Horse Behavior

Horse Behavior

Horse behavior

Horse behavior is best learned through observation and experience. Many people get into owning a horse and have really never been around them or know of the particular characteristics and traits of their species.


Ethology is the study of animal behavior based on the systematic observation, recording and analysis of how animals function. Physiological, ecological, and evolutionary aspects are given special attention in Ethology.

For our purposes of understanding horse behavior we can think of it as the way in which horses respond to specific external conditions. Thinking of ourselves as Ethologians allows us to approach the subject of riding, training and handling horses in a clear, systematic way. If we take some facts that are known about horse-behavior and apply some common sense to them we can see that a pattern for understanding the horse emerges. Compare it to visiting a different country with very different cultural practices, different ways of doing things and even a different language. We first try to learn what our differences and similarities are. We use our similarities to communicate and our differences we learn to respect and “work with” not against. So now lets consider some facts and how these relate directly to what we observe our horses doing. These facts lead to a series of practical applications we’ll call that we use in riding, training and communicating with our horses.

Are horses predatory animals?

Horses are prey animals. Which means that their instinct is to run away from danger and not seek it out. They avoid aggression towards things that they think might endanger their lives. This instinct to run is their “means for survival”. It has made their bodies and senses develop in such a way, that when they sense danger, their bodies can react quickly and …run fast.

By exposing a horse to a multitude of experiences in a positive way, the horse learns to distinguish that which is life threatening and that which is just new and curious. If on the other hand, a horse reacts by trying to run or avoid something and we react with fear or anger, this reinforces the notion that every time he sees this “something” he will associate it negatively and want to run or get away even more. We are reinforcing negative horse behavior

What feelings are best developed in horses?

Because horses have many predators they have a very keenly developed sense of:

  1. Hearing
  2. Sight
  3. Smell
  4. Awareness of movement under foot.

With these keenly developed senses, horses may react to things that are not perceptible to us. People call this ‘spooking’ or ‘shying’. The person may not see or sense what the horse is reacting to and negatively reacts to the horse’s action. It is essential for good communication to know whether the horse is ‘reacting’ instinctively or ‘acting’ disobedient.

Can a horse feel fear?

If a horse senses fear or indecision in a human he will feel threatened and fearful himself. This will lead to the horse challenging the human and ultimately negative horse behavior. It is crucial for the trainer or handler to “feel” confident (not fearful) in the presence of horses.

When are horses most vulnerable?

The horse is most approachable when he lowers his head, chews softly and simulates eating. This is because in the wild horses will only put their heads down and graze if they ‘feel’ safe. When communicating with a horse, you know that the horse has “understood”, or is comfortable with what is going on, when he demonstrates positive horse-behavior as in lowering his head, chewing softly etc.

Do horses have a good memory?

Horses are animals of habit that have GREAT memories.

This can work in a positive or negative way for us. They remember the good AND the bad and categorize things into something that causes fear and pain or something that doesn’t.

In order to try to adapt a horse to a man made environment he needs to be exposed to it in a way that will leave fear-less and pain-less memories and promote positive horse-behavior.

Horses are inherently curious.

Horses are willing to check out new and unusual things that seem interesting but not threatening. In order to survivethey know instinctively that they cannot run from everything forever.

It is the curiosity inherent in horse-behavior that allows us to teach them and allows them to learn.Good training techniques take advantage of this curiosity and the horse’s willingness to observe new things.

Horse behavior

Do horses live in herds?

Horses live in herds that have a very sophisticated social order. Each herd is lead by mare who is at the top of the ‘pecking’ order. This dominant mare is usually older and wiser. She is the one that controls the herd’s eating, traveling and drinking. She also signals when she senses danger and it is time to flee.

When living in herds, young horses and less experienced ones, will learn from the dominant mare what to flee from and what to ignore. When we bring an untrained horse into the man made environment we must substitute for the dominant mare. We need to teach the horse to ignore or associate positively to certain, smells, noises and things that they see. To train a horse the horse must be willing to accept the trainer as the dominant herd member.

Dominance is obtained by the head mare through wisdom, respect, and giving a sense of safety.
In the herd the dominant mare rules because she is trusted to find food, shelter, water and keep the herd safe.

To gain a horse’s respect the trainer must be able to portray these traits of the dominant mare.

After the dominant mare, the rest of the herd is also divided into a social order or “pecking order”.
Again wisdom, age, (as long as the horse is not physically feeble) and respect determine this. The higher up in the pecking order a human finds himself in his horse’s ‘herd’ the more successful he will be in communicating with the horse and altering the ‘instinctive’ horse-behavior.

Dominance among horses is not determined by aggressive behavior. Aggressive horse-behavior is usually punished by ostracizing the herd member to the periphery of the herd where he is in most danger.

Aggressive behavior in humans towards horses produce fearful ‘hard to handle horses’ that can become dangerous to humans.

Dominance in a herd is demonstrated by one horse being able to make another horse move OR stop it from moving. This is accomplished through different methods of communication mainly body language. Biting and kicking may occur when the dominant horse is challenged by the other horse not moving, or responding aggressively.

This ability to control the movement (stop or go) of a horse is another key ingredient in a trainer’s ability to obtain respect and the higher position in the pecking order.

What language do horses use?

Body language is the way horses communicate. A prick of the ear, a position of the head etc.

The ability to read this body language and control your own body language is important to be able to communicate successfully.

Horse Behavior
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