3 easy ways to enrich your horse’s environment and improve cognitive stimulation

Imagine a four year-old child fed on a diet high in starchy and sugary foods – lots and lots of excitable energy right? Now, imagine that same child is housed in a 3 meter by 4 meter playpen outside. The playpen has no toys, not much shade nor grass. There are not many friends around, and those that are there aren’t reachable as they are in separate playpens.

What do you think will inevitably develop in terms of this child’s behaviour? The child will get bored of going around and around the playpen and will begin to become frustrated. The heat and lack of shade will begin to escalate that frustration and the child will become angry. Tiredness from a lack of comfortable areas to rest will escalate the anger even further and the child will ultimately begin to cry, scream, bang on the doors and display multiple forms of undesirable behaviours.

In much the same way, a horse placed in a 3 x 4 paddock with only a bucket of water and a hay net, no shade, grass or other horses to interact with, will also quickly become bored, frustrated and will begin to display undesirable behaviours. 

Cognitively, an adult horse is not much different than a four year-old child in terms of their ability to process information and interact with their environment. Horses as far as we know don’t have the ability to reason therefore they are unable to take their poor situation and know that in a few hours’ time their owner will be coming and moving them out of the uncomfortable situation. All they know is that at present, their environment doesn’t satisfy their basic needs and is therefore boring, uncomfortable and lonely. Without the ability of foresight, the horse’s behaviour will progressively become more and more maladaptive as their needs remain unmet.  

Basic equine needs and their importance from a cognitive perspective

Precocial species (born with a high degree of independence), such as horses, are well adapted to quickly processing information from their environment as they would not survive very long after birth if this wasn’t the case. Horses learn from interacting with their environment, from experimenting with various stimuli to ascertain the outcome (trial and error), and from social interactions with other horses, their dam at first, and then other herd members. This means that horses are constantly processing information either as internal (from the body) or external (from the environment) stimuli and are either reacting to the stimulus in the form of a behavioural response which could be voluntary or involuntary, or they are ignoring the stimulus from prior learning, such as what occurs during habituation.

Involuntary responses are reflex behaviours, generally biological in their function, which the body performs automatically independent of the brain i.e. the horse doesn’t think about doing it, it happens automatically. Breathing, urinating, drinking, mating – these are all responses to biological needs. Voluntary responses are behavioural responses that are performed voluntarily by the horse for a specific reason and involve the brain; the horse is behaving due to previous experience and learned (memorised) behaviour, or is learning through interactions with its environment (trial and error learning). Eating a toxic plant will have negative consequences for the horse which will quickly be committed to memory and learned, so that when encountering the same type of plant in the future, the horse will know to avoid it.

Horses are a social species meaning that they rely on conspecifics (members of the same species) to learn, develop, grow, reproduce and ultimately survive in their environment. Majority of natural horse behaviours are facilitated by social functions i.e. mutual grooming, grazing, resting, sexual behaviour, play, learning etc. Socialisation is therefore one of the most important basic needs, together with foraging and grazing, and movement.

Foraging and grazing serve many important purposes, key of which are to: (1) supply the body with energy and nourishment, (2) facilitate other bodily functions that require energy (digestive system, thermoregulation, muscular system etc.), and (3) provide a mentally stimulating activity for nearly 70% of the day*.

In a natural environment, the nutritional quality of the available plants and grasses may be low, however the variety of different plants, grasses, bushes and small trees will supply the horse with ample hours of stimulating and engaging activity. Trees and bushes will also provide natural shelters from the sun and rain, and act as natural windbreaks. Movement and natural behaviours go hand-in-hand – the horse requires movement for almost all of its daily activities. Even resting is performed while standing thanks to the stay apparatus**.

Movement facilitates nearly all other equine basic and biological needs. It also facilitates learning through exploration and investigation, and facilitates social activities through play, mutual grooming, hierarchy structures and fighting. Movement is essential to survival and activates two vital tools of survival – the flight or fight response, the former which allows the horse to automatically and swiftly flee from a threat or attack, while the latter enables the horse to use specific agonistic responses to attack or defend itself from predators and other opponents; and the startle response which is a series of behavioural reactions to frightening stimuli that are less intense than fight or flight responses and are essential to the learning process and maintaining balance in the environment.

Startle responses serve to habituate the horse to initially frightening environmental stimuli which will gradually become neutral and the horse will stop responding to them. Imagine if this wasn’t the case, the horse would be exhausted if it jumped and bolted at every creaking branch or rustling bush. The horse’s highly evolved sensory organs become accustomed to recognising when a stimulus is a viable threat and requires the flight response, or when it is a normal environmental stimulus that can be ignored.

*Horses in the wild have been noted to graze and forage for 16 or more hours per day, which is at a minimum 67% of their daily time budget (McGreevy, 2004).

**Due to a series of muscle contractions just above the patella (kneecap) activated when the hind foot is placed on the ground, the stifle joint in the hindquarters locks in place, allowing the horse to remain balanced while standing upright during resting or sleeping. This locking action of the stifle joint is referred to as the stay apparatus (Sellnow, 2006).

It is clear therefore that the ability to satisfy basic equine needs is a key factor in maintaining healthy cognitive functioning in horses, and that the environmental context of where these behaviours occur is just as important as the act of satisfying them. To elaborate, let’s use the same example of the horse housed in a sparse, 3 x 4 paddock. Within its current environment the horse is certainly able to satisfy most basic needs – it can eat, drink, move around, rest, urinate etc. It may even be able to see other horses nearby and vocalise to them or have limited contact. But if you fast forward a few hours and add in heat or wind and slowly the horse will want to find some shade or will have built up excess energy and want to run around. Very quickly the adequate environment becomes inadequate and boredom and frustration sets in.

3 easy ways to cognitively enrich your horse’s environment:

House horses in groups instead of individually

One of the biggest impacts you can make in terms of enrichment is through socialisation and increasing the social contact your horse has throughout the day with other horses.

horses socialising

Keeping horses in groups during turnout as well as stabling is not as complicated as it may seem. Here are some tips for group housing:

  • Group horses according to preferred social partners and temperament. In other words, keep horses that get along well together, and separate those that don’t. Having multiple smaller groups that are stable and calm is much better than one large group that is constantly in turmoil.
  • Ensure that there is enough space and resources for horses to use safely and to spread out. This will lower the frequency of agonistic interactions as disagreements in groups are normally around food, water and space.
  • In terms of fixed structures such as shelters or boxes, make sure that you eliminate corners at exits/entrances to avoid creating areas where horses could get boxed in when trying to get away from each other.
  • Grouping horses in even numbers will encourage pair bonding and contribute to a stable herd.

Don’t be alarmed or immediately split your horses up at the first sign of fighting – remember that agonistic behaviours among horses are natural and they almost always look ‘louder’ and more frightening than what they actual are. Most ‘fights’ between domestic horses are actually more play-based rather than aggressive and normally revolve around personal space and resources. Pair bonded horses will often be seen displaying agonistic behaviours with one another as they tend to share much more personal space and therefore also resources with one another than other herd members and therefore get in each other’s way more. Think of it in the same way as siblings sharing a room, yes you’re going to get fights and arguments but ultimately the relationship is strong.

When should you split groups up?

The only time you would split your group up is when there are serious injuries occurring or other health problems, such as resource guarding, where one or more horses are preventing others from reaching water or feed sources which could impact on health and well being. In these instances, an increase in space and resources can be effective at calming the group, but if this isn’t possible due to space or other restrictions then splitting the group up into smaller groups or pairs will be necessary. Adding a simple barrier such as light fencing to contain each group, while still allowing visual and limited tactile contact, can be enough to maintain harmony.

Periods of discord will naturally arise when new horses are introduced into the group or if the group’s environment changes in a major way. In these cases you should just monitor the group for a few days and watch their behaviour until it stabilises – intense agonistic behaviours should calm down and become fairly infrequent.

If you’ve decided to split your group up then keeping pair bonded horses together is a must – splitting pair bonds up can have detrimental impact on welfare and should only be done if horses are being moved to different locations.

