[flight response][origins][communication and body language][herd instinct]
Volumes have been written about horse behaviour by scientists, pseudo-scientists, horse owners, horse handlers and horse riders. In fact it sometimes seems that anyone who has ever had anything to do with horses has some new theory about their behaviour and how to educate, handle or ride them better. But the salient features that pretty well govern all inherent horse behaviour can be summed up in a few words - in nature horses are prey animals that graze over open plains in herds and rely on flight as their primary defence mechanism.
Terrified horses unable to flee because of impenetrable or unassailable physical barriers may attack the cause of their fear (eg a human handler or animal predator), kicking, biting and striking. In this regard, an unbroken horse that is truly cornered can be just as dangerous as any other wild animal and should be approached with caution, using advance and retreat tactics or some other approved method aimed at eroding or removing the fight distance, as explained under Horse welfare and breaking-in.
The reason for the extreme development of the flight response in horses lies in their origins as a species, postulated to have begun some fifty eight million years ago. The world at that time is believed to have been an eerie place of dense vegetation and swamps with no open plains. According to palaeontological evidence, one of the animals that lived in this environment was Hyracotherium (eohippus), thought to have been the ancestral or “dawn” horse. But unlike the noble animal we know today, Hyracotherium was tiny, in fact no bigger than a fox, and had four toes and browsed on leaves.
Gradually as the eons passed and the climate and vegetation changed, the ancient horse moved out of the forests onto the plains and became a grass eater. A major problem was that these animals were now exposed to predators. So they grew taller and more upright on their limbs and began losing their toes so that they could run faster. The various intermediary horses also changed their dentition. Short teeth suitable for soft browsing were replaced by long permanently growing teeth more adaptable to the wear and tear of grazing on grasses. Eye placement also changed, enabling the horse to see possible danger at some distance across the plains.
Pliohippus, the first true single-toed horse, appeared about ten million years ago. It was from Pliohippus that Equus, the modern horse, descended. Equus, particularly the hot-blooded type, remains a plains-dweller by nature, using flight as a main defence mechanism and preferring open country to forests.
Other defence mechanisms include kicking, biting, rearing, bucking and striking. In the wild they are behaviours used to preserve life. Under domestication, they can become redeployed as rebellions against human manipulation and restraint. Indeed, some restraint methods used by humans are so harsh that they do provoke a true fight for survival instinct within the horse.
Horses that catch sight of something strange will blow mightily through their nostrils - a great whistling snort repeated several times, which no doubt is a signal to alert the rest of the “herd”. If the object is not too frightening, the horse will cautiously move forward to investigate it but always on high alert and ready for instant flight.
Squealing between horses, especially strangers and mares and stallions, is another form of vocal communication and usually starts as nose-to-nose touching and gusty breaths.
Horses do not vocalise pain in the same way that, for instance, dogs and even cattle do. It would certainly have made a major difference to the way horses have been used throughout history had they yelped like a dog when struck by whips, spurs, etc.
A great many handling methods are based on understanding the body language of horses. During the breaking-in process, the general carriage and bearing of the horse, position of the head, activity of the ears, willingness to make eye contact, presence or absence of chewing movements are all indicators to a competent handler of the progress the horse is making.
But away from the breaking-in scenario, all people who handle horses should be familiar with the body language of the flight response. Even the quietest horse, if suddenly startled, can jump forward and knock you down. You may only get a split second’s warning that the horse is going to do this - a tensing and collection of the body, sudden elevation of the head and perhaps a sharp intake of breath or a snort. Trying to hang onto a horse that is truly upset can be very dangerous unless you are experienced. They will reef and pull and shove against you, or pull away violently with much head throwing. Never ever wrap a lead rope around your arm for added purchase - if the horse gets away you will be dragged along as well. The same applies to leads or ropes dangling on the ground, they can whip and coil around your legs in an instant if the horse gets a fright, with disastrous consequences.
The body language of the upset horse at liberty is variable, but running predominates. Letting new horses go in a strange paddock can be a heart stopping affair. The time for eye-shutting is when they approach a fence at 100 kilometres an hour. Luckily they usually veer at the last moment, especially if they can definitely see the fence and you have taken the trouble to walk the paddock with them before letting them go.
The management implications of being a herd animal are numerous. Firstly, most of the aggressive behaviour that horses display in group situations is only threat, but fighting and injuries will occur if there is overcrowding and disruption of dominance hierarchies. Fear of a superordinate often outweighs any human control, so it is important to be constantly aware of the movement and activities of all horses in a group when working amongst them or feeding them. One horse may rush at another, and a human in the way can end up on the ground or accidentally on the receiving end of a severe kick.
Separating horses from their bosom buddy or buddies has to be treated with caution as well, for even the most placid of them can become raving lunatics and indulge in fence jumping, people squashing or gate crashing. Also they will do much running around and whinnying, as may a special friend in the group from which they have been removed. Fortunately, with experience, most horses in regular work do come to accept separation from the “herd”, particularly as they are usually returned to it, but a few become so reluctant about it that they are labelled “herd bound” or “barn sour”. This seems to happen mainly with intensively housed horses, which raises the question whether there is some other factor in operation, perhaps these horses are sore somewhere or have been subjected to very frightening or painful experiences when ridden out, making the relative security of the mob far preferable despite the confinement. Maybe the stress of forced confinement itself confuses the natural instincts of some horses and causes abnormal fixation with the herd. It has been noted that barn sourness is particularly associated with horses that are ridden by several different people who no doubt vary considerably in their horsemanship abilities, so another possibility is that such horses never develop confidence in their rider or handler. Still another theory is that barn sour horses are trying to avoid work, that they have learned that by being difficult they will be returned to the barn or stable or whatever. Well, maybe, but one has to be constantly careful not to anthropomorphise situations like this.
