Why Do Horses Change Their Behaviour?

By Jamie Finch | 31st July 2023

A horse which is happy and looking forwards

As horse owners and enthusiasts, understanding why horses change their behaviour is a matter of curiosity and crucial for their overall well-being and successful interaction with these magnificent creatures.

Horses are highly sentient beings with a complex range of emotions and instincts. 

Like any living being, they can exhibit shifts in their behaviour under various circumstances. I will explore the underlying reasons behind these changes and show how different factors impact their actions.

From the influence of instincts and herd dynamics to the effects of their environment, physical health, training methods, and psychological well-being, we will explore the intricate web of factors that contribute to behavioural variations in horses. 

By understanding these influences, you can better address and manage behavioural changes with compassion and expertise.

Natural Instincts and Social Dynamics

Horses are inherently social animals with complex systems of communication and social hierarchies. 

Understanding their instincts and social dynamics is vital to comprehend why their behaviour can shift in different situations.

Natural Instincts

Horses have evolved as prey animals, and their survival instincts play a significant role in their behaviour. 

Their heightened senses, such as keen hearing and acute vision, allow them to detect potential threats in their surroundings. 

These instincts can lead to sudden changes in behaviour, like spooking or bolting when they perceive danger, even if it appears seemingly harmless to us.

Additionally, their flight response is deeply ingrained, and horses may become more reactive or anxious in unfamiliar or stressful situations. Recognising and respecting these instincts is essential in building trust and ensuring the well-being of our equine companions.

Herd Dynamics

Horses are social creatures that form strong bonds with their herd members. 

The herd provides safety and stability, and its interactions influence individual behaviours. 

Horses establish a hierarchical order within the herd, clearly defining dominant and submissive roles.

When changes occur within the herd, such as introducing a new member or the departure of a familiar one, it can disrupt the established dynamics and result in behaviour changes. 

For instance, a dominant horse leaving the herd might cause a formerly submissive horse to rise in rank and display more assertive behaviour.

Examples of behaviour changes

By grasping the significance of instincts and herd dynamics in shaping equine behaviour, you can better comprehend and respond to changes in their actions. 

Additionally, creating an environment that respects their social nature and provides opportunities for appropriate social interactions can promote a healthier and more contented equine community.

Environmental Factors

The environment in which a horse lives and spends time plays a significant role in shaping its behaviour. 

Horses are incredibly wise creatures, and subtle changes in their surroundings can trigger behavioural alterations. 

As responsible horse owners and caregivers, you must be mindful of how the environment can impact our equine companions.

Stabling Conditions

The stable is a central part of a horse's daily life, and its design and maintenance can greatly influence its behaviour. 

A comfortable and well-maintained stall provides a haven for the horse to rest and recuperate. 

However, prolonged confinement in cramped or unsanitary conditions can lead to stress, frustration, and stereotypical behaviours like weaving or crib-biting.

Introducing changes to the stable environment, such as altering bedding material, adding enriching toys, or ensuring adequate ventilation and lighting, can positively impact the horse's overall well-being.

Pasture and Turnout

Horses are natural grazers, and adequate pasture time is vital for their physical and mental health. 

Regular turnout allows horses to engage in natural behaviours, socialise with herd members, and move freely, contributing to their overall contentment.

A lack of turnout or insufficient grazing time can lead to restlessness and increased energy, resulting in behaviour changes such as excessive pacing or aggressiveness. 

Changes in Surroundings

Horses are creatures of habit, and abrupt environmental changes can be unsettling. 

Relocation to a new stable, introduction to unfamiliar surroundings, or exposure to new objects can trigger anxiety and behavioural adjustments.

Slowly introducing changes and providing a calming and reassuring environment during transitions can help horses adapt more smoothly. Familiarity and routine are essential for their mental well-being, especially during change.

Seasonal Influences

Seasonal changes can also impact equine behaviour. 

For instance, during colder months, horses may become more energetic due to the cooler temperatures, while during warmer months, they may seek shade and be less active during the hottest parts of the day.

Understanding and adjusting our care routines according to seasonal variations can aid in keeping our horses comfortable and content throughout the year.

Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment refers to providing mentally stimulating activities and opportunities for horses to engage in natural behaviours. Incorporating activities such as foraging, interactive toys, or varied obstacles in their environment can help prevent boredom and reduce the likelihood of undesirable behaviours.

By paying close attention to the environmental factors surrounding our horses, we can create an environment that promotes their physical and mental well-being. 

Providing a stable and pasture setup that caters to their instincts and needs enhances their quality of life. 

It helps minimise the risk of behaviour changes arising from environmental stressors.

Physical Health and Pain

A horse's physical health is intimately connected to their behaviour. When horses experience discomfort or pain, they often express it through changes in their behaviour. As responsible caretakers, it is essential to be vigilant about recognising signs of physical distress, as addressing these issues promptly can improve their comfort and behaviour.

Recognising Signs of Pain

Horses are masters at masking pain, as it is a survival strategy inherited from their wild ancestors. 

However, keen observation can reveal subtle clues that indicate potential discomfort. 

Some common signs of pain in horses include:

Dental Issues

Dental problems can significantly impact a horse's behaviour, especially if they experience discomfort while eating or wearing a bit. 

Regular dental check-ups and floating (rasping) of teeth are crucial to maintaining proper dental health and preventing potential behaviour changes related to dental pain.

Hoof and Foot Problems

Lameness caused by hoof or foot issues can significantly affect a horse's behaviour and movement. 

Regular hoof care, including trimming, is essential to prevent and address problems related to the feet.

Illness and Internal Pain

Horses suffering from internal health issues like colic, ulcers, or infections may display discomfort or behavioural changes. 

Prompt care is essential to diagnose and treat these conditions effectively.

Chronic Conditions and Aging

Some horses may develop chronic health conditions as they age, such as arthritis or Cushing's disease. 

These conditions can lead to changes in behaviour and mobility. 

Proper management and care can help improve their quality of life.

Traumatic Experiences

Past injuries or traumatic experiences can cause lingering pain, leading to behavioural changes. Understanding a horse's history and any previous injuries can provide insight into its current behaviour.

By addressing physical health concerns proactively, we can minimise the potential impact of pain on their behaviour and help them lead healthier and more comfortable lives. 

Remember, a healthy and happy horse is likelier to exhibit positive and cooperative behaviour.

Training and Handling

Training and handling play a crucial role in shaping a horse's behaviour. Horses are intelligent and sensitive creatures, and the methods used for their training can significantly impact their trust, willingness to cooperate, and overall demeanour. 

Employing a positive and respectful approach to training proves effective. It helps establish a strong bond between the horse and the handler.

Positive reinforcement-based training is a powerful method that rewards desired behaviours rather than punishing undesirable ones. 

When a horse responds appropriately to cues or commands, they are rewarded with praise, treats, or other positive stimuli. 

This approach creates positive associations with training sessions, encouraging the horse to be more eager and cooperative.

Clear communication between the handler and the horse is paramount for successful training. Horses are highly attuned to body language, voice cues, and touch. 

Providing clear and consistent cues helps the horse understand what is expected of them, reducing confusion and potential behavioural issues.

Patience and consistency are essential virtues in training. 

Horses may only grasp new concepts after a period of time, and pushing them too hard can lead to frustration and resistance. 

A gradual and consistent approach, patience, and understanding are key to achieving long-lasting positive behaviour changes.

Avoiding harsh training techniques is of utmost importance. 

Using physical punishment or fear-based tactics can cause stress and erode the trust between the horse and the handler. 

These approaches may result in defensive or aggressive behaviour from the horse, making training more challenging and potentially dangerous.

Building trust and confidence is foundational for successful training. Establishing a strong bond of trust with the horse allows them to feel safe and secure, which promotes a calm and cooperative attitude. 

Positive interactions and rewards help build the horse's confidence, making them more willing to try new things and face challenges.

Recognising the individuality of each horse is crucial. 

Each horse is unique and may respond differently to various training techniques. 

Tailoring the training methods to suit their temperament, learning style, and past experiences is essential for successful training outcomes.

In cases where a horse exhibits behavioural issues during training or handling, seeking assistance from a qualified equine behaviourist or trainer can be highly beneficial. 

These professionals can assess the situation, identify underlying causes, and provide guidance on addressing and correcting specific behavioural challenges.

