The Horse’s Natural Environment
Horses have an incredible herd instinct: they need to have extra eyes and ears in the wild to survive. Naturally, a horse feels secure within a group but fears isolation.
Horses in a natural environment have the freedom to have a social life from the day they are born until the end of their life. However, horses who are ridden and worked, usually have the same freedom and social life until they are around 3 years old, then it becomes much more restricted, and they become isolated when they are stabled or in training. A horse is not an ‘adult’ at 3 years old; research has found that behavioural and social maturation continues until they are at least 6 years old. Therefore, as horse owners, we must create an environment where horses can continue to be part of a herd and learn to be more socially adaptable. Could this lead to better adaptability and relationships with people for the horse?
Modern Equine Husbandry
Evidence suggests that the fundamental social characteristics of domestic horses have remained relatively unchanged from their feral ancestors.
Modern husbandry systems sometimes induce problems in domestic horses because the limits of their adaptive abilities of a species are exceeded. They are kept confined and solitary in stables, sometimes for up to 23 hours per day. This is a common method of horse husbandry that is considered optimal to promote safety and upkeep, however, it also ignores the basic needs of the horse, which can result in abnormal behaviour.
Although many facilities are not equipped to support these social needs, we can take measures to promote mental wellness. For example, studies have shown that, in the wild, a horse will typically have one or two close friendships within a group, regardless of the size of the group. Being separated and housed individually is not natural to the horse, but it can be less stressful for them when their friends are nearby. Friendship is extremely important to the psychological welfare of the horse, so turning out friends together can be extremely beneficial. It is also important that foals play with others of a similar age for proper development and to prevent a lack of self-confidence and social skills later in life.
Working Out The ‘Pecking Order’
Being aware of the social order within your herd can only be an advantage when it comes to the management of the herd. Horses have specific factors and criteria which are used to set the pecking order. These include age, height, weight, sex, and length of residency.
Identifying the ‘Leader’
This is easiest to identify if your herd is fed hay in the field. The lead horse will get first grabs, and may even try and control two or more piles if they are too close. This is why it is important to have multiple locations for food that are well-spaced out.
Remember: A herd’s pecking order doesn’t have to be linear, so sometimes it can be confusing to work out who leads within a herd, and where the other horses fit in the hierarchy. For example, A may dominate B who may dominate C, but C may dominate A.
Introducing Another Horse to A Herd
Every time a new horse is removed or added to the herd it creates confusion and the pecking order changes (although removing horses for exercise or to take to an event, for example, have no reported problems when rejoining the herd). Horses tend to avoid fighting to reduce injuries and waste of energy; however, we see increased aggression in horses in captivity because of the reduced space which leads to unintentional invasion of personal space and reduces the ability of a subordinate horse to avoid a dominant horse.
Sometimes we have the tendency to feel sorry for those horses that get pushed around by more dominant members of the herd, however, it’s essential we remember that this is how horses naturally live in the wild, and some horses don’t like the responsibility of being high up in the pecking order.
Introducing an Ex-Racehorse to a Herd
Although an increasing number of racehorses do get turned out, many racehorses are confined to a stable for up to 23 hours a day, usually only leaving to engage in their training regime.
Therefore they are not likely to have had much natural interaction with other horses since before they started training as youngsters. Some horses may show signs of stress and even aggression when they are rehomed and turned out with other horses, however, it is important to remember that the shock and sudden lifestyle change will be contributing to this anxiety. Often, when a horse is termed ‘unsociable’ it is only due to the lack of socialisation skills with other horses.
At Jelka, we believe that having a true understanding of the science behind horse behaviour is critical in enabling us to develop equestrian facilities which promote health, wellness and efficiency.
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