Understand your horse

The importance of understanding equine instincts and horses' natural lifestyles

source: Wendy Findlay
Country Smallholding November 2003
starts p35, 2 pages long

Horses are still affected by instincts, despite having been domesticated for a long time. Feral, free-ranging herds have hierarchies, with one stallion protecting mares and offspring, while colts have to leave the herd when they are seen by the stallion as a threat, usually when they are one or two-years-old. Feral horses may travel some 50 miles daily, and graze for some 15 hours. They check each other for signals of threats, and their response to apparent threats is usually to flee.

The lifestyle of feral horses is very different to that of many domesticated horses, which have less space, are often in stables for long periods, and may be given concentrated feeds. Horses kept isolated in stables can get bored, and may develop a range of associated habits, like weaving and crib sucking. Owners can help recreate a more natural lifestyle by providing hay, and feeding horses the same amount of feed, but split so that the horse is fed three or four times daily. A living area that allows social contact between horses also helps, for example, a large barn that opens out onto an area where the horses can graze. There should also be hedges and shrubs to let horses enjoy variety when they forage.

Humans tend to vocalise to communicate, while body language is more important for horses. Posture, and the position of ears convey messages. Horses may raise their ears forward when they are interested in what they are looking at, or hold their ears back when they dislike something. Fear or excitement are linked to horses showing their eye whites. Muzzles are also used when horses communicate with each other.

Horses can also recognise humans from their manner, body outline, and smell. It helps to be reassuring, calm, and firm with horses, if we want to get on well with them. They also need to live as naturally as possible, and it's important to remember the strength of a horse's natural instincts.