Understanding Horse Behavior

To understand horse behavior, the best place to start is to observe them in a natural setting where their true natural horse behavior can be seen.

In this environment, where man does not impede upon their will, we discover the social order of a prey species animal.

To Discover "The Secret Lives of Horses" to the fullest Click Here!

Defining Prey vs. Predator:

grazing horse

A prey animal species means that it is an herbivorous grazing animal and is killed and eaten by predator animals such as a lion or a wolf (humans are considered a predator species, after all we do eat grazing animals).

Herbivorous grazing animal means that it is a vegetarian that gets its food by grazing. Amongst the prey species you basically have two behavior types as well. The best example of distinguishing the two is to notice that cattle and sheep of the prey species will bunch together for safety while horses and deer will choose to flee or take flight from danger.

This is very important to know because “flight animals” are much more skittish and will startle more easily than a prey animal that bunches together. As a result a flight animal is more easily “traumatized”.

Without the ability to flee, horses will turn and fight with their hind feet, teeth or strike!

What will set off both kinds of prey animals is sudden, unfamiliar and fast movement the animal isn’t expecting. In horse behavior terms, we often refer to this as spooking. They rely on vision first to detect danger before other senses such as smell. What is important to note is to a horse “danger” really means “being killed”!

horse's eye

With this in mind have you noticed many horses are more skittish when the wind blows and even familiar objects become scary things?

Unfamiliar sudden movements will trigger natural FEAR in horses. FEAR leads to PANIC and panic leads to FIGHT or FLIGHT.

To see an example of this click here.

Click here for information on Wild Horses vs. Domesticated Horses

For some history of horses dating back to the Ice Age click here!

Ever wonder why horses yawn? Click here!

Horse Hierarchy

In a natural herd environment herds usually live in small groups. A stallion might live with only four to six mares (depending on the territory) and the other stallions will live in bachelor groups. It’s been long thought that it was the stallion that led the herds but more recent observation has proven that the leader is usually an older mare of the group.

They do not require a large group to protect themselves, because of their natural instinct of flight. However a single horse alone would be under a constant state of pressure needing to look out for danger to protect them.

In the domesticated environments today our stallions rarely have opportunity if ever to enjoy a herd scenario which has also been the culprit for behavior problems.

The best set up I ever saw was where the stallion’s paddock was in the middle of the area that the rest of the horses had access to. Certainly the fence was made of steel and high to prevent unwanted breeding but those stallions were socially and emotionally balanced.

Learning how a mare LEADS the herd is essential to applying her skills with your horses. It’s not about “dominance” it’s about “leadership”. I have often experienced these to be similar yet two separate issues.

Click here to see an example of the body language used when a new horse is integrated into another herds environment

What does the horse behavior DOMINANCE look like?

dominant horse

Many will interpret dominance as a self assured or a confident horse. Part of this is true, however rarely will the herd members choose to follow a dominant horse - this is because that horse usually displays exuberance or a high level of emotional but deep down inside they are like a child testing the parent for decision making control.

What works best for us when dealing with a dominant horse is a respect for their perspective, whilst demonstrating confidence to show them that we have solved the decision making process. This is achieved easily through very consistent training habits as it is leadership these horses are looking for.

Click here to watch a video on Dominant Horse Behavior and learn how to win them over!

What does the horse behavior LEADERSHIP look like?

It may surprise you to hear that a lead horse is usually pretty subtle in their horse behavior. Their horse behavior signals are much harder to detect.

What I find most interesting is their ability to move or direct other members of the herd without the emotional outbursts you usually see in the more dominant horses.

Learning how to use your body language to move another horse is the secret to gaining respect and leadership.

The above picture is a good example of who the true leader is in our herd at home.

The first horse is Sweet Pea (18 yr. old mare), the second horse is her daughter Little Bit (16 yr. old mare) trailing behind is Atlas (9 yr. old dominant gelding).

Sweet Pea has repeatedly demonstrated the horse behavior of a true leader and all the horses happily follow her. If all these horses were to escape out of the paddock, I wouldn’t need to catch three horses, only one, Sweet Pea.

To read more about behaviour in a herd go to:

The Horse's Perspective

  • Horse Psychology 101
  • I Herd It Through The Grapevine

These are anecdotes written to help you learn horse behavior from the horse's point of view. We encourage you to "walk a mile in their hooves" to see the world through their eyes and discover the prey animal's life.

Have you ever wondered if a Horse's name impacts their behavior? You will find out here!

Recommended Reading

Recommended reading is the book, “Animals Make Us Human”, by Temple Grandin

This is a fantastic book that reveals the scientific results of understanding horse behavior, the best way to help them learn and the training methods that are most humane and effective.

Also Animals in Translation is another great book by Temple Grandin.

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