Provide foraging opportunities to promote grazing and movement

A dusty, barren paddock with more sand than grass is most certainly an inadequate and unhealthy environment for a horse to be kept in for any amount of time throughout the day, and can contribute not only to psychological and behavioural problems, but to health issues such as colic and respiratory problems as well. It would only be acceptable to use such paddocks as temporary holding pens to contain a horse for routine procedures or between training, provided that fresh water and adequate grass hay is given during confinement.

An ideal paddock should allow for ample foraging and grazing, and consist of a variety of plant materials such as mixed grasses, bushes, herbs, medicinal plants and small trees, all of which must be safe and non-toxic for horses to ingest and interact with.


Wild grass fields make for the best paddocks as they closely mimic the low nutritional quality pastures that horses would naturally have grazed on, and what their digestive systems are optimally designed for. Horses also love to nibble on trees, dig for roots, and scrape off bark from trees. Ensuring that your paddock allows for these natural behaviours to occur is certainly the best option, but it’s not always possible as we are often limited by space and resources.

What if my paddock is small and sparsely vegetated?

If you have a small paddock with a limited variety of plants and grasses or one made entirely of concrete, a good way to mimic natural grazing and encourage foraging and movement is to spread your horse’s feed across multiple locations and introduce various grasses and plant materials. Use containers that are as low to the ground as possible to also mimic the natural grazing positions.

How can I protect my one paddock from over-grazing?

If you have all your horses on one larger paddock it can quickly become over-grazed and barren. To protect your paddock and limit grazing try creating a track system which still promotes movement and the act of foraging but limits the area covered by your horses and can turn one large space into multiple areas that can be used throughout the year. Track systems can also help you keep multiple groups separate in one large field. If you’re interested in learning more about track systems, here is a good place to start.

Beware the nutritional quality of the grass and pasture you provide during stabling and turnout – too much lush, green grass can cause weight issues and can lead to more serious problems such as laminitis. You should always monitor your horse’s body condition and score them frequently to ensure they are maintaining an ideal body score.

Investigative stimulation

Horses are inherently curious animals and they learn by interacting with stimuli within their environment. One of the best ways to enrich a space and prevent boredom and frustration is to ensure that the environment is full of investigative stimuli for your horse to explore and interact with.


You can use either artificial items that aren’t naturally available in the paddock or emphasise natural existing objects already available. Here is a list of some artificial items you can use as investigative stimuli in your paddock, no matter the size:

  • Metal or plastic drums
  • Tires of varied sizes
  • Wooden or PVC ground poles
  • Buckets or containers of varied sizes – make sure they are made from sturdy materials
  • Tarps or rubber mats
  • Flag poles
  • Jump uprights
  • Plastic cones of varying sizes and shapes
  • Football-sized rubber or strong plastic balls

There are an assortment of equine toys available that can also stimulate exploration and investigation, especially those linked to food rewards.

Always make sure that any items you add are made from non-toxic materials and are safe for your horse to interact with – anything that can break into sharp pieces or small pieces should be avoided as this can cause damage and injury to you horse. Ropes, nets and materials should also carefully be monitored and avoided if possible as these can get caught around the legs and cause injury.

Make sure that you introduce new objects carefully and slowly to your horse to avoid causing fear and potentially causing harm. Don’t overload the environment with objects, stick to three items at a time and introduce new items individually.

Natural elements not only provide the best stimuli but can also promote other natural behaviours and contribute to the amount of movement a horse performs throughout the day. This in turns contributes to overall physical health as well as maintaining cognitive stimulation through the day. The below elements make for effective natural enhancers to paddocks:


Shallow water sources such as streams or ponds can be great play areas, spots to cool off in, or additional drinking sources. You could also build your own shallow pool if your paddock doesn’t have an existing water source.

water play


Creating varied terrains through the use of tracks and natural corridors of vegetation, or banking up some sections to create rises, mimics a natural, dynamic landscape and promotes movement and exploration. Adding texture to the terrain by using various footings such as dirt, gravel, grass, bark or wood chip etc. can promote physical development and create multiple areas within one space. Adding sand patches can promote rolling and resting especially if placed in shady areas.



Large trees, logs or stumps are great natural scratching posts while clumps of trees and bushes are good places for horses to rest as the sheltered space promotes a feeling of safety and also provides protection from the sun, wind or rain. Sticks and fallen branches can be great oral stimulants and promote foraging and movement. Artificial objects such as tires, drums and poles can be added if there is a lack of vegetation as they will also stimulate oral and tactile exploration. If natural shade is sparse then you will need to provide a shelter or shaded area in your paddock that can protect your horse from the elements during turnout.



Horses will eventually habituate to any artificial items and will stop interacting with them. To maintain a level of interest and exploration, make sure that you periodically change up the objects in the paddock either by changing their angles, their orientation or position, or swapping them out for other objects. It’s best to keep at least three objects in the paddock at a time and then swap them out every week or so. This will of course depend on the size of your paddock and herd. Larger groups of horses will benefit most from social interactions therefore environmental stimuli will be less important and larger paddocks allow for more natural stimuli, reducing the need for too many artificial objects. In cases where you have smaller enclosures and horses that are housed individually, artificial objects become more necessary.

Welfare as a key consideration 

Whilst most domestic environments strive to provide horses with safe and mostly comfortable facilities, they generally fail to account for the horse’s active mind and cognitive needs, and this is actually what primarily leads to the development of problematic behaviours associated with housing in stables and paddocks such as cribbing, wood chewing, box walking and damaging property by kicking at fences or doors (commonly referred to as stereotypies, these are seemingly pointless behaviours that the horse performs repetitively and almost compulsively for no obvious reason).

The development of stereotypies is generally viewed as a welfare concern and a sign of a poor, inadequate environment, therefore anytime that a horse shows signs of stereotypic behaviour, the easiest and swiftest way of managing and halting the behaviour is to assess the environment and look at ways of enriching it not only to improve the physical well being of the horse but to improve cognitive well being as well.   


University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, 2019. Body Condition Scoring Horses: Step-by-Step. [Online]
Available at: https://thehorse.com/164978/body-condition-scoring-horses-step-by-step/
[Accessed 24 July 2019].

All-natural-horse-care, 2006. Paddock Paradise. [Online]
Available at: http://www.all-natural-horse-care.com/paddock-paradise.html
[Accessed 24 July 2019].

McGreevy, P., 2004. Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. London: Elsevier Limited.

Sellnow, L., 2006. Anatomy & Physiology – The Complete Series. The Horse Publication. Available at: http://www.thehorse.com [Accessed 1 June 2018].

Dealing with intense fear responses in horses

Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, explains how horses process and respond to fear and why it is important to (1) heed the warning signals before behaviour escalates, and (2) allow sufficient time for the horse to calm down if highly aroused – not a minute or two, but at least half an hour.

Dr. Temple Grandin explains fear in horses and how to deal with fear responses.

Horses have sensory memories therefore they associate fearful, unpleasant experiences through their senses – visual, olfactory (smell), oral, tactile or audible. Fearful experiences are also often linked to associated stimuli depending on how the initial experience occurred – this often explains why a horse will begin to display fear responses when the Vet drives into the yard – they recognise the sound, smell or visual appearance of the vehicle.

High intensity fear requires significant time for the system to level out and go back into a restorative state. Any stimuli or events that take place during an intensely fearful episode may become linked with that experience and committed to long-term memory.

This scenario isn’t necessarily relevant for spooking or shying episodes where the fear response is mild and passes quickly – the parasympathetic state comes in after a few seconds and generally the horse is able to begin exploring and investigating the stimulus fairly quickly and thereafter carry on with their activity as normal. If the fear behaviour is escalating however and the horse is consistently showing increasing intensity of fear responses, it will go into fight or flight mode and this can pose a dangerous situation for both the horse and the human.

