Horse Behavior and Communication

 

Man has had an enduring relationship with horses down through the centuries, first taming horses in the wild and then working in partnership with them for over a thousand years. However, not until recently did we stopped to watch horses for their work efforts and noticed it has the potential for other things as well.

Successful taming, training and management of horses has relied on a deep understanding of their behaviour, how it impacts on domestication and what would a man like to do with the horse -farming, hunting, going to war or leisure or sporting purposes.

Day to day equine communication between horses and people

Horses have a sophisticated communication system which can be subtle or very simple and obvious. Here are some examples of how the horse may communicate with his rider or handler although not all horses will do all of these things:-

  • Kicking the door at feed time – the horse is impatient and possibly trying to compete with others for prime attention
  • Pulling faces when feed is interrupted – the horse uses strong facial expressions to express displeasure towards either people or other horses who may be threatening his feed, his face will change to an aggressive look, his ears will go flat back and he may bare his teeth
  • Biting or snapping – some horses threaten, some execute, snapping can just be an expression of opinion or a warning, some horses only bite occasionally and some don’t bite very hard, more as a warning nip. Others may really bite hard
  • Tail swishing – this is a sign of displeasure or irritation and can be triggered by many things, grooming a sensitive area, rugging up, saddling up, sometimes it can be an indicator of pain but sometimes it is purely that horse’s individual temperament
  • Bucking – at liberty in the field, this is often a sign of excitement and exuberance which can also include time under saddle
  • Ears forward – an expression of recognition and pleasure often accompanied by a whinny or a whicker
  • Mutual grooming – horses will groom each other in the field and will sometimes groom their handler to mimic this when they are being brushed in certain locations on their bodies

How horses communicate with one another in the yard and in the field

Horses are herd animals and the key point to understand about any group of horses is that there has to be a hierarchy. Horses don’t mind where they are in the group structure as long as they know their place. A horse that is uncertain about his place in the herd is an anxious and unhappy horse.

Horses do communicate with sound but most of their language with each other is far more subtle, they use body language in a very delicate and precise way to communicate almost invisibly with one another. Horses as herd animals do collaborate to an extent to protect the group. They are flight animals so will run away from perceived danger and view it from afar.

The horse’s key senses

Knowing that the horse is a creature of flight not fight, it is important to understand how their key senses work as this can dictate how they may react in certain situations.

The horse has the largest eyes of any land mammal; they are quite protuberant and so can be prone to injury. The horse has a monocular vision which means it can see on either side and behind with each eye operating independently to the left and right of the head. This enables the horse to have a large vista which it can keep in view whilst head down grazing. As a flight creature, a horse relies on being able to spot predators in good time and run away.

Also, horses have binocular vision which is directed down their nose and they will often raise their head to bring something into its binocular vision, sometimes even turning their body round to get a better view. Opinions have always differed on how much and exactly which colours horses. The horse also has incredibly sensitive hearing and can hear things beyond the human ear. Each ear can rotate independently of the other to a range of 180 degrees.

Things we ask the horse to do that is against his instinct

Apart from riding the horse which is initially against the horse’s instinct to carry a person on his back viewing the new rider rather like a predator and something to be quickly removed, the first thing that the horse often learns and which he dislikes is being on his own. This is one of the earliest lessons a weaned foal must master. It is common to wean the foal from the mare and give the foal the company of another older horse to soften the blow. There are lots of other occasions when training has to overcome instinct:

  • Meeting a group of horses out hacking and then having to leave them and move forward alone. Horses that refuse to do this are termed as ‘nappy’ or ‘napping towards’ other horses
  • Riding past something spooky in the hedge, it could be visually spooky and/or audible to the horse such as a flapping plastic bag. Horses will often spook at something on the way out on a hack and then repeat the process coming home, even though they have theoretically seen the offending item already; this is because their vision is monocular so essentially, they are seeing it with the other/different eye
  • Loading and travelling require huge skill and confidence in the handler. Ramps are hollow and the horse is aware of this. Additionally, asking him to go into a sealed box with no means of escape is totally contrary to instinct and that is before the trailer or lorry actually moves.
  • Course builders always try and use spooky and unusual fillers to challenge riders in competition. Fillers are usually wooden stands which fit underneath pole fences of around one metre and higher. They can be carved and painted with all sorts of designs, circles, zig-zags, animals, random shapes.
  • Cross-country lacks the coloured variety of show jumping but the course builder has the advantage that the horse is going much faster and so depending on where he sites the fence, the horse may not have much time to evaluate the question. At the lower levels of eventing, the horse has plenty of time to see the water for example and there will be a fence either well before the water complex or well afterwards. As the level of difficulty increases, the approach to the water will shorten and the fences will get closer to the water until they are in the water.

