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Understanding your horse’s behaviour

February 24, 2014

Trainee animal behaviorist Beth Gibbons is currently studying at the Natural Animal Centre in Wales, and talked to the members of New Barn about meeting the natural needs of your horse.

Beth is studying a range of topics including the science of behaviour , neurology, psychology, the way that horses learn, ethology (the scientific and object study of animal behaviour), endocrinology  (the diagnosis and treatment of diseases related to hormones), welfare and abnormal behaviours.

“It’s an eclectic mix, but it means that we’re able to understand the biological mechanisms and driving forces of a behaviour,” she explains.













“Left to themselves, horses behave in a certain way. They’re herbivores/prey animals, live in a hierarchy within a herd, and highly sociable, are trickle feeders/grazers, travel over defined territories and sleep for around to hours in 24. These are normal behaviour patterns.

“There’s an important social aspect to their behaviour, which manifests itself in the herd hierarchy and body care such as mutual grooming. They’ve evolved these behaviour patterns over thousands of years, and they’re a vital survival tool.

“In the wild, a horse will graze for around 16 – 20 hours a day, eating low quality forage and moving over a large area. They sleep in two-hour bouts, although they have around five different types of sleep from dozing to REM. Around 9% of their time is spent in REM sleep, and the herd will never all sleep together. Interestingly, a horse must be lying completely flat to get any REM sleep, which is vital to health and well-being.”

horse-stabled“Horses have had a very long evolution – the proto-horse, eohippus, lived over 60 million years ago. It’s only relatively recently, in the last 8,000 years or so, that horses have been domesticated, and even then it was originally as meat animals rather than transport. Horses’ behaviour has evolved slowly in response to their environment, and in the short time we have domesticated them these behaviours have changed very little as there’s been insufficient time for them to naturally evolve and adapt. However, the circumstances of our relationship with horses have changed dramatically.Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that the way we keep our modern horses can be stressful for them.”

  • “The typical modern horse is stabled overnight for maybe 16 hours. He’s fed one or two haynets and hard feed, with other set hours for exercise or grooming. If you consider Brambells’s five freedoms, introduced in the 1960s to form the foundation of the basic welfare standard for animal care, you can see that we’re sometimes denying the stabled horse the ability to express his natural behaviour.”

The five freedoms:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to act out natural behaviour.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

A day in the life of a wild horse

wild horse behaviour

A day in the life of a stabled domestic horse

domestic horse behaviour

“In the case of the stabled horse above, we don’t really know what he spends his 16 hours of stable time doing, and some horses can develop abnormal behaviours as coping mechanisms,” says Beth.

“These are behaviours abnormal in frequency, duration or tendency, sometimes known as stable vices. These can be caused by anxiety or frustration, or be examples of ‘vacuum behaviour’, evolved to fill time. Some horses can also exhibit signs of aggression.

  • “There’s also a range of behaviour known as ‘stereotypies’, which refers to an unchanging pattern of behaviour that doesn’t serve an apparent purpose, such as crib biting, weaving, box walking, wind sucking or self mutilation (harming themselves). These are all examples of maladaptive behaviour, which fill the gaps left by the inability to practice normal behaviour.

“As horse owners, it’s not always practical to keep our horses in a 100% natural environment, but it’s always interesting to ask the question, “If my horse had the choice, what would he choose to do?”

“You might be surprised at the answers.”

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