Ultimate Guide To Horse Behavior
If you type into Youtube's video search engine “Horse Misbehaving”, an alarmingly long list of animated footage can quickly turn a placid evening of internet surfing into an intense university-level study on horse behavior. Why is the pretty warmblood spinning around in erratic, uncontrollable circles? Does the little girl ever catch the uncatchable pony? What makes a horse rear? A deeper look into horse behavior, explained through this article will have you analyzing astoundingly troublesome horses and ponies on Youtube like a natural equestrian guru.
If you would prefer, why not skip the text and consume all the essential info in our lovely infographic, which can be found at the bottom of this page :)
Horse Misbehavior - Why do Horses Misbehave?
Horse misbehavior is created by a variety of factors. Fear, communication methods, pain and temperament are four main reasons why horses act in a negative way. As a horse owner or handler, your responsibility is reading between the lines, determining why the horse is reacting at that specific moment in time that particular way. It is so important for your safety both on and off the ground to be able to read your horse’s body language. Cues from your horse’s ears back to its tail, time and experience around your horse should have you prepared to react properly to your horse’s communication. It's simple psychology: by knowing the cause, we can influence and modify the situation- potentially turning a naughty horse into a nice one, a nightmare into a little angel.
For as long as the horse can be documented, it can be seen throughout its history fleeing from predators, running away from something in an act of survival. “Run first, think later and kick and fight if you are cornered!” would be the horse king's declaration to his unprotected heard. After all, they were fast, much faster than the animal on the offense. Today, under tack as riding and driving horses, we have restricted this key responsive behavior. They cannot outrun what is scaring them but instead bolt, buck, rear, kick, bite, or some reaction unique all to its own. Horses also have the largest eyes of any land mammal and around 350 degrees of vision, they are perfect for spotting prey in almost every direction surrounding them. Losing full or partial vision deeply hinders the horse, throwing its dependence on the handler or horses around it to protect it. Blinders or blinkers, now not so commonly seen and used, restrict what the horse can see, keeping it focused primarily in a binocular view of the world. Almost as important as their eyesight, horses communicate and tune in to different smells. Even the faintest scent of a pack of lions would send a herd of horses running for the hills- completely energized by fear.
Fear may cause a horse to buck, or bolt when it hears snow sliding off the indoor arenas roof, or kick a farrier who is trying to put on a hot shoe. In both examples the horse holds no aggression towards their handler, only fear from the surprising situation. With steady, reassuring training and more experience, many fears can be defeated. Are the equine athletes competing at the Olympics born understanding bright camera flashes, booming announcement systems and thousands of applauding onlookers? No, they turned the tenacious stimuli through their careers, through more training and competition time, into something nonthreatening and “normal”.
Strong communication between horse and human has always been a special, important key to the domestication of the horse. Horses among themselves have a complex and distinguishable language made up of vocal and bodily gestures. Although we were never able to teach horses how to speak English, or any other humanistic language, we still developed a high level of communication with horses compared to other domesticated animals.
Unfortunately, while in training or on a leisurely level, what we wish the horse to do is sometimes lost in translation, a big bold question mark pops up between his ears like in a Looney Tunes comic while the rider relentlessly prods on. The “lost in translation zone” between horse and rider might look like bad behavior but is really only act of a confused, and maybe disgruntled horse. Most horses who have learned positive reinforcement such as a pat or scratch on the back for doing something good hate when they get confused or pushed too quickly into learning something new, with chaotic communication. Riders then need to take a step back and see how they can approach the maneuver slower, or differently.
At every barn there is that one “Boss Mare”. The Alpha. Both humans and horses alike know all about her tricks and mood swings. She has communicated with the rest of the world that she will be dominant by charging, kicking, biting, and chasing herd amigos off their food or waterhole. This mare communicates her dominance with such misbehavior. Other very natural forms of communication among horses that come off as aggressive include a mare protective of her foal towards people or other horses, dueling horses establishing a herds pecking order, a stallion who becomes “bitey” and obnoxious after sensing mare in heat and a normally willing mare refuses to work or shows irritability when being handled. Communication can also go hand in hand with fear and pain, a domino effect of poor behavior if not dealt with properly.