Learn to read your horse’s fear signals and don’t ignore them or mistakenly assume that the horse will rationalise the fear away – ‘it’s just a plastic bag’, ‘just some thunder’ etc. Horses can’t perform this level of cognitive processing to apply reason or logic to situations.

Fear signals include exposing the whites of the eyes, lifting the head up, tightening of the nostrils, stiff extended top lip and an overly tense body and head.

Allow the horse to completely calm down to the point where they begin to show investigative behaviour – sniffing, licking, mouthing, ears forward, alert posture, head lowered to the ground – this will indicate to you that the horse is ready and able to process stimuli once again within the brain as opposed to reflex responses which bypass the brain.

Working with horses: creating a positive experience

horse training ethical

When broken down to its basic definition, the  training of horses is essentially about promoting behaviours which we desire and are of value to us, while suppressing or eradicating behaviours which we find undesirable, in other words unwanted behaviours.

In order to successfully achieve this, a trainer must know what behaviour is before they can begin to manipulate it.

Behaviour is a process of actions and reactions performed by an individual in reaction to internal or external stimuli in context of the environment.

It stands to reason therefore that a trainer would need to consider the training environment and any stimuli present – controllable as well as uncontrollable variables. The trainer would also need to consider their own behaviour and how this may be perceived by the horse, as well as any internal processes taking place within the horse’s physiology.

With so many elements to consider and so many uncontrollable variables that may occur, you can ascertain that training is in fact a complex process that requires careful consideration, planning and constant development. And despite all this careful planning, a trainer must still be quick on their feet, reactive to slight signals, emotionally neutral, and adaptable to changing circumstances. It comes as no surprise therefore that most training sessions tend to skip over the softer elements of the process instead of harnessing them to make the overall process of horse training more effective.

Tapping into instincts

Instinctive equine behaviours or what would be referred to as natural behaviours, are a set of behaviours inherent to the equine species that are performed within their natural environment for the purpose of survival, reproduction and growth. Once removed from their natural environment, these instinctive behaviours don’t cease to exist; the horse simply adapts its behaviour to its present environmental context.

If adaptation isn’t possible, natural behaviours can’t be expressed normally, giving way to abnormal behaviour or the development of behavioural problems, emotional and physical distress, and suppressed physiological responses and lowered immunity.

When instinctive behaviours are normally expressed, the horse is both mentally and physically balanced and is able to reach an optimal level of functioning. Encouraging instinctive behaviour in training stimulates the horse mentally, promotes memory and other cognitive functions, and allows the horse to attain a positive affective state.

Instinctive behaviours can either be active or passive and a trainer is able to utilise either one depending on their training goals. Passive behaviours include resting, stretching, grooming, grazing, drinking water, and standing in the shade. A horse that is easily excited by stimuli can be kept calm and manageable during training by tapping into passive behaviours as opposed to chasing the horse around a pen in the hopes of tiring it out enough – this has the opposite effect and can impede on the horse’s welfare instead of promote effective training. 

Allowing for brief periods of passive activity, such as a calm rub down or some grazing and resting in the shade, can quickly deescalate potential conflict situations and allow for the horse to reach a state of calm and balance before resuming training. Frequent escalations in conflict should serve as a signal to the trainer to re look at their training strategy – they are either asking too much of the horse or not asking clearly enough for the horse to understand.

grooming, horse relaxes and becomes calm grazing relaxes a horse and gives them a mental break

Useful active instinctive behaviours include investigation and exploration, rolling, and play. These behaviours are invaluable in training as they can serve many purposes – to habituate or desensitise a horse when frightened by stimuli, to energise a ‘dull’ horse, to redirect nervous energy and calm a distressed horse, and to enhance learning and memory.

Active behaviours are especially useful for reactive and responsive horses that tend to get bored and frustrated easily with repetitive exercises resulting in conflict behaviours such as pawing or barging. Incorporating brief interludes into a training session where instinctive behaviours are engaged can redirect the horse’s energy again, engage them mentally and prevent the situation from escalating into conflict. Objects such as cones, drums, poles, flags, tarps, buckets, tires… any item that is safe for the horse to orally and physically interact with can be incorporated into any training, whether in-hand or under saddle, to engage investigative and exploratory  behaviours and provide for a mentally stimulating interaction. This serves as an effective break between repetitive routines during training.

investigative equine behaviour active rolling behaviour

The power of positivity

For training to be both effective in achieving performance goals, humane towards the horse, and safe for the human, the trainer must ensure that conflict and stress is kept to a minimum, that fear responses such as flight or aggression are avoided, and that the horse remains stimulated, responsive and engaged rather than dull, indifferent or confrontational. 

Maintaining a positive affective state throughout the training session is therefore vital and positive experiences result in enhanced learning, increased memory, less repetition, lowered stress, and pleasant associations that the horse forms not only with the trainer but also the environment and any objects or stimuli within the environment, such as tack or equipment.

For the trainer, this type of positive interaction is the ultimate prize – it means that their goal of promoting desired behaviour becomes easier and more effective; the horse is more receptive to new behaviours and learns faster, and human-horse interactions are safer and devoid of conflict. Suppressing or eradicating unwanted behaviour becomes less necessary – problem behaviours during training can be altogether eliminated.

Anyone can fulfill the basic definition of training, but to be a great trainer, an ethical trainer, one needs  to work with the horse as a species, use the way the horse learns and instinctively behaves as tools to promote positive experiences rather than working against them.

5 easy ways to get your horse winter-ready

Horse owners in South Africa tend to breathe a sigh of relief as soon as the first frosts sparkle on the ground. The dreaded African Horse Sickness (AHS) season is over for now, hibernating until it rears its ugly head again in a few months’ time.

That sigh of relief however is short-lived as we enter the winter season and are barraged by questions of should we clip, should we blanket, if we’re blanketing how cold is too cold, what type of blanket, how do I keep my horses in good condition, should my horses continue to be turned out or not… Then there’s the whole other set of questions we’re not asking, and the thought of skipping over a vital element in your daily management regime and possibly impacting negatively on your horse’s wellbeing is enough to drive any horse owner to curl up in a ball in the stable and wish the winter season away.


Before you bring out the bubble wrap (with thermal insulation of course) or start driving your Vet batty with questions, we’ve prepared a list of 5 easy ways that you can get yourself and your horse ready for winter so that you can rest easy and enjoy the chilly season for all its positive attributes.

Nature made sure horses could look out for themselves

When wild horses roamed the open, grassy plains and steppes they had one singular purpose – to survive in their environment. Nature made sure that horses were given a helping hand and equipped their bodies with some pretty amazing physiological, anatomical and behavioural capabilities, enabling them to flee instantly from predators, rest while standing, and graze while still being able to scan their surroundings for predators. Another nifty capability was thermoregulation which is simply the body’s ability to regulate its own temperature.  

Luckily for the species, even though no longer wild and free roaming, horses have kept their natural gifts and thermoregulation is one of the most useful bodily functions to have in a domestic environment, but can also easily result in discomfort and health problems if mismanaged.

Thermoregulation is constantly occurring to keep the body in balance, and it works in two ways – heat is either produced when the core body temperature drops, called thermogenesis, or heat is lost during a process called thermolysis. This adaptation of body temperature occurs involuntarily, meaning that physiological functions within the body will automatically adapt the body temperature in response to fluctuations caused by the external environment.

Process of Thermoregulation during exercise. Source: Veterian Key https://veteriankey.com/thermoregulation/

Horses can lose up to 85% of their body heat through the skin surface, and around 15% will be lost during respiration. If this heat loss is not sufficient, the horse will begin to sweat in order to reduce body temperature even further. Horses can produce a huge amount of sweat over a short period of time (1/4 of a liter per minute) which also means major fluid loss in the form of water and electrolytes. Sweating also uses up a lot of energy, which in turn produces heat, so if the horse isn’t able to regulate properly, for example they may be enclosed in a warm stable or could be wearing a thick blanket, the body temperature will continue to rise and can reach dangerous levels. Horses can also suffer dehydration and excessive fatigue due to over-heating.

