The Nicker

By Terry Golson

Horses are generally quiet animals. They do most of their communicating with their bodies. Why talk when a flick of an ear can bring all of your pasture-mates to attention? Once in awhile, though, a horse will use his voice. Some horses don’t like to leave the group, and, when ridden away from home on the trails, will holler to let his friends know that he is returning. That neigh can resonate so loudly that it will rattle his rider’s bones. Sometimes, a horse, when faced with new horses, like when she is unloaded off of the trailer at a show, will stand with head raised, tail up, and shout. That neigh pierces through all of the show hubbub and can drown out the announcer on the PA system.

Sometimes the quiet in the pasture is broken by a horse’s squeal of displeasure. Perhaps someone got into someone else’s space, and was then presented with a haunch and a lifted hoof with the threat of a kick. A squeal adds punctuation to the body language. If you have mares, then you know what happens when they come into season. There are moods. There are flirtations and then (for the geldings) many confusing “go away” squeals.

But, for the owner of a horse, the most wonderful sound of all is the nicker. Imagine a horse chortling. It is an expression of the anticipation of pleasure. You’ll hear nickers in the barn at feeding time because horses do love their grain. The feeding time nicker is an urgent sort of sound. During the rest of the day, horses rarely nicker. A nicker in the field is reserved for only the best of friends, and it is softer and more melodic than the feed me! vocalization. Some horses never nicker at all. When you do hear it, you know that two very good friends are greeting each other. It is a clear sign of affection.

I’ve had Tonka now since the beginning of December. Last week, when I was walking out to his paddock, he nickered for me.

This is how we greet each other.

Hello, Tonka!

He looks my way.



Tonka turns.




He thinks about it. I let him think. Sometimes, not rushing a horse makes what you want to have happen, happen faster.

Good boy!



Hi, there.



Hmmm, I think that we have some grooming to do.



Now, we can do something interesting. The trails are no longer icy. Let’s go!