THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HORSE – part 4 of 5

Many of the situations in which we keep horses mean that it’s not possible for them to be turned out all the time.  We therefore need to think of ways of making their time in the stable more ‘natural’.  For example, think of how the horse interacts with his surroundings when within a herd.  He likes to be able to see around him and to see his herd-mates.  Horses prefer to be in light, airy stables where they can see out, and preferably where they can see, and even touch, other horses.  Stables such as these below are not natural for horses as they are dark and there is no view of the outside:

By contrast the stables below are preferable as they allow the horse to see much more of what is going on and give him some outdoor space:

It is also a good idea to have the doors of the stables close enough to one another so that the horses can reach out and touch noses:

However, stabling is never ideal.  A recent study by Nottingham Trent University showed that stabled and isolated horses suffer higher stress levels and are harder to manage. Humans think that stables provide them with a warm and cosy sanctuary but the horses themselves find them a miserable and stressful experience (reported in The Barefoot Horse magazine, Issue 6, 2015).  Possible alternatives are the Paddock Paradise (or ‘Track’) and Equicentral Systems.  (I mentioned Track Systems briefly in another blog which you can see here)

I’d like to also briefly mention box-rest here.  This is sometimes necessary following injury or illness but we also need to be aware of the horse’s need to move, to have company and to avoid stress in order to heal.  They also need daylight in order to synthesise Vitamin D.  One option therefore might be a restricted area outdoors where they can still see and interact with other horses.  An example of this is shown in this YouTube video.

In the last part of this series I’ll look at diet and other ways to support your horse’s wellbeing and therefore the bond between you.

 

(You can read this article in full here)

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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HORSE – part 3 of 5

Last week I mentioned that stabling can be stressful for horses, so what can we do to provide them with a more appropriate environment?

Where at all possible it is best to try to create natural conditions as far as possible.  Ideally this would be for the horse to be turned out, day and night, with other horses, to form a herd.  This needs to be handled sensitively however as, in fact, this is still an artificial situation for the horse.  In the wild herds are made up of family members.  The lead stallion looks after a ‘harem’ of mares.  He mates with all the mares, meaning that he is the father of the foals.  It is his responsibility to protect his family from predators, to warn when danger is approaching, to ward or fight off rival stallions and to discipline other horses who get out of line.

The herd also has a lead mare who is usually an older and more experienced mare.  Her role is to find grazing areas for the group and to lead them to water.  She also leads the other horses away from danger while the stallion protects from behind.  She is typically the leader in day-to-day matters.

Mares will only mate with the lead stallion, unless a rival has snuck in to snatch a female.  Foals are usually born in the Spring, and often at night, the mare moving away from the rest of the group to find a quiet, safe spot to give birth.  Within one hour the foal is normally ready to stand, and within two it is strong enough to run.  At this point the mother will lead her foal back to the herd.

Fillies will be chased away from the herd when they are sexually mature (one year or older) and will soon join another stallion and his harem.  Colts will also be removed from the herd when they are sexually mature (two plus years old) and will join a bachelor group.  This group consists of other colts and stallions without a harem of their own.  They spend their days eating, sleeping and practising fighting for when they win their own group of mares.

A stallion’s life can be hard, looking after his herd and fighting to win mares, grazing and access to water.  Stallions will generally avoid full fights whenever possible, trying instead to win through displaying their size and strength.  Sometimes however fights do occur and these can be severe.  Most older stallions have scars which bear witness to their many battles.  Bachelor bands can be crafty and can spell trouble for a stallion.  Sometimes one of the band will fight the lead stallion of the herd while another steals the mares. (http://www.wildhorseeducation.com/wh_tutorial/module2.html).

This description is actually rather simplistic and the herd’s social structure is more complex.  The group often acts as a single entity.  The horses will spread themselves out to graze, each animal facing in a different direction, effectively giving them an all round view to watch out for predators.

A horse’s usual way of interacting is one of cooperation, synchronisation and leading / following, rather than dominance.  Any member of the herd who sees a threat can lead the others, by starting to run.  The rest sense the movement and follow.  This cooperation encourages cohesion within the herd, allowing them to live together peacefully, so maximising their chances of surviving.  The horses will also follow leads in terms of moving off to look for new grazing or water.  In the day-to-day life of the herd, horses tend to defer to those who are older or more experienced.  These horses are the ones who appear calm and assured, rather than those who are nervous, or even those who are bossy.  Horses like to feel safe, and they are attracted to those who make them feel this way.  They are also very sensitive to the energy of others and they can quickly assess who makes them feel relaxed and who doesn’t.

In the herds that we create we need to respect these sorts of interactions and the social structure that develops.  If we don’t, we could be exposing horses to the risk of bullying or of one being ostracised by the others.  Within a herd you can notice that certain horses will tend to spend a lot of time in each others’ company.  Looking at the herd as a whole you will see pairs of horses grazing, standing, playing or grooming together.  These pair bonds can be very strong so it is worth being aware of which horses spend a lot of time together and of how they all fit together in the herd.  Having a pair bond provides company for a horse and also means that there is an extra pair of eyes looking out for you.  Being on your own, without a buddy, even in a herd, means that you are more likely to fall prey to a predator.  As humans we need to be sensitive to these bonds and not make sudden changes, either by adding a horse to an established herd, or by removing a horse from his buddy.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just is not possible to offer 24/7 turnout for our horses, so next week I’ll look at some ways to support their wellbeing when they are indoors.