Since thermoregulation is a two-way street, heat must also be produced in order to maintain balance within the body. Heat is produced through metabolic processes (digestion) and the contraction and extension of the muscles i.e. movement. Any form of locomotive activity will produce heat as all the other systems (cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive) gear up to fuel the body. Shivering also produces heat during muscle contraction. It’s not just the horse’s sensitive and complex digestive system that requires small amounts of food to be eaten almost continuously throughout the day; this trickle-feeding form of ingestion also provides heat for the body as food is metabolised.

Due to the fact that horses are so capable of producing heat from internal sources, they are more suited to colder weather as it’s far easier to heat up the body than to cool it off. Always remember to keep thermoregulation in mind when you’re standing next to your horse freezing, while they contentedly graze – they’re busy producing fuel that’s keeping their body at an ideal temperature so the two of you are experiencing the external temperature in very different ways.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the five aspects you should keep in mind when preparing your horse for winter.

  1. Make sure to assess your horse’s nutrition
Feed quantity and quality

As mentioned, the metabolic process is one of the main sources of internal heat for the horse so ensuring that your horse has enough food throughout the day is vital to maintaining healthy body temperature. 

While having the correct quantity of food will help maintain good health, it is also vital to ensure that the quality of the food is high enough to maintain good body condition.

As with any changes to exercise, health, environment or body condition, seasonal changes also require a re-assessment of your horse’s nutritional requirements. The recommended increase to daily feed quantity is 1% of dry feed for every degree below 18°F/-8°C. If a horse enters the winter season with a thick, natural coat and enough fat cover, they should be able to maintain healthy condition until then. If shelter is provided, horses in good winter condition can comfortably withstand temperatures as low as -40°F/-40°C.

horses-eating-hayWhen it comes to the question of what to feed, the answer to any feed increase is to always increase roughage first rather than adding more concentrates. Fibrous feeds such as hay and grass hay are digested through microbial fermentation in the hind-gut and take much longer to digest than starches, proteins and carbohydrates. This longer digestion process allows for a longer and slower release of energy as well as a longer release of heat. It is important to ensure that you are feeding high quality roughage so that your horse is getting the highest nutritional benefit possible from their feed.

If you’re ever in doubt about your horse’s condition or feed requirements, make sure that you consult with your Vet or a certified Equine Nutritionist in order to set up the correct feeding regime for your horse. You can also periodically score your horse’s body condition to see if there are any fluctuations by using a body condition scoring chart.

Fluids, fluids and more fluids!

Having access to clean, fresh water throughout the day is an essential nutritional requirement for horses no matter the season but in winter there is another element that horse owners need to pay special attention to and that is the temperature of the water.

Horses have a preference for drinking lukewarm water, and will decrease the amount they drink per day if the temperature of the water is too cold.

This spells bad news for horse owners with outdoor water troughs that could potentially freeze, even indoor troughs and buckets could reach freezing temperatures that are just not palatable to horses.

It is essential that water temperature is well managed and closely monitored throughout the day to ensure that your horses are getting enough fluids, especially if sweating may occur from increased activity, blanketing or being enclosed in a heated stable. Inadequate water intake can lead to dehydration, colic, over-heating and other health problems so careful management is a must.

Providing salt blocks or adding salt to the water will encourage water intake and will also help maintain mineral balance within the body.

2.   Ensure your horse has outdoor access and exercise

The last thing you want to do, unless absolutely necessary due to severe weather, is to keep your horse indoors all winter. Firstly, your horse’s mental health will take a serious nosedive and your horse’s physical health may also plummet due to lack of movement.

Movement is an essential aspect for a number of physiological functions, such as digestion, thermoregulation, cardiovascular health, and respiratory health. Without ample movement and exercise your horse’s body may not be able to thermoregulate properly as heat is produced during movement, or your horse may lose condition as more energy is needed to maintain body heat so more calories are burned resulting in weight loss and muscle loss. If too much food is provided but no movement, your horse may gain too much weight and become susceptible to laminitis and other health issues. Stress from too much confinement can cause major health problems such as colic, and could lead to other behavioural stereotypies, such as crib biting or weaving to develop which may be very difficult to reduce or manage later on.


Remember that healthy horses in a good condition are able to withstand very cold temperatures so letting your horse out into the paddock for some exercise every day, or even riding out and implementing a winter training routine, will help maintain your horses health throughout winter.

3.   Ensure that adequate shelter is provided in outdoor areas

So you’ve filled up your hay bins, installed a water trough heater and made sure that your horse receives plenty of fun and sun (if there’s any) outdoors. That’s that and you can now go on holiday where the sun shines warmly over tropical beaches…

Not quite yet unfortunately. It goes without saying that horses are a 24/7 commitment and daily monitoring and management is an absolute must, but in winter this is even more essential and while human cloning may become a reality in the future, you are still only one person and won’t always be available in a second to deal with unplanned events such as sudden changes in weather conditions.


Iyou’re turning your horses out during winter make sure that you have adequate shelter in the paddock so that your horses can take refuge should the weather turn and you’re not in close proximity. Outdoor shelters don’t need to be complex constructions that give the Eiffel Tower a run for its money – as long as there is adequate protection from weather elements, the structure is sturdy and safe, and there is enough space for all the horses to be comfortable inside, you’ve got a hit.

4.   Be prepared to deal with the elements

If your winter season comes with rain or snow and freezing temperatures then you can be sure that it will also come with mud and ice. Besides keeping water troughs de-iced and any areas that your horse frequents free from ice and mud, such as shelters and stables, and around feed bins and water buckets, mud and ice could also mean slippery and dangerous surfaces that can cause injuries to both horses and humans, or health issues such as mud fever. Being prepared means a few new management strategies to include in your daily routine so you’re on the ball if any issues crop up.

horse-turnout-paddockIf you will be turning your horses out during the day, plan a smaller turnout area closer to your stables or barn that is graveled or has some other non-slippery surface so that you can still let your horses enjoy the outdoors and move around but keep them in a smaller and safer area if the surface conditions are too icy, muddy or otherwise unfavourable. Make sure that these turnout areas provide access to an adequate shelter.

5.   Manage your horse care routine, but don’t over-manage your horse

We’ve mentioned it before but it’s worth a repeat as most welfare issues concerning horses stem from ignorance, lack of knowledge and mismanagement, rather than intentional abuse or neglect – horses are well equipped to manage themselves in most contexts and environments as long as we have provided the adequate essentials such as shelter, food, water and movement.

Human needs or wants result in created needs for horses, in other words needs that horses wouldn’t normally have as a species but now do because of human management. These needs may sometimes be required to maintain the comfort and health of the horse, such as the need to blanket the horse because the winter coat has been clipped, or the need to clip the coat in the first place due to intensive training schedules and competition. But in general, over-managing your horse’s needs can create welfare problems and negatively impact on your horse’s health.

Some of the most common created needs, especially during winter, are grooming, clipping and blanketing horses. While grooming twice per day should be part of any daily management routine, full grooming twice a day may not always be necessary or practical during winter. Instead of a full grooming session twice per day, try replacing one session with a hand rub instead. Run your hands all over the horse’s body as if you were brushing the coat. While getting rid of excess hair, you can also check for any lumps, bumps, cuts or foreign objects. Your horse may also benefit greatly from the soothing rub and by using your fingertips to gently brush the coat you are also stimulating the skin, hair follicles and natural oils.


Clipping and blanketing go hand-in-hand; if you have no need to clip your horse then you shouldn’t have a need to blanket your horse, provided that your horses have access to a shelter and ample roughage, as they would have naturally grown a thick, insulating winter coat to protect the body from heat loss. With intensive training however, horses produce large amounts of sweat and because of the thickness of the winter coat it can take hours for the coat to fully dry. Horses should never be blanketed or closed in the stable with a wet coat so most people that are training their horses throughout winter will clip the coat to make this process more manageable. There are a few different types of coat clips that you can choose from depending on your and your horse’s needs.


