SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Understanding Horse Behaviour

To become a responsible horse owner, it is important to understand basic horse behaviour.

Horses are highly social herd animals

A normal healthy horse would never live alone by choice. In a herd, horses have a rich and varied social life that includes activities such as play behaviour and mutual grooming behaviour. Horses that live in herds and graze naturally get to exercise their senses frequently. For example, they smell each other when greeting, they smell each other’s dung, and they use their senses of taste and smell when selecting which plants to graze. They use their visual and hearing senses to look out for and listen for danger.

Horses that live in a herd communicate with one another mainly by using body language. Horses living in herds can share the responsibility and take turns watching out for predators. A horse that is kept alone will be stressed due to not receiving the benefits of companionship.

Horses are a prey animal

Most horses will instinctively run at the first sign of danger, and for this reason horses are generally highly reactive. Good training can overcome this behaviour so that a horse and handler are safer. However, remember that if a horse feels trapped and cannot escape he/she may kick out, strike, or even bite. When handling a horse aim to read the body language of the horse and try to not push the horse to the point where he/she feels the need to escape or defend his/herself.

Horses need movement

In the wild horses travel many kilometres a day. Horses walk steadily while grazing and also have to travel between where the water is and where feed is. This steady movement helps to keep blood and lymphatic fluid moving around the body. It also helps to wear the hooves down as the horse moves across a variety of terrain ranging from soft and wet to abrasive and dry. Movement is an integral part of the life of a natural living horse so it is very important that domestic horses are kept in a way that encourages movement as much as possible.

Your horse’s behaviour is a good indicator of whether your horse is healthy or not.

To notice if a horse shows key signs of ill health, you must first understand how a horse behaves and how he/she looks when healthy. However, consider that the normal behaviour of individual horses varies to some extent, i.e. some horses are naturally more playful than others, so it is important that you know what is normal for your horse as well as what is normal behaviour for horses in general. Then you will notice when your horse is displaying abnormal behaviour which could be a sign that he or she is unwell.

A healthy horse

  • Is alert and inquisitive, sociable with other horses, and take part in normal herd behaviours such as mutual grooming sessions.
  • Sleeps for short spells throughout the day and night and runs around occasionally
  • Will roll occasionally, especially when returned to the paddock after exercising.
  • Has a good appetite
  • Moves enthusiastically with no signs of soreness or lameness when being ridden
  • Will pass manure 8-12 times a day without straining or signs of discomfort
  • Has a healthy and shiny coat that lies close to the body (some more than others)
  • Has clear and clean eyes, whereas it can be quite normal for a horse to have a small amount of clear liquid at the nostrils

Signs of an unhealthy horse are:

  • Standing around with the head low, even when movements of other horses and/or people would normally cause the horse to show interest
  • Not joining in with the herd when they carry out normal behaviours
  • Laying down more than normal or not at all
  • Tense or ‘tucked up’ flanks
  • Excessively anxious behaviour, sweating (Note: a healthy horse may sweat when the weather is very hot or after exercising)
  • Looking at the flanks and/or pawing the ground, repeatedly getting up and down or rolling (all signs of abdominal pain)
  • Yellow or green sticky mucus in the nostrils and/or eyes
  • Sudden unusual aggressive behaviour
  • A coat that is standing up may mean that the horse is ill and/or cold. A horse that has been ill/in poor condition for a long time will have a very poor, dry, ‘staring’ coat.
  • The horse may pass runny manure (or may not pass any) or strain to pass urine.

Basically any changes in normal behaviour should be investigated. If you think there is a problem and you do not know what it is then you need to call a vet.

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