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 immoral, sinful, 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)