Owning horses is one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences but it is also extremely stressful and full of challenges and risks. By making preparations ahead of time, taking a few deep breaths when panic sets in, and taking the time to really look at your horse and listen to them if you’re unsure of what to do, you’ll not only survive the winter but will add another level of confidence to your management abilities the next time around.

Leave us a comment below about what you do to prepare your horses for winter and be sure to sign-up for our 8-week online course on Equine Behaviour & Management if you want to expand your knowledge on equine behaviour, healthcare, management, nutrition, learning and training.


Learning theory explained: reinforcement and punishment

In recent years many researchers have questioned a number of popular training methods, specifically those utilizing round pen training and the application of ‘flight’ or ‘dominance’ to gain submission/respect/trust in a horse. Researchers have studied and experimented with these methods in order to determine whether these methods are humane ways of training or whether they are detrimental to a horse’s welfare. In most cases, the latter seems to be the general conclusion. Once published these results and conclusions seem to create quite a debate within the equestrian community depending on whether you advocate these methods or oppose them. This also seems to bring about some confusion around the training principles of using reinforcement and punishment, what they actually refer to and their practical applications.

So to clear things up, here is a quick overview of these training principles as represented by Figure 1 below:

horse training matrix of reinforcement and punishment
Reinforcement and punishment training matrix – taken from Equine Behaviour and Management Course, Training Principles Week 5, page 28

Increasing the occurrence of desired behaviour

Reinforcement is defined in learning theory as the intention to increase the likelihood of a behaviour occurring again; therefore that behaviour would be something that is desirable to you as a trainer and your intention is to increase the chances of your horse performing it when cued.

There are two ways one can go about this – you can either apply a stimulus in order to reinforce the behaviour, in which case the stimulus would be something of value to the horse at the specific moment . This is called positive reinforcement (PR) in the mathematical sense of + as in adding to. You can also remove a stimulus in order to reinforce the behaviour, in which case you would remove a stimulus that is aversive/unpleasant to the horse, this is called negative reinforcement (NR), also in a mathematical sense of – or removing. Positive and negative therefore do not refer to unpleasant and pleasant in this case, but the actual mathematical theories of adding or removing.

Your reinforcers, whether for NR or PR must be of value to the horse at that specific moment. A horse that is hot and irritated may not value a scratch as much as a break in the shade, or a horse that doesn’t like being touched may not value the scratch but may place a high value on carrots. Knowing your horse well in various situations is key to effective reinforcement for PR. For NR, the most common reinforcer used is pressure. This is where some people seem to confuse things. Pressure isn’t necessarily bad nor detrimental to the horse. How it is applied is what makes the difference. If your timing and intensity is incorrect, your reinforcer will be ineffective and the horse will have an unpleasant experience. One must always avoid aspects of training that purposefully harm or instill intense fear – these are not things that NR promotes or advocates. NR is about applying the lightest possible stimulus that when removed will reinforce a specific behaviour.

Lightness and timing in training is key

This is why researchers tend to question round pen training. The principles of effective NR is firstly a light application of pressure that doesn’t trigger the flight response or instill fear/pain. Secondly, once the desired behaviour is performed, the pressure is removed immediately. When first training a behaviour, shaping is commonly applied which means that the reinforcer applied, if aversive such as pressure, is only applied for a very short period of time. In some round pen training. the horse is purposefully placed into a flight response by the application of high intensity pressure and this pressure is sustained for a long period of time, or until specific signals are observed in the horse by the trainer i.e. calming signals or incorrectly referred to as submission signals. This is not the correct or effective use of NR and can be detrimental to the horse’s affective state and overall welfare.

The point of effective NR is to use the lowest intensity of the stimulus as possible and remove it as soon as the desired behaviour is performed. While many people misunderstand NR, it is actually the most commonly applied training principle during horse training and can be very effective. Horses being prey animals, are more sensitive to aversive stimuli and also respond very effectively to pressure cues and body positioning/posture. This is one of their primary methods of communicating with conspecifics.

Effectiveness of punishment

Punishment in Learning Theory is defined as the intention to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour occurring, therefore the behaviour is undesirable to you as the trainer and your intention is to prevent it from happening.

You can either add a stimulus, in which case an aversive stimulus would be applied, and is called positive punishment (PP) or you remove a high value stimulus which is called negative punishment (NP). Once again, positive and negative are + and – in the mathematical sense. Punishment is generally regarded as an ineffective method for training that is detrimental to the horse’s welfare, however I do believe that it should be viewed objectively and in specific contexts before it is brushed aside. A punisher (the stimulus you add or remove) is once again dependent on intensity and value to the horse in order to be effective. No value or incorrect intensity and your training is ineffective. Consider this common example – a horse that is quite mouthy and has a tendency to nip – what would you most likely do when next to the horse? Most people would either reprimand it verbally, by sharply saying ‘no’ if the horse tried to nip them, or would move away and out of the horse’s reach. Bot of these are actually punishment. Using a vocal cue of ‘no’ is ultimately the application of an aversive stimulus (stern voice, or a sharp sound) in order to prevent the undesired behaviour from occurring. Moving away is the removal of a stimulus that the horse values (your presence or your attention) with the intention of preventing the undesired behaviour. The question here is whether either of these two methods would be effective in reducing the likelihood of this behaviour occurring in the future, or are they only effective in the present moment? The most likely answer is that they are only effective in the present moment.Counter conditioning a desired behavioural response in place of the undesired one is the most effective way of reducing the propensity for the undesired behaviour to occur in the future. While punishment is more commonly used than we may be aware of, ultimately it is ineffective over the long-term. Punishment should never be applied in cases where emotional problems or behavioural problems due to anxiety/pain/fear etc. are suspected.

It is also worth noting that whilst these four quadrants represent separate training principles within learning theory, they are interrelated in a way. When teaching a horse to halt, your desired behaviour is the halt, which you could use NR to condition. However, your intention is also to stop a behaviour – the forward movement, which requires the application of an aversive stimulus first before your can remove it. Therefore you are actually applying PP first before you apply NR. Similarly, to condition the cue for walk forward, you could use PR by giving the horse a carrot when they successfully walk forward when cued. However, you are also practicing NP because you are withholding the valued stimuli while the horse stands still and only applying the reinforcer when the desired behaviour is given.

The lesson here is to ensure that you have a thorough and objective understanding of the training principles and how they are applied in different contexts, so that you can adapt your training to suit your horse’s needs at that present moment. Each moment is unique to a horse, so if NR worked well yesterday, it doesn’t mean that today it will be the most appropriate method. You must be flexible and able to adapt your training to your horse, your horse shouldn’t be adapting to you.

Understanding Equine Body Language

Horses are masters of communication. Unlike humans, they have mastered the art of subtle communication, using body language and subtle cues to share information.

Survival being a primary goal, equine communication centers largely on information about the environment, interpreting what is being received, as well as social interactions. If there is a perceived threat in the environment, it is almost impossible to discern the moment when one horse communicates this to the rest of the herd – so swift and subtle is the language of the horse.

Equally important are the individuals comfort and safety, and a horse will quickly communicate when it is feeling threatened, uncomfortable, or fearful, to an approaching horse.

If horses are such masters at communicating their emotions, needs and wants, then why does it go so wrong between horses and humans? Quite simply, we don’t speak the same language. While horses primarily use body language to communicate, humans are predominantly vocal and tend to be unaware of what they are saying with their body. This often leads to mixed signals being sent to the horse, misunderstandings, and frustration.

In order to truly understand the nature of the horse and build a partnership with your horse, you need to become a master at observation and reading the signals your horse is giving. Equally important is being more aware of what you are saying with your body rather than vocally.

The below figure indicates the areas of the horse’s body that are used for communication and what you should pay special attention to when observing your horse. Each area is discussed further in more detail.

