On the other hand, most light horse riding breeds were developed for speed, agility, alertness, and endurance; building on natural qualities that extended from their wild ancestors. Horses evolved from small mammals whose survival depended on their ability to flee from predators.
Humans have removed many predators from the life of the domestic horse; however, its first instinct when frightened is to escape. If running is not possible, the horse resorts to biting, kicking, striking or rearing to protect itself.
Many of the horse's natural behavior patterns, such as herd -formation and social facilitation of activities, are directly related to their being a prey species. The fight-or-flight response involves nervous impulses which result in hormone secretions into the bloodstream.
When a horse reacts to a threat, it may initially “freeze” in preparation to take flight. The fight-or-flight reaction begins in the amygdala, which triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus.
The initial reaction is followed by activation of the pituitary gland and secretion of the hormone ACTH. The adrenal gland is activated almost simultaneously and releases the neurotransmitters epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).
Catecholamine hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action. The result is a rapid rise in blood pressure, resulting in an increased supply of oxygen and glucose for energy to the brain and skeletal muscles, the most vital organs the horse needs when fleeing from a perceived threat.
Horses are highly social herd animals that prefer to live in a group. Newer research shows that there is no “pecking order” in horse herds.
Free ranging, wild horses are mostly communicating via positive Reinforcement and less via punishment. Horses are able to form companionship attachments not only to their own species, but with other animals as well, including humans.
In fact, many domesticated horses will become anxious, flighty, and hard to manage if they are isolated. Horses kept in near-complete isolation, particularly in a closed stable where they cannot see other animals, may require a stable companion such as a cat, goat, or even a small pony or donkey, to provide company and reduce stress.
Feral and wild horse “herds” are usually made up of several, small “bands” which share a territory. In bands, there is usually a single herd or “lead” stallion, though occasionally a few less-dominant males may remain on the fringes of the group.
The reproductive success of the lead stallion is determined in part by his ability to prevent other males from mating with the mares of his harem. The stability of the band is not affected by size, but tends to be more stable when there are subordinate stallions attached to the harem.
Fights for dominance are normally brief; sometimes, displays which do not involve physical contact are sufficient to maintain the hierarchy. As with many animals that live in large groups, establishment of a stable hierarchical system or “pecking order” is important to reduce aggression and increase group cohesion.
Once a dominance hierarchy is established, horses more often than not will travel in rank order. Most young horses in the wild are allowed to stay with the herd until they reach sexual maturity, usually in their first or second year.
The fillies usually join another band soon afterward, and the colts driven out from several herds usually join together in small “bachelor” groups until those who are able to establish dominance over an older stallion in another herd. Rather, the horse that tends to lead a wild or feral herd is most commonly a dominant mare.
A recent supplemental theory posits that there is “distributed leadership”, and no single individual is a universal herd leader. Stallions tend to stay on the periphery of the herd where they fight off both predators and other males.
Domesticated stallions, with human management, often mate with (“cover”) more mares in a year than is possible in the wild. Traditionally, thoroughbred stud farms limited stallions to breeding with between 40 and 60 mares a year.
With use of artificial insemination, one stallion could potentially sire thousands of offspring annually, though in practice, economic considerations usually limit the number of foals produced. Some breeders keep horses in semi-natural conditions, with a single stallion amongst a group of mares.
While this has advantages of less intensive labor for human caretakers, and full-time turnout (living in pasture) may be psychologically healthy for the horses, pasture breeding presents a risk of injury to valuable breeding stock, both stallions and mares, particularly when unfamiliar animals are added to the herd. Mature, domesticated stallions are commonly kept by themselves in a stable or small paddock.
When stallions are stabled in a manner that allows visual and tactile communication, they will often challenge each another and sometimes attempt to fight. Therefore, stallions are often kept isolated from each other to reduce the risk of injury and disruption to the rest of the stable.
In some cases, stallions are released for exercise at different times of the day to ensure they do not see or hear each another. To avoid stable vices associated with isolation, some stallions are provided with a non-horse companion, such as a castrated donkey or a goat (the Go dolphin Arabian was particularly fond of a barn cat ).
One example of this was the racehorse Sea biscuit, who lived with a gelding companion named “Pumpkin”. Stallions live peacefully in bachelor herds in the wild and in natural management settings.
For example, the stallions in the New Forest (U.K.) live in bachelor herds on their winter grazing pastures. An example of this is the stallions of the Spanish Riding School, which travel, train and are stabled in proximity.
There are also studies suggesting that a foal will “inherit” or perhaps imprint dominance behavior from its dam, and at maturity seek to obtain the same rank in a later herd that its mother held when the horse was young. Horses communicate in various ways, including vocalizations such as nickering, squealing or whinnying; touch, through mutual grooming or nuzzling; smell; and body language.
Horses use a combination of ear position, neck and head height, movement, and foot stomping or tail swishing to communicate. Discipline is maintained in a horse herd first through body language and gestures, then, if needed, through physical contact such as biting, kicking, nudging, or other means of forcing a misbehaving herd member to move.
In most cases, the animal that successfully causes another to move is dominant, whether it uses only body language or adds physical reinforcement. Horses can interpret the body language of other creatures, including humans, whom they view as predators.
Humans do not always understand this, however, and may behave in a way, particularly if using aggressive discipline, that resembles an attacking predator and triggers the horse's fight-or-flight response. Human handlers are more successful if they learn to properly interpret a horse's body language and temper their own responses accordingly.
Other methods encourage operant conditioning to teach the horse to respond in a desired way to human body language, but also teach handlers to recognize the meaning of horse body language. The sclera of this horse's eye shows a bit of white, but it is not rolled back in fear or anger. Tense, backward ear position indicating apprehension.
