Is it Bad if my Horse…?
By Suzanne Rogers, Certified Equine Behaviour Consultant (IAABC)
In my work as an equine behaviourist I am often asked if it is ‘bad’ when a horse does certain behaviours such as licking and chewing, yawning or pawing the ground. Owners know that such behaviours can be a sign of stress, anxiety, frustration or fear and quite rightly worry about them. My answer is inevitably ‘it depends’ followed by many questions. This reflects the exciting and occasionally frustrating thing about studying animal behaviour – it can be complex and difficult to work out why animals do the things they do.
In general, you can’t take a single behaviour in isolation and say for sure what is happening. For example, a horse pawing the ground might be due to frustration or confusion during training, at feeding time or when tied up but horses might also paw the ground when exploring, grazing, clearing snow, if irritated by mites or in some play patterns/communication with other horses.
To help us consider whether an animal is behaving in a normal or abnormal way, or if they are showing a behaviour due to stress or a different reason we need to ask lots of questions and to consider the behaviour in context. Would a horse do this behaviour in the wild? In what situation? Is the behaviour we are seeing out of context or in context? Is the intensity/frequency of the behaviour normal? Is the behaviour a learnt behaviour? What is maintaining the behaviour? For example, a horse eating some wood is normal, around 10% of their diet is browsing on bushes and trees, but eating their way through a stable or tree would indicate some behavioural issues. Swishing the tail might be in response to irritation from flies, or a warning that you are getting too close.
We must appreciate that a snap-shot of behaviour is not enough to make statements or conclusions from – only comments and suggestions of what the motivation might be and what the animal might be thinking/feeling. However, the more we learn about species-specific behaviour, the more educated our questions will be, the better we will be able to interpret the answers and ultimately the better we will be able to understand animals.
With the increasing number of different training methods this is now more important than ever. Until there is a better understanding of how to interpret equine behaviour and body language people won’t be able to assess whether the way they manage their horse is meeting his/her needs (one of the first things to consider before training a horse or trying to solve a behaviour problem) or which training methods are more ethical and which should be avoided and thus make informed choices. I feel that more emphasis on learning and applying what is known about animals before ‘following’ a trainer would greatly help the horses who share their lives with us.