Body language of a horse

The ears, eyes, nostrils and lips

Horses use their entire body to communicate. The ears, eyes, nostrils and lips can convey a thousand words with just a slight movement. Ears that are pulled back, pressed flat and tight are indicating a clear message of fear. While this is an aggressive stance, the aggression is driven by fear, pain or any aversive association. This is a horse you want to stay away from, as this animal will do whatever it takes to defend itself by fleeing or attacking. Watching the direction of the ears will tell you where your horse is focused – is there an ear turned towards you, or are both facing out towards something in the environment? Observing these subtle movements and position of the ears will greatly help you to understand what your horse is saying.

The eyes are also an important indicator of stress, submission, fear, or relaxation. Tight, strained eyes showing a lot of white are clear indicators of stress or fear, while soft, relaxed eyes indicate a calm horse. Flared versus relaxed nostrils will tell you the same thing, as will the lips. A horse that is chewing and licking is communicating understanding, thought processing and learning. This relaxed cue is typical of an herbivore and is a clear signal that the animal is not a threat to you.  Tight lips indicate the opposite, and represent an animal in a state of distress.

The head and neck

Alongside the eyes, ears, lips and nostrils as indicators, are the position of the head and neck. All these indicators need to be taken in context of each other, as the horse never uses just one part to communicate, but a combination of all.

An extended low neck can communicate multiple things. For example if coupled with ears pinned back flat, bulging eyes, flared nostrils and tight lips, this is a clearly aggressive stance. The horse is communicating a clear warning to back away or it will defend itself. An extended low neck, with soft ears that are pointed forward, soft, lowered eyes, soft nostrils and chewing or licking the lips shows submission. A lower ranking horse will take up this stance when approaching a higher-ranking horse to ask for a share of resources such as water or food. The body language is meant to communicate, “I’m not a threat to you. I’m approaching calmly, to ask to share your space.”

The head is equally important as a tool of communication. A high raised head signals an alert, reactive state, while a low, relaxed head relates to a calm, passive state. This is vital for the safety of the herd. When horses are in an investigative state, exploring an unfamiliar environment or stimuli for potential threats, they are in a highly reactive state. Think of it is being hyper alert. They will be quick to respond to any stimuli. This state is obvious as it involves height. The neck is elongated and lifted, the head raised high, and the ears are straight up and constantly moving towards stimuli. Any signals given are easily interpreted and seen by other members of the herd. The opposite of this state, relaxed, is purposefully contrasting. A long, low neck, a low head, usually to the ground as the horse is normally grazing or foraging, and everything is soft – ears, eyes, nostrils and the body.

Shaking of the head, or tossing it up and down successively is often seen as a sign of pain or discomfort. If you notice this behaviour occurring frequently, make sure that you have your horse checked by a Veterinarian, Dentist and saddle fitter, as the problem may be pain related due to medical or dental issues, or an ill-fitting saddle.

The back, stomach, tail and legs

The body of the horse is like an open book. A tight, tense and short back indicates a stressed state. The stomach will also lift and tighten in this state and the horse will be preparing itself for flight. Everything will look tight and uncomfortable, almost as if the horse is wearing a second skin that is too small.

Keep an eye out for the tail, as this part of the body has many uses. Besides its obvious uses of warding off insects, the tail is a fantastic communication tool. A raised tail can indicate an aroused or alert state, and sharp flicks convey annoyance – an early warning signal. A low, soft tail that is swishing is merely flicking flies, but a deliberate and hard flick in your direction should not be ignored.

The hind legs are a good way to discern a relaxed horse in a passive state. One cocked hind leg, slightly bent, with relaxed, loose hips indicates a horse that is resting and relaxed. Horses use the stay apparatus to be able to rest while standing.

Tensing in the rump along with the lifting of a hind leg is a clear warning signal that the horse is uncomfortable, threatened or finds the situation aversive. Look out for the other signs too though, as a horse will also lift its hind leg to scratch, and ward of flies. Make sure you are always taking in the whole picture, the entire body.

A horse that deliberately kicks out, has actually been sending out warning signals for a while, which if ignored, result in a bigger, more obvious gesture. Unfortunately for us as humans, being on the receiving end of a powerful kick is much more damaging than if another horse was the one receiving it. Our size in comparison to the horse means that we need to be even more vigilant about reading our horses and picking up the subtle cues first before they escalate into actions that are more aggressive.

The front legs are also often used to communicate. Pawing is a common behaviour and can range from just being a basic act of foraging and digging up roots, to being an expression of frustration, anger, or boredom. Horses often paw before feeding time. This is a completely normal behaviour as the horse is simply communicating his frustration at not having his food yet. Similarly pawing can occur during training, once again indicating a frustration with tasks that may be too challenging, stressful, or even too boring and repetitive.

The art of mindfulness

The main lessons to take away are to look at the single cues in context with the entire body. Think of the body as the whole book, and the different parts as pages. Without all the pages, you can never know the whole story. You could also be interpreting the message incorrectly, as there could be several different meanings depending on what other parts of the body are saying.

Look for the small, subtle cues first, as horses will only revert to bold, obvious communication when it’s the only option left or in extremely aversive situations. This normally translates to aggressive and potentially harmful actions such as biting, kicking, stepping on toes or fleeing. Never ignore or dismiss your horse’s actions. Their behaviour is their way of telling you if something is wrong, painful, uncomfortable or frightening. Ignoring these messages may result in depression, increased illness or medical problems, chronic anxiety, severe behavioural problems and injury to you or your horse.

Be mindful of your own body language, posture and movement, as any small movements on your part will easily be picked up and interpreted by your horse, whether you meant them or not.

We are easily distracted when working with or riding our horses. Sometimes it can be a great time to just think about what you have to do for the rest of the day, compile a grocery list, plan for the weekend – we can’t always help when our minds wander. The problem is that we miss the opportunity to truly bond and effectively communicate with our horse. Practicing mindfulness and making an effort to be present and focus only on your interaction with your horse can be an extremely rewarding experience.  It paves the way for a true partnership built on respect, trust and understanding.

Depression in horses – TheHorse.com

Interesting findings from a study conducted on depressed horses, showing that, among other behavioural indicators of depression such as posture, a lack of attention was also a major indicator.

Depression is normally a result of being exposed to long-term stress and anxiety, and can also indicate poor welfare conditions or inadequate living conditions/management.

In order to maintain a balanced state both physically and mentally, horses require the ability to move around freely, forage freely, socialisation with other horses and the ability to perform normal inherited behaviours.

If any of these components are compromised continuously, the horse may fall into a depressive state.

It is very important to monitor your horse for any signs of depression, chronic anxiety or stress, and to know what the possible triggers are. If you suspect that your horse may be suffering from depression, you should contact a qualified Equine Behaviourist immediately to evaluate your horse, along with your Veterinarian to first rule out any pain or disease related problems.

Click here to read more

RESPECT… its all about space

Teaching a horse to respect your space is a fundamental part of early training, and forms part of most, if not all, training methods. From natural horsemanship through to traditional training, respecting space is one of the first aspects that a horse and owner work on establishing.

Equally important however, is teaching owners to respect their horse’s space as well. This is not always included in training and is largely overlooked. To a horse, space is crucial, and if you are after achieving a partnership with your horse, respecting space should go both ways.

Horses, whether living in a domestic environment or a natural state, require space to perform everyday activities and to achieve a balanced state both physically and mentally.

Four key categories of space apply to horses, see Figure 1 below:


Physical Space

The first and most important space is the horse’s Physical Space. This refers to space that is required to perform normal activities, such as urinating, rolling, movement etc. This also refers to the horse’s body, and the space around the horse’s body.

The head of the horse is the most personal space on its body and requires the most physical space. People tend to make contact with the horse’s head and face as a display of comfort, affection and care, however this is contrary to normal and acceptable equine social behaviour.

The withers and shoulder is actually the social area of the horse’s body, and is the most appropriate introductory area when engaging in social activities and care-based behaviour. Horses will generally groom each other in this area and are willing to accept contact in this area. Comfort is provided by rubbing along the neck, withers and shoulders and studies have shown that the area which most stimulates a relaxed state in a horse i.e. decreases the heart rate, is at the base of the neck.