Behavioural problems and issues

Some behavioural traits are specifically listed as stable vices and are usually learned patterns of behaviour that may originate from the horse spending too much time in the stable. These would include box walking – where the horse walks endlessly round the stable – cribbing, wind sucking and weaving.

Cribbing is where the horse holds onto a surface, usually wood, with his teeth and sucks in air. This can be very destructive for the stable, the field fence and the horse’s teeth which will wear out far more quickly and unevenly than a horse who doesn’t exhibit this behaviour.

Wind sucking is where the horse sharply inhales air without holding onto anything with his teeth and so is a variation of cribbing or crib biting.

Weaving is where the horse repeatedly moves his head and neck from side to side; it may also include whole body movement and the alternate lifting of each front leg. Some horses weave only at feed time, others when there is a trigger point such as a horse leaving the yard, some seem to weave almost all the time including when out in the field.

How to manage undesirable behavioural problems

Stable vices apart, it is important to undertake a holistic assessment of the horse to first establish whether any unwanted behaviour is as a result of pain, particularly if the behaviour has only developed recently. The usual checks would be teeth for any sharp hooks, the horse’s back for sore or tender points and the saddle for fit. All or any of these issues can cause the horse sufficient pain to be reflected in his behaviour.

Once pain has been eliminated as the possible cause of the problem and this includes the memory of old pain as well as current pain, the next point to consider is the handling and riding ability of the owner or rider. An exuberant horse with a less than capable handler or rider will very quickly get too big for his boots and become naughty so it could be a rider issue and/or a training problem. Additional help from a more experienced rider or trainer can help develop solutions to some less than desirable behaviour problems.

Stable vices are a different kettle of fish. Once learned or acquired, they are almost impossible to eliminate and so management is the key. Always offer access to fibre for these horses and use the usual tricks and tips to keep them interested if they do have to spend long periods of time in the stable. The best solution is to turn these horses out in the field, it won’t necessarily stop the worst offenders who can still wind suck and crib in the field but it should minimise the trigger points.

Repetitive behaviour

Horses learn through repetition, both good and bad behaviour. That is why often some livery yards will not welcome horses with established stable vices as they fear the other residents will copy them. A horse who steps out of line either in hand or under saddle will quickly use this to his advantage if his unwanted/bad behaviour is not immediately corrected.

Repetition is used to teach the horse in a positive way and there are specific training systems built around this, one such example would be clicker training. Clicker training is a method that uses positive reinforcement and a marker system, in this case, a handheld clicker device, which is used alongside a primary reinforcement such as food. Clicker training is based on the premise that the horse can learn that his future behaviour is determined by the consequences of his previous behaviour. Put simply, if the horse does something and then immediately receives a reward, he is more likely to do it again. Gradually the food is reduced then removed with the clicker remaining to instigate and mark the positive reinforcement.

Conclusion

Equine behaviour is a complex and fascinating subject as anyone who has spent some idle time observing horses in the field will testify to. Horses are instinctive, unpredictable, endlessly surprising (in both a good and a bad way), tricky, downright dangerous and rewarding.

Unhappy horses will exhibit behaviour and traits which should raise the red flag for any owner. Managing horses well is about keeping them free of illness and pain as far as possible and nurturing them in a regime that is as close as possible to the one nature intended. So try and avoid long periods of time in the stable as this is not natural and can lead to the development of stable vices. Always ensure horses have access to fibre, have equine company, clean water and shelter and you won’t go far wrong.

 

With time and patience, it is possible to re-educate a horse out of bad behavioural traits but remember, happy horses still need to be horses. Part of their happiness may include doing things which are less than desirable to the handler or rider such as bucking or spooking or going more quickly than the rider intended. Just remember, it’s not personal, they are just being themselves.

Remember to check out Oakford Stockfeeds for all your equestrian needs!

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