Understanding at least basic horse behaviour is a very important part of responsible horse ownership. A good understanding of horse behaviour underpins all aspects of good horse management, training and riding. The key points that should always be remembered about horses are:
Horses are highly social herd animals
Horses are naturally highly social animals. A normal healthy horse would never live alone by choice. When horses live in a herd situation (either in the free living or domestic state) they have a rich and varied social life that includes activities such as play behaviour and mutual grooming behaviour. Horses that live in herds and graze naturally get to exercise their senses frequently. For example, they smell each other when greeting and they smell each other’s dung. They use their visual and hearing senses to look out for and listen for danger. They use their senses of taste and smell when selecting which plants to graze.
Horses that live in a herd communicate with one another mainly by using body language. Horses have developed subtle and not so subtle signals in order to communicate with one another.
Living as part of a herd has many advantages such as ‘safety in numbers’. Grazing involves having the head down in the grass which makes it difficult to see predators approaching. More sets of eyes and ears mean that predators can be seen or heard sooner. A horse living alone in the wild would be much more likely to be caught by a predator. This horse would also expend too much nervous energy by having to stay in permanently alert state. So for this reason horses either live in family groups (a stallion, a few mares and their offspring) or bachelor groups (for colts and stallions that do not have mares). Horses that live in herds can take it in turns to be alert and to rest and therefore responsibility is shared among herd members.
A horse that is kept alone will be stressed due to not receiving the benefits of companionship (see the article Does my horse need a companion?).
Horses are herbivores and have evolved to eat a high fibre, low energy diet
Horses are ‘trickle feeders’ which means that they eat small amounts almost continuously. They are meant to eat for between 12 and 16 hours throughout the day and night. This food should be low in energy and high in fibre. A good example is low sugar grasses (such as most native grasses in Australia) and hay made from low sugar grasses. Horses are not meant to eat ‘meals’ consisting of highly concentrated food only. Even if a horse is receiving concentrates (due to a high workload etc.) then the high fibre (but low energy) part of the diet must be kept up in order to keep the gut functioning properly. Otherwise the risk of colic and gastric ulcers is increased.
If we feed the horse large amounts of high energy feeds we also risk serious problems. Too much grain or free access to ‘improved’ grasses which are too high in sugar for horses (because they have been developed for the dairy cow and beef cattle industries) can cause problems such as obesity and laminitis which are very serious conditions.
Horses are a prey animal whose first line of defence is to run away from danger
A horse will instinctively run at the first sign of danger and for this reason horses are highly reactive. Good training can overcome this behaviour so that a horse and rider/handler are safer. However it must always be remembered that if a horse feels trapped then they may resort to kicking out, striking or biting if they cannot escape. When handling a horse aim to read the body language of the horse. Aim to not pressurize the horse to the point where he or she feels that escape or defence is necessary.
Horses need movement
In the wild horses travel many kilometres a day from feed to water in what is known as the ‘home range’. Horses walk steadily while grazing and also have to travel between where the water is and where feed is (the plants near water are always the first to be eaten out). Free living horses often travel around 30km a day – sometimes much more.
This steady movement helps to keep blood and lymphatic fluid moving around the body. It also helps to wear the hooves down as the horse moves across a variety of terrain ranging from soft and wet to abrasive and dry.
Movement is an integral part of the life of a natural living horse so it is very important that domestic horses are kept in a way that encourages movement as much as possible.
For more information please see the Equiculture Responsible Horse Care page.