Why do our horses get behaviour problems?

We place many demands on our horses that are at odds with how they have developed over millions of years of evolution:

  • we expect them to stand for long hours in isolation in stables, when their natural need is to move around in groups in the open;
  • we ask them to enter dark, enclosed horseboxes which prohibit their ability to flee from danger, and into which a horse cannot see because of the way its eye adjusts to changes in light;
  • we expect them to ride out alone, when their primary evolutionary need is for the safety provided by a settled group and a pair bond;
  • we wean them at an average of four months old, when foals in the wild will stay in the same herd as their mother, often for life and certainly until they are adults, learning all the while their identity as a horse and the social etiquette of the herd. 

We believe that domestication has influenced the way horses respond to our demands, but horses have been domesticated for only the blink of an eye in comparison to the way evolution has developed their responses.  Horses need to develop successful coping strategies to adapt to our demands, and it is these coping strategies themselves, or the horse’s failure to cope, that sometimes cause behavioural, and also physical, problems.

Many owners and riders experience behavioural problems with their horses, for example:

  • Napping
  • Rearing
  • Bolting
  • Difficult for vet/farrier to handle
  • Shying
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Rug tearing
  • Difficult to tack up
  • Leading problems
  • Difficult to tie up
  • Difficult to catch
  • Refusing to load
  • Box walking
  • Weaving
  • Crib biting
  • Wind sucking

Horses on box rest find it particularly difficult to cope with their restricted environment and can develop behavioural problems as a result.

Behaviour therapy can help resolve these problems.

Behavioural problems stem from innate responses such as anxiety, fear and pain.  They develop because the horse is faced with an environment for which it unprepared in terms of evolution, natural behaviours and psychology, and they can worsen because they are reinforced by the way the horse learns, eventually becoming automatic responses (“he always refuses to load!”) which have become “hard-wired” in the horse’s brain.  Behavioural problems will be worse if the horse’s environment prevents them carrying out their repertoire of natural behaviours.

Physical issues too can have a behavioural connection: where a horse fails to adapt to their environment and the demands placed on them, they suffer physical as well as mental stress: this has a negative effect on body systems including the immune response, the inflammatory process (making inflammation more likely for example in skin conditions such as sweet itch), blood pressure and blood sugar.  Chemical activity in the brain is affected by stress and this in turn has a negative effect on horses’ behaviour.

Published by animalbehaviourclinics

ABTC registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist (equine/canine), international author and speaker, expert witness, supervisor/mentor/lecturer

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