Nose-to-nose contact is reserved for exploration – a horse will ‘meet’ another horse by mutual sniffing. If this greeting is accepted, the horses will move on to grooming or contact along the withers, neck and shoulders.

Face-to-face contact is normally present in agonistic situations, such as during play behaviour or displays of dominance, it is rarely associated with providing comfort or care.

Social Space

Physical space decreases based on the relationship that exists between the horse and its social partner. If a strong bond exists, such as in the case of preferred social partners or pair bonds, the space between the horses will be shared more willingly. They will rub their heads against their partners neck and withers if they need to scratch, and will generally stand closer to each other than with any other horses. Nuzzling is also common, and the space required around the head will be less for preferred social partners.

We refer to the minimum distance that a horse will allow between itself and another horse before feeling threatened as the Social Space. Social space is linked to the horse’s physical space, and as mentioned, is closely related to the relationship that exists between the horses.

A horse will quickly let an approaching horse know if they are welcome in its space or not. Clear signals will be sent out if the contact is unwanted – ears back, neck extended, tail flick. Physically driving away or kicking out at the approaching horse may also occur, depending on rank. If a lower ranking horse is approached by a higher ranking one, but the contact is unwelcome, the lower ranking horse will simply turn its hind and walk away from the space, giving it over to the higher ranking horse.

During our study of Herd Behaviour in 2015 we documented a number of social interactions involving space, as well as what types of normal behaviours are performed on a daily basis that would require physical space. Check out the videos here

Safe Space

A horse’s Safe Space is the minimum distance it will allow between itself and an unfamiliar object/stimulus before fleeing. As horses are constantly receiving information from their environment, they are always processing the stimuli around them as non-threatening or threatening, or as potential resources etc. Some of these sounds, smells and items may become familiar over time, as they are memorised and stored away. When it comes to new, unfamiliar objects or stimuli, the horse will need to process them and this is where safe space comes into play. Horses will approach unfamiliar objects, or allow these ‘objects’ to approach them, up until a point. They will then analyse the stimulus for threats, and if none are experienced, will continue approaching until the object has been fully explored. The same goes for approaching stimuli, such as an unfamiliar person approaching a horse. If the horse feels threatened in any way, they will flee, or move away from the stimulus, thereby increasing their safe space.

Home Range

The last category is the Home Range. This is the largest space, and the least important in terms of personal space. The home range is basically the area that the horse covers on a daily basis. For horses in a natural state, the home range is very large, depending on how far the horses travel. For domestic horses, the home range can be confined to their day paddock, field or even stable.

The proximity of the home range to the safe space, social space, or physical space will determine its importance.

If the horse is confined to a small stable on a daily basis, then its home range, safe space and social space are ultimately the same, and the horse may be inclined to protect its physical space more. This could lead to horses becoming territorial over their space and can lead to unwanted aggressive behaviours in the stable such as biting or kicking.

Resources also play an important part in determining the importance of space. If an area of the paddock is rich in resources, i.e. all the grass is located in this one area, it may become prime territory and could cause fighting or aggression among the horses as they compete for the resources. Similarly, mares in heat could become objects of contention and could make some areas more prime territory than others.

What does this mean for human-horse interactions and management?

As responsible horse owners and handlers, you need to ensure that the facilities you use to house your horses provide enough space for normal physical activities to be performed. The facilities need to be safe, provide ample resources and offer opportunities for socialising and movement. Satisfying the horses need for space is the first step.  Respecting it is the second.

When approaching any horse, respect his physical space and allow him to come to you first. Let him sniff your hand to determine that you’re not a threat and don’t touch his head or face, but rather give him a rub along his withers or shoulders and then step away. The process of stepping away shows respect. You are allowing your horse the choice of either following you, or remaining as is and continuing with his current activity. Your reward will be a horse that respects you in return, and wants to interact with you.

Understand the relationship that you have with your horse, and be honest about it. If you and your horse have not bonded to the level where you are a preferred social partner, don’t invade your horses personal space if it is unwelcome. Allow your horse to turn or walk away from you and don’t push yourself into his space. Instead, work on building up the trust and respect between you and your horse and establish yourself as a good leader so that your horse willingly chooses you as his preferred social partner.

Download our e-booklet on Establishing Leadership for some helpful exercises to building a successful partnership with your horse.



Playing with your horse

Play is an important physical and mental behaviour for horses, and is a normal behaviour performed as part of active relaxation.

Horses will continue playing throughout the life cycle, though the play drive does decrease with senior horses. Geldings tend to have stronger play drives than mares.

Play is all a game of dominance. With foals, it helps them to build positive social skills while learning through their interactions with other herd members. For young adults and adults alike, social boundaries and rank is tested through play, and the horses establish their positions in the social system of the herd.

Besides the physical importance of play (exercise, conditioning, muscle development etc.), the mental stimulation is equally valuable. Relationships are also built up through play, and adult horses will normally initiate play with their preferred social partners.

Investigation is an equally important normal behaviour for horses. It facilitates the location of resources such as food, water, and shelter, and also serves as a way of ensuring that an environment is safe from threats and dangerous predators.

Investigation is an incredibly stimulating activity mentally. While a horse is investigating, they are highly alert and will be highly reactive to sounds, smells and sights. Horses use their muzzle, lips, teeth and tongue to explore objects by licking, nibbling, biting and mouthing them. Smell is a primary investigatory sense and you will often see the Flehmen response being performed during exploration of unfamiliar objects. Sight and sound are equally important so you can clearly see why a horse would be highly alert while investigating.

In a domestic environment we often find that the basic needs for play and investigation are rarely met, and are sometimes even punished or frowned upon. Horses with strong play and investigation drives tend to be labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘pushy’, ‘overly dominant’, ‘disrespectful’ etc. In fact these horses are behaving in a perfectly normal way, and are trying to satisfy their needs for play and investigation by initiating these activities whenever possible. Unfortunately, our man-made, artificial environments don’t always allow for these activities to be performed safely and horses will often end up turning over buckets and boxes that they shouldn’t, or exploring other people and animals that may not enjoy the attention.

Encouraging a horses play and investigation drives can greatly aid in training, and is a fantastic way of establishing leadership and building a positive relationship.

Encouraging play and investigation

Horses are constantly receiving information from the environment. This information is processed and evaluated as either safe, or a possible threat. If safe, the horse will move on and may attach a positive or neutral association with the activity or object. If seen as a possible threat, the horse will investigate the object further, while being poised for flight, and if the experience is processed as safe and positive, a positive association will be created. If the object or activity is indeed dangerous, painful or threatening in any way, a negative association will be created.

It is important to keep this in mind when training and playing with your horse. During investigation horses will be highly alert and reactive. They will also be very open to learning as they will be processing all the information they are receiving during their explorations. Creating a positive experience is therefore extremely important when training.

Similarly with play, horses will be in a dominant mode and will be very open to learning. When horses play with each other they are establishing their rank, but are also trying to determine where they fit in in the herds social system. By creating a positive experience and focusing on establishing respect and trust, you will be seen as a good leader and a preferred social partner. This is the key to building a strong partnership with your horse.

How to train using play and investigation

Groundwork training that incorporates both play and investigation is an effective way of providing mentally and physically stimulating training for your horse that will also result in building a positive relationship between the two of you. Teaching your horse new cues or behaviours is also easy to do during this type of training as the horse is very open to learning and will create associations quickly.

It is important to remember that safety, both yours and your horses, always comes first. Make sure that you are working in an enclosed arena that is safe and secure. It is always recommended that you wear a protective hat, boots and gloves when training. Make sure that your horse is as free of restraints as possible so simply using a halter and lead rope is all that is needed.

Fill up the arena with interesting objects that your horse can explore, such as ground poles, cones, buckets, drums, flags, tarps, tyres etc. Allow your horse to take the lead and let him explore the environment, the different objects and items. Let your horse take his time and really investigate. Encourage exploration by tapping on objects and gently asking your horse to come and explore them. Follow him around and remain by his side, always interacting with the items yourself as well. Make sure that you are always safe and able to step back quickly if your horse reacts to an object. Never allow yourself to get boxed in or blocked off.