 

(You can read this article in full here)

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HORSE – part 2 of 5

Last week I looked at some of the similarities and differences between us and our equine friends.  One of the ways we can see this is in our use of body language.  For example, when two horses meet, they introduce each other by approaching slowly, often at an angle rather than directly.  They are very respectful of each others’ space and will read each others’ body language to know if it is acceptable to come closer.  If they are both comfortable they will come close enough to touch noses.

As humans we often walk directly up to horses, even those we don’t know very well, which is contrary to their code of behaviour.  Instead we could learn from their example and approach slowly and gently, watching for signs of how the horse feels as we enter his space.  Stopping a few feet from the horse and extending a hand, allowing him to choose whether or not to come close and make the first contact, respects the horse’s need to assess new situations, making sure that they are safe and that there is no threat.

When two horses know each other well and have built up a mutual trust, they will often groom each other.  Humans tend to pat their horses  but perhaps a better way would be to mirror the horses’ own behaviour and scratch instead.  Find the place that the horse enjoys being scratched — his body language will let you know when you’ve hit the right spot!  It will often be in the places that he cannot reach himself such as the neck, withers or rump.

If you’d like to learn more about equine body language and facial expression you might like to read my other blog series, part 1 of which can be found here.  I also have a video on this topic which forms part of a series.  Follow this link to see more.

As horses are herd animals their natural instinct is to be with others of their kind.  Living in a herd means protection: many eyes looking out for each other.  Also horses prefer to be in open spaces where they can see in all directions, knowing that they can spot a predator in time to run away.  Living in a stable therefore is not natural to a horse, both because they are on their own in the stall, and because they cannot see far and they are unable to run.  On top of that, life in a stable can be very boring with only four walls to look at for hours on end.

This can be very stressful for a horse and can lead to behaviours which have been labelled stable ‘vices’, a rather unfortunate term since the definition of vice is:

“a practice, behaviour, or habit generally considered immoralsinful, depraved, or degrading in the associated society. In more minor usage, vice can refer to a fault, a negative character trait, a defect, an infirmity, or a bad or unhealthy habit (such as an addiction to smoking).

Synonyms for vice include fault, sin, depravity, iniquity, wickedness, and corruption.”   (Wikipedia)

This seems to place the fault with the horse instead of looking at the underlying reason for the behaviour.  All we need to do to understand this stress is to put ourselves ‘in the horses shoes’ and imagine how we would feel if we were left totally alone in a box with no-one to talk to and nothing to do.

In next week’s post I’ll look at what you can do to support greater wellbeing for your horse.

 

(You can read this article in full here)

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HORSE – part 1 of 5

Horse Psychology can be defined as:

”the scientific study of the horse’s mind and its functions.  Encompassing the mental characteristics or attitude of the species”

http://www.training-horses-naturally.com/horse-psychology.html

(link no longer available)

This field of study is growing so hopefully, as we come to understand horses better, our care of them, and thus our relationships with them, will improve.

To understand how a horse’s mind works you need to study horses in their natural environment, ie in the wild, not in the stable.  This gives you an insight into the nature of the species.  The Horse Stall website Horse Stall website says that domesticated horses are protected by their guardians and provided with food and care, therefore they seldom have to think about much “other than play or having their own way”.  They say that for these horses their “reasoning comes from boredom, the desire to get out of work, and a search for forbidden food”.

To me this view comes from a rather negative mindset.  Sadly horses are sometimes labelled as being ‘stupid’, ‘stubborn’ or ‘lazy’ but I believe that generally it is more a case of us not understanding the world from their point of view.

Horses are herd animals and a prey species therefore their first instinct in times of potential danger is to run away.  If they are not able to run for some reason, then they will fight.  One trigger for this flight or fight behaviour is rapid movement.  Horses also have a structure within the herd and, when this is stable, each horse knows his place within the society, and knows how to behave.

Humans, on the other hand, are predator animals and we tend to make sudden movements.  Also we often don’t understand the signals that horses are sending out.  Our challenge therefore is to not act like a predator and to learn how to interact with our animals in a way that does not trigger their fear.  It would also be helpful to learn and respect the herd structure and to work with that, rather than against it.

Our two species actually have quite a bit in common, since both horses and humans are very sociable creatures and we each operate according to our social rules, the difference being that the rules for horses are first and foremost based on their instinct for survival.  To a horse, the way he behaves, certainly in the wild, could mean the difference between life and death.

We also share many emotional states with these animals.  They too feel love, fear, sadness, loneliness, loss, anxiety, and happiness.  In addition we both respond to others who make us feel confidence, trust and respect, and we both like to feel safe.

On the other hand, horses do not have an ego.  They do not tend to hold on to baggage in the same way that we do.  They generally do not carry guilt, judgements, prejudices, shame or the need for approval.  When interacting with horses, therefore, it is important to understand how they see the world and not to view their behaviour through a human lens, applying labels from this judgement.  We can observe how they behave towards each other and work to find a middle ground where horse and human can meet and develop a mutual understanding and a shared communication.

Next week I’ll look at some of the ways horses use body language in their interactions.

 

(You can read this article in full here)

Holistic Fundraser Event in February

On Saturday 10 February this year I will be taking part in this fundraiser event in the Guildhall, Bath.

For further information please go to the event website:

Holistic Horse Welfare Fundraiser

 

To visit the HorseWorld website and learn more about the amazing work they do with rescued and retired horses, click here.