Ten Things We Do That Puzzle Horses
Since widespread domestication in 3000 BC, horses and humans have partnered in sport competitions and recreational pursuits as well as in working activities such as police work, agriculture, entertainment and therapy.
It might surprise you to learn that, in Australia, horses are more deadly than snakes and all venomous animals combined. Equine veterinarians are exposed to a high risk of workplace injury.
Does our familiar relationship with horses lead us to misinterpret their behaviour?
Analogues of social interactions between horses may occur in our interactions with them. Some of these may be directly beneficial for the horse while others may be unusual. Defence or flight responses that can leave us badly injured can be triggered by interactions which, from the horse's perspective, are abnormal or rude.
To keep our beloved equine counterparts healthy, there are many veterinary practises we impose that they may struggle to understand are to help them.
Injections, sutures and diagnostic procedures can be invasive and painful and the horses' natural reaction to pain is to flee. If they can’t, they may resort to aggression, such as biting or kicking.
This is why vets who treat horses are at more risk of injury than those treating other species. Equine vets sustain more workplace injuries than construction workers or firefighters.
Many horse people pat their horses as a form of affection and to reward a job well done. Horses have not evolved to pat each other — instead, they gently scratch or nibble each other to bond. A recent study showed patting increased horses’ heart rates, whereas scratching lowered them and was associated with relaxation and enjoyment.
Hoof care through regular cleaning, trimming or shoeing requires us to pick up a horse’s foot and hold it aloft for several minutes. This practice of immobilising the hoof restricts the horse’s ability to flee if it perceives a threat, which may be why many horses find hoof-handling stressful. Training a horse to accept having its feet and legs held requires patience to prevent injury to both the horse and the handler.
Horses in groups regularly groom each other in areas that aren’t sensitive or ticklish. Domesticated horses rely on humans to provide skin care. We like to groom our horses all over, however, grooming sensitive groin, inguinal and perineal regions can be unpleasant for horses. This can lead to potentially dangerous reactions such as tail-swishing, agitation and even biting of the handler.
Activities frequently resented by horses include pulling out 'excess' hair from the mane and tail, and trimming or removing body hair, facial whiskers and the protective hair inside the ears. The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) recently passed a new rule that prohibits the clipping/shaving of sensory hairs was passed as part of the veterinary regulations. The Veterinary Committee believes that the horse’s sensory hairs must not be trimmed or removed as it reduces the horse’s sensory ability.
Spraying fly repellent is common enough for many humans but it creates a strange noise and may be perceived as an unpleasant stimuli when lands on a horse's sensitive skin. The strong chemical scent can also be aversive, given their highly sensitive sense of smell. Patient training is often needed to counter-condition horses to stand quietly while being sprayed.
We often need to get horses from A to B, but they are claustrophobic with 320° vision, so loading them into dark, narrow spaces with unstable footing, like floats and horse boxes, challenges a species that has evolved to avoid such spaces.
Difficulties with loading and dangerous behaviours during transport are not uncommon. These responses are generally manifestations of panic and include rushing off the trailer and pulling back when tied up.
There remains a substantial risk of adverse welfare and health outcomes for horses transported with management practices not compliant with the Australian Code of horse transportation.
Searing a permanent mark onto the skin of horses allows for identification. The use of super-cooled brands or firebrands is unpleasant because they cause a third-degree burn and require restraint of the horse in stocks or chemically. Less invasive identification methods like microchipping are gaining increasing acceptance.
Many horses voluntarily enter stables because that is where they are fed. But stabling prevents horses from engaging in most of their grazing and social behaviours. Horses rarely voluntarily isolate themselves from other horses, and prolonged social isolation can lead to behavioural problems such as separation distress, rug-chewing and stereotyped behaviours such as weaving and stall-walking.
Horses don't cope with rehoming well if everything changes at once. They are put into a moving box and when they get to their destination nothing is familiar, not even something their feed bucket. To prepare them for this drastic change, we need to work with them before taking them home, where possible. Take some familiar belongings like rugs and feed bucket and be aware of their routine to help reduce the feeling of abandonment.
Understanding why horses find activities unpleasant, frightening or painful is the first step to cutting them some slack and working through it together. Taking a walk in their hooves allows us to make them happier and safer to be around.
Consider benchmarking your equine pal against thousands of others.
Thanks to Paul McCreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Welfare, University of New England and Cathrynne Henshall, Lecturer, School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences, Charles Sturt University, for their insights.