Pain, especially among competition horses is a main cause of misbehavior. Experienced, conscious riders, trainers and grooms can quickly identify when there is change in their horses demeanor and can assess where the discomfort is coming from. Sometimes there is an instant, obvious sign of irritation; other times it is slow and gradual. Instantaneously a horse with an ill-fitting saddle or bridle can flip over backwards while being mounted, to clearly state it is in pain- and a lot of it. On the other hand, a horse with an undiagnosed stomach ulcer may at first pin it’s ears back while it is being girthed or cinched up, then one day months later, begin to bite, then kick; the problem increasingly getting worse.
The health and condition of the horse should first be thoroughly checked for any ailments or pain that could be causing the misbehavior. Until an intensive review is completed by either a veterinarian, saddle fitter, chiropractor- or all the above, pain should never be ruled out as the main, direct cause of a misbehaving horse.
If a horse has been raised in the most idyllic horse-rearing setting and has had nothing but easy going, proper training methods taught to it, it most likely will have a nice temperament. If the settings are ideal, the nutrition on-point but the handler’s aggressive or domineering, a horse with a much different temperament will be the result. Too much is speculated about horses with poor behavior, some claiming it is un-trainable, wild, or crazy, when in most cases, it comes from an environment where it received little to no handling or training. Normally the horse just needs more attention, slower requests and a person with great understanding of horse behavior to bring it up to speed with horses that have received regular, positive amounts of attention. Breeding docile, easy going horses can and has improved temperaments, but the environment in which the horse is raised greatly affects the temperament of the horse.
Diagnosing Horse Behavior
If it were possible to think like a horse, diagnosing horse behavior would be much easier. As of today, that still is not an option. Animal behavior, particularly equine behavior has been studied only to a brief extent. Determining a horse's behavior, its personality and how intelligent it is either from environmental factors such as an effective trainer or rider or from its selective hereditary genetics (compliments to its breeder) is still greatly disputed. Most research proves that the earlier the horse is exposed to various stimuli, starting before weaning, the easier the horse can calculate and react to different things intelligently- making you a really happy horse owner.
Let's take a look at a few common behaviors associated with horses. You will see many traits or behaviors have a multitude of meanings at any given time. The more time spent around horses, the quicker and easier it is to determine what is menacing and what is harmless.
Common Horse Behavior Characteristics
Why do horses buck, neigh, rear? The answers to these questions and other common horse behavior traits can be found below:
Why Do Horses...
A way to communicate to you, his/her friends or to an unknown horse or animal. Sometimes if you are lucky, it can be a sweet nicker as your horse recognizes you across its pasture. Other times it is a neigh of panic, distress, for example in the middle of a show ring or out on a trail ride, the horse uneasy being so far away from a barn pal.
Horses buck with fear, pain, surprise or aggressive behavior while under tack. Out to pasture a buck might come from pure glee, too many oats, or a horse fly is driving him batty. Under saddle, bucking is a more serious matter. Young horses generally buck out of naivety, unsure and afraid of the situation or something in its surroundings. Older, trained horses may buck from an ill-fitting saddle, pain or pressure (that is not always associated with back pain!), as a reaction to something spooky in its surroundings (i.e. animated trash bags, newly painted standards, a sneezing kitten) or to express its unwillingness to work either for that particular rider or discipline.
Rear Rearing is also similar to bucking because fear, pain, something surprising or aggravating may also cause a horse to rear. A horse may rear out of nervousness at the unusual sounds and sights of a horse show, from too much pressure from a rider trying to complete a task that the horse does not understand or is unwilling to do, or because something is pinching or creating pain and the horse is trying to avoid it. Although Zorro makes rearing look easy to control, a horse who has learned to rear as a first response to pressure or stress can become very dangerous for its rider and handler.
