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Behavior and Senses

The behavior patterns of wild horses and horses that have escaped into the wild have been studied in great depth. Horses are essentially herd animals. The herd is small, containing three to eight mares, their foals, and the herd stallion. The herd establishes a hierarchy among the mares, and the dominant mare usually dictates when the herd grazes or rests. The stallion has little role in the decision making and is around more so for protection. In the wild, there are also bachelor herds of stallions, in which no particular horse appears to be dominant. Colts and fillies leave the herd between two and three years old; the fillies are often removed by one of the bachelor stallions to begin a herd of their own. In wild horses, there is little importance connected to territory by stallions because herds migrate over large distances. This is a direct contrast to asses, whose males defend their territory from other males and mate only with females entering it during the breeding season. The herd lifestyle offers protection as well as benefits of mutual grooming.

Because of the natural herding instinct in horses, it is important to understand the need for companionship. To fully interpret the behavior, it is almost necessary to introduce anthropomorphism (giving animals human characteristics). Horses seem to appear “happier” when they are in a group, and some even seem affected or depressed when without company. The behavior of depressed horses often improves when another animal is introduced as a friend—sheep, goats, cats, rabbits, and hens have all successfully filled this role.

A horse’s reaction to danger is to run away regardless of the danger being real or imaginary. Because of their blind spots and the difficulty in judging distance with one eye, horses may spook when confronted by a sudden movement or unfamiliar object. For the same reason, it is important to talk to a horse when approaching it or moving around it, so that it can be sure of exactly where you are. Running your hand from a part of the horse’s body where it can be seen, along to a part where it cannot, is better than touching the spot suddenly and startling the animal. Rearing can be a sign of fright, while biting and striking with a foreleg are signs of aggression rather than fear.

A horse’s temperament is its general demeanor and the manner in which it responds to its owner or rider. That response can include willingness to be handled and to submit to control when ridden. Breeding has a large influence on the horse’s temperament. Some breeds or types of horse respond naturally to human handling, while others are more likely to be excitable and require a lot of skill to be handled. Temperament can be worsened by improper handling, boredom and/or insufficient exercise. Evaluating temperament is essential when buying a horse, so spend time observing how the horse behaves when it is caught, tacked up or ridden. An ideal temperament depends on what the horse is to be used for as well as the skill and confidence of the rider. A horse that is difficult to catch, kicks or bites in the stall, will not load, and puts its ears back and rears when ridden will be a far greater challenge to own rather than one that is willing, alert, interested and a pleasure to ride.

Determining the level of intelligence in animals can be difficult to fully understand because we are accustomed to the human thought process. Humans work through the possible solutions to a problem in their heads and select the most likely answer; animals often solve problems by practical experimentation. Horses are quite good at solving problems, such as opening gates. They also have an excellent memory, which can lead them home if they happen to get loose, and they train well to achieve a desired response.


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