Mouth and lips are also tense, which may indicate an increased tendency to bite. Ear position is often one of the most obvious behaviors that humans notice when interpreting horse body language.
In general, a horse will direct the Penna of an ear toward the source of input it is also looking at. Similarly, when a horse turns both ears forward, the degree of tension in the horse's Penna suggests if the animal is calmly attentive to its surroundings or tensely observing a potential danger.
However, because horses have strong monocular vision, it is possible for a horse to position one ear forward and one ear back, indicative of similar divided visual attention. This behavior is often observed in horses while working with humans, where they need to simultaneously focus attention on both their handler and their surroundings.
Due to the nature of a horse's vision, head position may indicate where the animal is focusing attention. To focus on a distant object, a horse will raise its head.
To focus on an object close by, and especially on the ground, the horse will lower its nose and carry its head in a near-vertical position. Ear position, head height, and body language may change to reflect emotional status as well.
For example, the clearest signal a horse sends is when both ears are flattened tightly back against the head, sometimes with eyes rolled so that the white of the eye shows, often indicative of pain or anger, frequently foreshadowing aggressive behavior that will soon follow. Sometimes ears laid back, especially when accompanied by a strongly swishing tail or stomping or pawing with the feet are signals used by the horse to express discomfort, irritation, impatience, or anxiety.
However, horses with ears slightly turned back but in a loose position, may be drowsing, bored, fatigued, or simply relaxed. When a horse raises its head and neck, the animal is alert and often tense.
A lowered head and neck may be a sign of relaxation, but depending on other behaviors may also indicate fatigue or illness. Slight tail swishing is often a tool to dislodge biting insects or other skin irritants.
The tail tucked tightly against the body may indicate discomfort due to cold or, in some cases, pain. The horse may demonstrate tension or excitement by raising its tail, but also by flaring its nostrils, snorting, and intently focusing its eyes and ears on the source of concern.
Bared teeth, as noted above, are an expression of anger and an imminent attempt to bite. Horses, particularly foals, sometimes indicate appeasement of a more aggressive herd member by extending their necks and clacking their teeth.
Horses making a chewing motion with no food in the mouth do so as a soothing mechanism, possibly linked to a release of tension, though some horse trainers view it as an expression of submission. Horses will sometimes extend their upper lip when scratched in a wonderful spot, and if their mouth touches something at the time, their lip and teeth may move in a mutual grooming gesture.
They can doze and enter light sleep while standing, an adaptation from life as a prey animal in the wild. Horses are able to sleep standing up because a stay apparatus in their legs allows them to relax their muscles and doze without collapsing.
In the front legs, their equine forelimb anatomy automatically engages the stay apparatus when their muscles relax. The horse engages the stay apparatus in the hind legs by shifting its hip position to lock the patella in place.
At the stifle joint, a “hook” structure on the inside bottom end of the femur cups the patella and the medial patella ligament, preventing the leg from bending. Horses obtain needed sleep by many short periods of rest.
This is to be expected of a prey animal, that needs to be ready on a moment's notice to flee from predators. Horses require approximately two and a half hours of sleep, on average, in a 24-hour period.
Horses need to lie down occasionally, and prefer soft ground for a nap. They only have to lie down for an hour or two every few days to meet their minimum REM sleep requirements.
However, if a horse is never allowed to lie down, after several days it will become sleep-deprived, and in rare cases may suddenly collapse as it involuntarily slips into REM sleep while still standing. A horse kept entirely alone may not sleep well because its instincts are to keep a constant eye out for danger.
Horses have a strong grazing instinct, preferring to spend most hours of the day eating forage. Horses and other equips evolved as grazing animals, adapted to eating small amounts of the same kind of food all day long.
In the wild, the horse adapted to eating prairie grasses in semi-arid regions and traveling significant distances each day in order to obtain adequate nutrition. Thus, they are “trickle eaters,” meaning they have to have an almost constant supply of food to keep their digestive system working properly.
Horses can become anxious or stressed if there are long periods of time between meals. When stabled, they do best when they are fed on a regular schedule; they are creatures of habit and easily upset by changes in routine.
When confined with insufficient companionship, exercise or stimulation, horses may develop stable vices, an assortment of compulsive stereotypes considered bad habits, mostly psychological in origin, that include wood chewing, stall walking (walking in circles stress fully in the stall), wall kicking, “weaving” (rocking back and forth) and other problems. These have been linked to a number of possible causal factors, including a lack of environmental stimulation and early weaning practices.
Research is ongoing to investigate the neurological changes involved in the performance of these behaviors. “The 5 F's –Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fidget, Faint, Team Connections, vol 3 (no issue given)”.
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Doi: http://doi.org/10.1016/0168-1591(88)90102-5 “VanDierendonck MC, DE Tries H, Schiller Mph (1995) An Analysis of Dominance, Its Behavioral Parameters and Possible Determinants in a Herd of Icelandic horses in Captivity. Versace H, Stevens J, Vandemoortele H, Sigurjönsdöttir H, DE Tries H (2007) Aggression and dominance in matched groups of subadult Icelandic horses (Equus Catullus).
Viewed January 9, 20144, http://www.rug.nl/research/behavioural-ecology-and-self-organization/_pdf/kr_ea_bp14.pdf Archived 2014-01-09 at the Payback Machine Hood, R. (2017). “ “Instability of Harems of Feral Horses in Relation to Season and Presence of Subordinate Stallions”.
Historical and biological consideration of free roaming horses (FRS) 6" (PDF). Reproduced with permission from the Proceedings of the Beta Specialist Days on Behavior and Nutrition.
“We have the technology...” originally published in Daily Racing Form, March 12, 2002. Accessed July 2, 2010 ^ “Audio Samples of Common Horse Sounds”.