!