The “staying with the mob” instinct can cause complications where a ridden or driven horse is required to either stay behind or go ahead of a group. Staying behind can make a horse fight for its head and leap about in an effort to catch up, while going ahead of a group may provoke refusal, or running backwards and rearing. Both situations can be resolved with patience and firmness on the part of the rider or driver, repetition and experience on the part of the horse. Except in the case of a natural herd leader, teaching a horse to go to the front in a race is perhaps the most demanding of all, because it is doubtful whether any horse actually has the inbuilt desire to race and beat another, though they will willingly gallop along with the mob, in fact the flight instinct demands that they do.
Horses are social herd animals and while many domesticated horses do spend a greater part of the day on their own, this should never be in total isolation. Failing another horse for company or even the sight of one nearby, horses will bond with other species such as cattle, goats, poultry, cats, dogs and, of course, humans.
A greater problem for horses than being kept on their own is to be kept in a stable on their own. Unlike forest-dwelling cattle, horses are plains- dwelling flight animals and do not seek the protection of dense stands of trees if threatened. Stabling represents a forested environment and some horses never feel comfortable in a stable and develop abnormal behaviours (stable vices) due both to the stress of confinement and as displacement activities for grazing. The problem is lessened by company of their own kind in an adjoining stall, also by ensuring that stables are light and airy and as open as possible.
Are horses particularly intelligent? Novelists and movie makers and some doting owners would have you believe so, but many experienced horse handlers would disagree. Certainly horses are no mental giants, in fact anyone who knows both species well will attest that cattle are smarter than horses. But then there are the horses that can turn on taps, open gates, count by hoof tapping and do a host of other things associated with intelligence, but mostly these actions can be attributed to repetition and/or clever cueing on the part of the handler. Horses easily pick up on repetitive actions performed either by other horses or humans, particularly those that lead to a reward of food or water, so it is not difficult for them to learn to use automatic waterers and push open gates and so on.
It is generally agreed that horses do not possess complex reasoning skills. But all the same, according to research by Dr Evelyn Hanggi, their intellectual ability is more complex than they are given credit for. She particularly stresses that stabling 24 hours a day maybe relieved briefly by half an hour of mind-numbing lunging is hardly conducive to cognitive stimulation in horses. The cognitive ability of many animals is known to increase with adequate environmental stimulation and the same is true of horses. Some of Dr Hanggi’s studies highlight some unexpected findings, including that horses are able to differentiate different shapes and even colours in return for food rewards. More information on Dr Hanggi’s research and the many articles she has written on the subject of horse learning and intelligence are available on her equine research website.
Instinct is a word frowned upon in some circles, but is still useful for defining those inherent behaviours animals are born with that ensure survival by enabling them to find food and water, escape predators and reproduce. Any other behaviours have to be learned. Horses do mainly learn through repetition, which then becomes a conditioned reflex performed in response to a cue. Simple riding involves a whole series of cues including voice, hand and leg pressure.
The definition of intelligence is not totally restricted to the ability to think abstractly and solve problems through reasoning. Being able to learn through repetition is a type of intelligence, as are many of the instinctive behaviours performed by animals which can seem uncanny and even mystical to humans, who probably had these abilities once but lost them thousands of years ago. A major problem for horses and other animals occurs when humans falsely equate these unusual instinctive powers with reasoning and thinking ability. It can place impossible expectations on horses leading to unnecessary, and often unintentional, hardship and cruelty. Also, people training horses must ensure consistency in cueing and be certain that cues are positive, unambiguous and as simple as possible.
Horses do not understand delayed reward or punishment. They certainly associate pats, tidbits and a soothing voice with a job well done, but the rewards should be immediate. Clicker training, as used with dolphins and dogs, works well with horses, where a click for performing as required is followed at once by a food reward. It is debatable whether physical punishment of horses for disciplinary purposes is valid or just simply cruel, but no horse has any hope of understanding a flogging half an hour or more after refusing to jump a hurdle. Similarly for the withholding of food or water as a disciplinary measure.
A test has been devised that attempts to measure horse intelligence. The Guide Horse Foundation which trains miniature horses as guide animals for the blind, uses a field intelligence test prior to acceptance into the program, as follows -
Ear reflex index – Alert horses with a high degree of ear motility tend to be more
intelligent and a measure of the ear reflex index can discern the intelligence of the
Pressure response - Measuring sensitivity and response to pressure can often reveal the horses intelligence. Intelligent horses respond quickly and decisively to applied pressure. It is more natural for horses to lean into or towards pressure in order to relieve it.
Response to socialization – Intelligent horses have mastered equine social behavior and display the proper “etiquette” when interacting with other horses and people.
Umveg testing – Intelligent horses are able to navigate a detour to achieve a goal. A food reward is placed on one side of an obstacle like a panel of fencing, if the horse walks around the obstacle to get the food, it is considered more intelligent than the horse that stands and looks longingly from the other side.