It is important for horse handlers to be aware of and to understand the range of behaviours that horses commonly display. This will ensure that the handler is always ready and prepared to deal with a horse’s reaction in different circumstances and environments.
Horses are sociable animals and prefer to live in herds or groups in both wild and domestic situations. Every herd has a well-defined pecking order known as a dominance hierarchy. The ‘alpha’ member of the herd is often an old experienced mare who the rest of the herd is submissive to; she makes the decisions for the herd and they trust her and will follow her lead. When working with horses the human handler takes on the role of the alpha herd member and the horse will look to its handler for direction and leadership. Consistent commands and a calm but assertive approach is required for the handler to effectively establish himself as the horse’s leader.
These behaviours are related to giving care and attention, commonly between a mare and foal but also between other unrelated horses. Horses standing together in the shade, ‘swishing’ flies from one another is an example of an epimeletic behaviour.
These are behaviours and activities associated with curiosity or the exploration of new surroundings or objects. Curiosity is part of the horse’s natural behavior and handlers must take appropriate steps to reduce potential injury and accidents caused by this curiosity. When a curious horse does get into a potentially dangerous situation, calm and tactful handling will reduce the horse’s tendency to panic and run away.
Mutual grooming behaviours are often observed in horses. These behaviours help to increase the social bonds between herd members. Studies have also shown that mutual grooming causes an increase in ‘feel good’ hormones. Horses often develop their own favourite grooming partners that they regularly carry out this behavior with.
Ingestion and Elimation Behaviours
These are behaviours and activities associated with eating, drinking, defecating and urinating. The horse’s digestive system has developed in such a way that the horse is a trickle feeder that prefers to spend the majority of its day moving around foraging and grazing. Restriction of this natural feeding behavior can cause stress in some horses and may contribute to the development of unwanted stereotypical behaviours or vices.
Some horses choose to urinate and defecate in a specific area of their enclosure while others are not as choosy. Stallions may choose to urinate and defecate on top of other horses feacal piles as a way of demonstrating his presence to the rest of the herd and his ‘ownership’ of the mares within the herd.
Horses are naturally gregarious animals and often exhibit play behavior when turned out in a group. These behaviours can help to release pent up energy, re-affirm their positions in the herd ‘pecking order’ and act as a form of stress relief.
This is a contagious or infectious behavior when one horse copies the behavior or actions of another. For example, if one horse starts running, others are likely to follow suit. This behavior can be usefully utilised in training, for example using another horse as a ‘lead’ over a jump or past a scary object.
The horse has a very long memory, which is very useful in training. The horse will remember that it was rewarded for displaying certain behaviour and will usually choose to behave this way again. He will not often repeat behaviour for which he was punished. Handlers must be consistent in rewarding and punishing horses so that the horse clearly knows what behaviour is expected. Horses learn by a system of repetition – reward and correction. They have no reasoning power so reward or correction must be immediate.
The horse has a short attention span; however horses remember frightening things for a long time. If the horse is reminded of a frightening experience he will show signs of fear. An unsympathetic handler will punish the horse for behaving badly. This is unjust. A good handler will reassure the horse so that he loses his fear and behaves well again.
Like humans, horses develop their own individual sleeping/waking patterns. Their anatomy enables them to sleep while standing up, which allows them to be ready to flee if a perceived threat appears. Horses will generally only lie down to sleep when they are very settled and feel safe in their environment. Some horses will sleep at night and some during the day.