Once you have given your horse adequate time to explore the environment then ask him to perform specific actions such as backing up from you, circling around you, performing lateral exercises such as leg yields. Encourage him to walk over tarps, poles or place his foot inside a tyre and slowly take it out again. This activity is truly limitless and can be used to incorporate a wide variety of training exercises.

The main aspects to keep in mind are the type of experiences you are creating for your horse, as this will result in the type of associations he will make and what he will learn. Creating a rewarding experience will enable the horse to learn better and quicker and will create a positive experience and associations. Praise your horse for performing even the smallest task by giving him scratches and rubs along the base of the neck. Engage in some grooming while you are waiting for him to explore by gently hand rubbing him along the neck and shoulder. Use your voice in a soothing, quite manner and make sure that you are relaxed and calm throughout the session. Hide some treats or carrots under some objects and allow your horse to find them, then praise him when he does. Try not to hand-feed him as this exercise is about encouraging his natural investigation drive therefore it is best for your horse to discover these resources on his own. Never use punishment or force.

Building trust, respect and friendship

If performed correctly, this exercise will definitely strengthen your relationship with your horse and will enable you to become a confident and good leader by establishing mutual trust and respect between you and your horse. Additionally, this exercise is intended to build your horse’s confidence as well, and will enable him to improve on his own leadership qualities resulting in a confident horse that has selected you as his preferred social partner and leader.

If you would like to learn more about how to perform this training contact us for more info

Understanding biting behaviour

Education and awareness being our primary goal here at Equine Behaviour, I feel that I need to address an issue that has recently cropped up on social media and a few other public platforms.

Some advice was recently provided to a horse owner by an independent behaviourist (not affiliated with Equine Behaviour) regarding how to manage her horse that bites. While I have deep respect for fellow colleagues and Equine Practitioners, I do need to address this as this is a common problem expressed by horse owners and I don’t feel the advice given was correct in any way.

The owner was advised to use immediate punishment by swiftly smacking the horse on the mouth as soon as he tried to bite, using a sharp, painful slap, and then to reward the horse afterwards once it stood still. I am sure many equine professionals will be divided on this one as this is commonly used to deal with biters, however it rarely works and leads to a horse either becoming more aggressive due to the conditioned pain and fear response, or the horse could develop further anxiety and stress-related behaviours as a response to this punishment.

What should have been advised to the horse owner is firstly to make sure that her horse is not in any pain from dental issues, illness, or pain in the body (limbs, joints etc.). A Veterinarian and an Equine Dentist should be able to rule out any pain by doing a quick check.

Biting commonly occurs during the following scenarios:

  • Tacking up, particularly when tightening the girth
  • Feeding treats, particularly hand feeding
  • During leading or walking in-hand
  • Grooming and performing other maintenance duties such as putting on boots, clipping etc.

It is therefore important to assess when the behaviour occurs and if it’s related to a particular event or action. If the horse bites during tacking up, make sure your saddle and other tack fits properly and isn’t causing pain or discomfort to the horse. Biting during grooming could also indicate a form of discomfort or pain and needs to be investigated.

You could also unknowingly reinforce certain behaviours and could be teaching your horse the incorrect behaviours if your timing is not correct. If your horse tends to be pushy and mouthy when you bring out the bag of carrots or treats, your response to this will teach him either the desired or undesired behaviour. If you quickly give him the carrot to get him away you are inadvertently rewarding him for his pushy behaviour and telling him that he will get a carrot if he pushes you around. You are reinforcing the undesired behaviour. If you use correct pressure, asking him to move out of your space and stand calmly, and only then give him a carrot, you are rewarding the desired behaviour.

Biting as a behaviour is completely normal. It is a common and important behaviour for horses and there are reasons why horses bite.

Biting can be used a) as part of play behaviour, b) as part of agonistic (aggressive) behaviour, or c) as communication. As every action has a cause, the reason for the biting needs to be established.

During play, horses tend to establish their dominance over their partners and primarily use their mouths to do so. Play behaviour can look quite aggressive but it is actually not and is a very important part of a horse’s daily life. Typical play behaviour is characterised by a few quick nips by the challenging horse, then the mouth games begin. The horses will lock their mouths together in a sort of tug-of-war, using their teeth and jaws to best their opponents. Biting is a common behaviour during play, as is chasing and kicking out with the hind legs.

Aggressive biting is very different from play. Aggression is a normal and natural reaction to a threat, such as a competing stallion trying to steal prized mares. An aggressive bite is characterised by a baring of the teeth, ears pinned back and an extended neck. The horse would make a quick lunge, snap the jaws shut and pull back quickly. The point is to inflict as much pain and damage as possible to drive the threat away.

Aggression towards humans is driven by two factors – fear or pain or a combination of the two (fear of anticipating pain). Horses are not naturally aggressive animals; however, they are geared towards survival as a primary goal and if threatened, will react defensively.

Biting can also be a form of communication. If you observe a herd of horses, you may see a very quick snap and nip from one horse to another. This is normally followed by typical driving behaviour and results in the other horse walking away and moving out of the space. This is a clear communication from one horse to another that personal space has been invaded. There were probably many subtler signals prior to the biting, however the horse may have ignored them or tried to push his rank and the result was a more aggressive form of communication.

Understanding this normal behaviour as it would be performed in the horses natural environment can help us to better understand why it is occurring with our horses. Once all possibilities of pain and discomfort have been eliminated, and there isn’t a particular pattern or occurrence that prompts the behaviour (hand feeding treats etc.), then we look to management practices and the current relationship between horse and owner for answers.

Horses, particularly geldings, of any age require plenty opportunities to express normal social behaviours with other horses. This includes play and exercise. If this need isn’t being satisfied and the owner isn’t providing training that is stimulating enough to satisfy the play drive, the horse may turn to the owner as a play partner. This would include dominant behaviours such as biting, jibbing, toe stepping, being pushy, crowding etc. These behaviours would only be magnified if the relationship between the horse and owner were poor, or lacking in respect and trust.

The relationship between the owner and the horse is therefore very important. If there is a lack of leadership and positive social interactions between the owner and the horse, the horse will be less likely to respect and trust the person and will also then be less likely to want to interact with them. Leadership is gained through positive social interactions with the horse – you need to create an environment where positive experiences occur when the horse interacts with you so that the horse is willing to be around you. Similarly, you also need to show good leadership skills in order to gain their trust and respect.

Without this partnership being established, the horse may be resistant to engaging with the owner, may display dominant behaviours, and if forced through fear or pain, may become aggressive towards the owner.

It is also vital to consider the age, temperament, sex and breeding of the horse. Geldings are more likely to show dominant behaviours than mares. Similarly young horses will also tend to test their dominance and push boundaries more so than older, senior horses. Cold-blooded breeds tend to be less emotionally reactive and have calmer temperaments therefore displaying less dominant behaviours than their hot-blooded counterparts do.

Management practices also need to be considered. Horses need ample socialising opportunities with other horses to express normal behaviours such as active and passive relaxation, and exercise. They also need access to ample forage and the ability to move around freely throughout the day. If these needs are not met then specific normal behaviours will remain unsatisfied which could be a contributing factor to problem behaviours developing.

Incorrect feeding and management can lead to excess energy which if not properly managed could lead to boredom and frustration, causing the horse to exhibit undesirable behaviours such as aggressive biting.

Biting is a completely normal and acceptable behaviour to the horse. Only when it is directed towards people does it become unacceptable and potentially dangerous. It is not something that should be punished in any way, as the horse is not doing anything wrong. Punishment of any form will only worsen the behaviour and can potentially lead to further behavioural problems developing.

Horse owners should first understand why the behaviour is taking place and only then look at possible solutions. It is recommended that you work with a qualified Equine Behaviourist to ensure that you are managing the problem behaviour in a way that is positive for the horse, strengthens your relationship rather than destroying it, and reinforces the correct, desired behaviours.