Research Ramblings: Horsey Sound Effects and the American Animal Lexicon

My current work in progress involves chariot racing, and given its substantial equine components, I’ve recruited the aid of horse owners Julie and The Boyz’ Mom to keep it real. (For more about them, read this post.) They love sharing about their horses, and hopefully you’ll get some entertainment out of our exchanges.

Once, during a manuscript swap, someone in my critique group commented on a word I used for a stable scene. The phrase in question was:

Squealing filled the air as thirty horses jostled and fought in the paddock.

He remarked that it sounded odd because “squeal” was a word he associated with pigs.

I certainly acknowledged his point. You’re more likely to see “squeal” in the context of pigs than horses. But I was intentional in selecting that word. Mainly because a couple months before I wrote that section, I was poking around researching at a stable, and an overly friendly pony scared the daylights out of me by running up and squealing at me.

Squealing, not whinnying. There is a difference.

It’s interesting how our lexicon has so many animal specific words to describe the noises they make. Dogs bark, howl, yap, or growl. Cats meow and purr. Sheep bleat. Horses have a larger list than most. They whinny, neigh, nicker, whicker, and occasionally snort. But any stable manager or groom can tell you that the range of noises they make go beyond this vocabulary.

For instance, horses grunt. Again, “grunt” is associated with pigs, but horses do it, too. I first time heard a horse grunting was at a show where one entry kept up a constant grunt-grunt-grunt the entire time she was in the ring. According to a lady familiar with that mare, that was a habit particular to that horse. When I mentioned it to my horse ladies, this is what they wrote back.

The Boyz’ Mom:

Titan grunts when he poops. They both make funny umph sounds when they are swimming in really deep water. Speaking of, when they poop while they are swimming it is hilarious.*Grunt* and in the wake “apples” floating.

If Titan is not in the mood to be bothered (like if it is really hot and someone stops to oogle him), he will grunt and stomp his foot as if to say GO AWAY.

When they are really happy and content, they make snuffy noises. Wrinkle up your top lip and do baby snorts with your nose and that is what it sounds like.


Horses make all kinds of noises, so if you have a horse grunt or whine (yes, we have one that has a high pitched whine when he thinks he’s not getting a treat), it’s not wrong.  Steve makes a rumbling noise if you don’t bring his treat quickly enough after his lesson.  JP is the whiner.  Since Steve is next to JP, I always make sure that JP gets a treat, too, because he sounds so pathetic if you ignore him.

Snuffling, whining and rumbling! I guess this means the take-away message is that if you’re doing a story involving animals, it pays to spend time with an actual critter to get a feel for their “lingo.”

So to the animal owners out there, what kind of “out of category” noises do your beasties make?


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