Employing positive and patient training methods and maintaining clear and respectful communication with our horses can create a harmonious and cooperative partnership. 

A well-trained and well-handled horse is likelier to exhibit desirable behaviours, making interactions safer and more enjoyable for both the horse and the handler. 

Remember, training is an ongoing process that requires dedication and empathy to nurture a strong and trusting bond with our equine companions.

Emotional and Psychological Factors

Like humans, horses also experience various emotions and can be influenced by various psychological factors. 

Understanding and addressing their emotional needs are essential for promoting positive and balanced behaviour in your equine partners.

As horse owners, being attuned to our horses' emotional and psychological well-being is as vital as addressing their physical needs. Providing a supportive and nurturing environment that considers their emotional needs can promote healthier behaviour and cultivate a deeper connection with our equine companions. 

Empathy, understanding, and patience are key in fostering emotional well-being in horses, enabling them to flourish mentally and emotionally.

Age and Developmental Stages

Horses go through various developmental stages as they grow and mature, and their behaviour naturally evolves with each phase. Understanding these age-related changes is essential for providing appropriate care and training to support their physical and mental development.

During the first few months of life, foals are curious and playful beings, heavily reliant on their dams for nourishment and protection. 

They begin to learn social skills and hierarchies when interacting with their mothers and other herd members. 

This early stage is critical for introducing positive human interactions and handling, as it lays the foundation for a well-adjusted and trusting adult horse.

As yearlings, horses enter a phase of rapid growth and physical development. 

They may display bursts of energy and test boundaries as they explore their environment. 

To channel their energy constructively and encourage good manners, yearlings benefit from appropriate exercise, socialisation with other horses, and positive reinforcement-based training.

During adulthood, typically between the ages of 3 to 9 years, horses have reached their physical maturity. 

They tend to display more stability in their behaviour. 

However, individual personality traits and life experiences still influence their responses to various stimuli. 

Maintaining consistent training, exercise, and routine during this phase is crucial to keep adult horses mentally engaged and content.

Senior horses, aged 10 years and older, are like older humans in that they may experience physical and cognitive changes with age. 

They may become less active and show signs of conditions like arthritis. Senior horses benefit from specialised care, such as joint supplements, soft bedding, and regular veterinary check-ups to ensure their comfort and well-being in their golden years.

Each developmental stage comes with its unique challenges. 

Training a young and spirited horse may require a different approach than working with a seasoned adult horse. 

Understanding each stage's specific needs and characteristics allows horse owners to tailor their care and training methods accordingly.

Horses are continually learning and adapting throughout their lives. 

Even in their senior years, they can benefit from mental stimulation and light exercise to keep their minds sharp and their bodies limber. 

Lifelong learning and positive interactions contribute to a horse's happiness and well-being.

Recognising horses' unique traits and requirements at different developmental stages empowers horse owners to provide appropriate care, training, and attention. 

As horses transition from foals to mature adults and seniors, understanding their changes allows us to support their needs better and promote a fulfilling and healthy life for our beloved equine companions.

Addressing Behavioral Changes

By addressing behavioural changes with a thoughtful and compassionate approach, you can support our horses' well-being and strengthen our bond with them. 

With patience, understanding, and a commitment to their happiness, you can help your equine companions lead fulfilling and contented lives. Remember, addressing behavioural changes is not just about correcting unwanted behaviours; it is about understanding and meeting the horse's needs to ensure a harmonious and respectful partnership.

Conclusion

Understanding why horses change their behaviour is critical to responsible horse ownership and horsemanship. Throughout this blog post, I have explored the diverse factors influencing equine behaviour, ranging from instincts and social dynamics to environmental stressors, physical health, and psychological well-being.

Positive reinforcement-based training, clear communication, and patience are essential in shaping desirable behaviours and promoting trust between horse and handler. 

Considering each horse's individuality and developmental stage allows us to tailor our care and training methods to suit their unique needs and characteristics.

Emphasising mental and physical enrichment, providing a safe and secure environment, and seeking professional assistance when needed are all steps we can take to ensure our equine companions lead happy and fulfilling lives.

By building a strong and harmonious partnership with our horses, we can deepen our understanding of these magnificent animals and enrich our lives through the special bond we share with them.

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