“Hey, I mean that!!!” Maybe not a direct translation of a teeth-bearing horse, but it must come close. Biting is a form of aggression and dominance. Fear of something new, something stressful in its surroundings or internal discomfort will bring a horse to bite. A horse sometimes acquires territorial dominance, even to its stall and can begin to bite people, cats, whatever it thinks is incriminating as they come by; a problem to be aware of when entering a new barn with an open-stall structure.
A horse rolling after being released in its pasture or on a well-loved pile of sandy dirt is completely normal, and encouraged. Horses get stiff backs like we do and a good roll both scratches those hard-to-reach places and stretches their backs almost as good as a well-loved chiropractor.
On the other hand, a horse rolling more frantically across the ground indicates pain, typically acute or severe gastric-intestinal related pain typically referred to as “Colic”. This type of rolling is a big red flag for the horse's owner to call their veterinarian for further instruction.
A horse dropping down and trying to roll while being ridden is either politely telling the rider the horse has: a) had enough with riding (please and thank you, now get off my back!) b) is in pain either from an ill-fitting saddle or internally or c) has a scratch it would really love to itch regardless of who is on his back.
When a horse pushes you with their nose, it is a form of typically friendly behavior, a way to get your attention, like a foal to its mother. There comes a line that the horse can cross with their nose-pushing, however. When it becomes too often or too swift, like a horse begging for more treats, the behavior indicates a lack of respect for the handler. A small nudge for more the first day might mean pushing the treat-feeder over the next day!
A horse kicking you, or kicking out can mean many things. It can be a sign of aggression, dominance, fear, pain or lack of respect. An aggressive horse at dinner time may kick out at you, a young horse getting saddled, or shod for the first time may kick out of fear, an older horse may kick when being girthed up from pain or tenderness in the girth area, or a dominant horse may try and kick it's handler if it thinks its training is too much.
Along the lines of pushing you with their nose, a horse might nip out of playfulness but should not be encouraged. Ornery young horses and stallions may nip your jacket or lead rope out of pure curiosity and energy. If a horse is constantly nipping and excited to play it may mean its grain feed is too high in energy and is making him a bit too giddy.
Territorial, aggression, dominance and a great fear or anxiety generally brings a horse to show or bare its teeth. Teeth-baring stallions in the wild fought off rival stallions from their herds but today in most barn settings a horse bares its teeth when it is protective of its food, stall or foal. A horse charging a fence line or stall with teeth-bared should be approached with great, big caution.
Not as common as in dog behavior, a horse may lick you to slurp up any salts or particular flavors on your skin it is dying to try out. Intense licking may be a sign of a mineral deficiency, the horse is trying to get as much sweaty salt off of you as it can because it lacking something in its diet.
A horse following you is a horse telling you its your biggest fan! More than one means you have groupies! But seriously, a horse following you indicates that it is relaxed, interested and responsive towards you and what you have to say or give. A great step forward in positive horse training.
The equine photographer's dream, a horse with its ears forward generally indicates a healthy, attentive horse- or one that will soon spook at something! The horse is engaged with what it is doing at the moment or is focused on something in whichever direction it is looking towards. Putting their ears forward and keeping them there followed by hesitation, neck strain and maybe a fearful snort indicates the horse is afraid of something nearby or far and you best be ready to react.
A horse raising its tail in the pasture, for example, can communicate different things to its fellow herd. A raised tail may spread feelings of alarm, the horse alert and attentive to something that may affect the herd. A mare during estrus may have a very loose, relaxed tail resting on one side or the other of her buttocks to tell a stallion (and everyone else) that she is in heat. Young and playful horses will have a raised tail indicating their willingness to play or run in the pasture with interested pals alike.
A slightly raised, moving tail under saddle indicates a comfortable spine, free from pain and engaged in its work. Many upper level dressage horses swish their tail through complicated maneuvers, mainly because their spine is so occupied with what it is doing at that moment. A tail frantically or erratically swishing back and forth indicates discomfort and irritability and may be followed by a buck, bolt or other unwanted behavior.
