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)

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