A horse with one eye shut may have an allergy or eye problem which needs medical attention. Horses use the full range of their eyesight- a near 360 degree radius to protect themselves, requiring both eyes to be open simultaneously.
“Sound the alarm, it's a moving kitten!” A horse may snort with a mixture of fear and curiosity while in training (or out at pasture) to both distract itself from the work at hand, and to tell you and everyone available it has just seen something we should all be really, really concerned about (i.e. the kitten). Horses also sneeze and snort for the same reasons humans do- to get a particular particle or smell out of its nose.
Like a child throwing their toys from the back seat to the front seat, a horse tied or under saddle who paws is anxious, discontent and wants your attention. Aggressive pawing or stamping is seen when the horse is upset or irritated by something. Horses may also paw to investigate and inform itself about something on the ground.
Like a human who chews its fingernails, cribbing, or the act of a horse clamping down on wooden fences, water buckets, or anything it can wrap its teeth around while simultaneously inhaling large amounts of air is sometimes negative, unwanted behavior. Otherwise it is a red flag for digestive problems. Horses are susceptible to stomach ulcers and one quick way to alleviate their upset stomachs is to create more saliva. Along with damaged stalls, fences and other costly things, cribbing creates saliva, which fights the ulcer pain. Horses may genuinely need to crib to kick-start their salivary glands to aid in relieving ulcer pain or crib to pass the time, they are bored! Either way it is a costly habit that is best to be addressed as soon as it is noticed.
Typically infamous among stallions and geldings but normal among all horses since birth, the curling of the upper lip (also reffered to as the 'Flehmen response) indicates they have smelled, or sometimes tasted something really fantastically interesting. Whether it is a mare in heat or someone loaded up with powerful perfume, the horse's upper lip locks the smell in the passages of its olfactory system (smelling department) for further investigation of what that peculiar smell might be.
Horses lower their head to focus on things they see in the distance, and raise their head to concentrate on nearby things. Spirit, the cartoon horse with his head held high and proudly among his horse friends was probably not the best in his group for spotting faraway predators. Abnormal lowering or raising of the head while carrying a bit, particularly a new bit may indicate mouth discomfort or a tooth problem associated with the bits weight, size or position in the mouth. On the contrary, lowering the head while in motion, particularly at the trot indicates a loose back, and a relaxed, connection-accepting horse. It is a principal movement when teaching a horse the entry levels of dressage.
How to Modify a Horse's Behavior
Typically horse training falls first between one of two categories, positive or negative reinforcement, and various styles trickle down from either form of reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement includes:
- Feeding treats
- “Cooing” or saying something positive
- Pats or small scratches on the back or shoulder
- Rests between training objectives and free shaping
Negative reinforcement includes:
- Tapping with a whip or crop
- Kicking with heel or spur
- Repetition of something (backing up quickly, tight circles etc.)
If we could interview a horse today who has been trained using primarily positive reinforcement such as clicker training or natural horsemanship verses a horse broke out by a cowboy 100 years ago with primarily negative reinforcement, the assumption would be that the horse today would claim an easy, nonchalant connection with its rider or people in general.
Is it OK to Punish a Horse?
If neither positive nor negative reinforcement is effective and the horse continues to behave badly, punishing the horse is not a solution to solving the problem. Horses hit a level of confusion and misunderstanding and cannot conceptualize punishment. Punishment will only lead to fear and a lack of trust between the horse and its rider if used as a training method.
Positive vs Negative Reinforcement in Horses - Which is Better?
The best method is perhaps a mixture of all methods, some used more or less depending on the particular horse. If the method you are using is having little to no effect, bring in another person experienced in the method to assess the horse's progress, switch methods to your approach or take a break from it for a few days. When the horse is opposing everything, unresponsive or becomes a threat to those handling it, invest in a month or two of training with a professional. Professional horse trainers may be able to make more, effective progress because of their experience working with a variety of horses.