Introduction to Horse Behavior and Psychology

Part 1

Natural Equine Behaviour

Of the numerous species of mammals only a mere handful has been domesticated. So unusual and important is this relationship between man and animal that the very process of domestication itself is the subject of intense study. Even a cursory search into the history of the domesticated species reveals that there are few general rules that can be applied – and that the history of our relationship with each species is, in some way, unique.

Many regard the dog as the oldest domesticated animal, and with good reason for, as an opportunist feeder and scavenger, the wild dog would have been drawn to the scraps and latrines of early human hunters. It may well be that the dog was so familiar a sight on the perimeter of encampments that it quickly became commonplace and thereby lost any sense of mystery. And perhaps this explains why dog or wolf is comparatively rare in early cave paintings. Not so the horse. So famous are some of the 200 or so caves across southern France and northern Spain in which the horse is depicted in shamanistic art that their names almost form a sacred litany of equine prehistory; Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Cosquer, Lascaux, Peche-Merle. The very rocks echo the fascination and awe in which our ancestors held this magnificent creature!

Looking at one of those paintings it is easy to put oneself back in a forefather’s thoughts: “if only I could run like the horse – what a hunter I should be, what glorious power I should posses! Surely the man who learns the secrets of the horse’s spirit would be as a lord of nature and king over the beasts!”  How this ancestor must have studied the horse’s ways in order to bring this power under his dominion – how high was man lifted when first he rode in company with the wind, and oh how the world was changed for ever when finally he learnt to do so.

So enormous is the debt owed by human development to horsepower that it is impossible to separate the spread of culture and knowledge – of civilisation itself, from the history of horse travel and transport. But now the horse, like the dog, has become commonplace and is so established in our consciousness as a biddable servant and commercial product that we are rarely able to glimpse the primeval majesty, and have lost the sense of fascination beneath the trappings of familiarity. The wild horse is but a shadow from the past, and both we and Equus Caballus are poorer for the loss.

It is not now uncommon for highly skilled riders to be all but ignorant of who and what the horse is beneath the accoutrements of domestication, as if we had changed the essential nature of the animal so that it retains only the characteristics of the captive servant; as if the product of 600,000 years of evolution could be swept under the carpet in the mere 6000 years during which the man-relationship has existed. Yet this is no truer than to suggest we have nothing in common behaviourally with our own distant ancestors. The process has gone so far that we have come to the stage where we typically put the stable before the horse! Our methods of management and husbandry owe far more to human behavior, desire and convenience than they do to our knowledge of, or consideration for, horse behavior!

It is at this point in the argument that some might ask; “So what? Such is the natural way of things, we are the domesticators, owners, keepers and breeders – our interests clearly come first!” And this would be understandable, perhaps, however selfish it might be, if the logic upon which it is based were reliable – but this is not the case. The power of the horse can not only be of great service and give great pleasure, it can also be a source of great harm, of injury and death. From a purely practical perspective mismanagement is costly, either in terms of restriction or loss of use, cost of maintenance or human safety. Even if we were to put aside any consideration for welfare, or the aspiration to achieve an ethical partnership, it would still be in our interests to harmonize our management and use of the horse with the innate character of Equus Caballus.

It may seem strange that there is this void in our knowledge – many might think that after a 6000 year relationship there would be little we do not already know. Yet the reality is that it has been our natural inclination to view the horse through the filter of our own desires, rather than than the 'wellbeing' of a subordinate species.

Human development has surely come far enough now for us to turn back on our trail and extend our understanding of this partner that has carried us out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of civilisation. There is little question that in doing so we shall also learn much about ourselves and reaffirm the essential affinity between all living things. If the separation between us and the natural world has been the source of many of the problems that now beset our environment perhaps, for the horse enthusiast, this journey may serve as a conduit to a greater harmony.

Having arrived at this point the next logical step is for us to ask in what way we might best explore the unknown. The discipline of ethology, the study of behavior, is a latecomer to science, not arriving until early in the second half of the twentieth century, and it is through this branch of science rather than through mysticism or populist showmanship that we can now move forward.

Should we then observe the few remaining groups of feral horses that remain? Much of this work has already been carried out, across a number of countries and habitats. Yet movement is the very soul of the horse and it is virtually impossible for the human researcher to keep up and, even were it to be possible, the observations need to be carried out over years, and intimate relationships, both biological and social, revealed before behavioral complexities can be identified.

There now exist a number of semi-free ranging study herds, of either ponies or horses, maintained by Universities and research centers internationally, whose function it is to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. One such center was the White Horse Equine Ethology Project 

The project came to an end at the original site in early March, 2005. The article series was written in from July 2003 onwards.

WHEEP was established on a 114 Ha back country farm in the far north of New Zealand ’s North Island , kilometres away from the nearest tarmac road, in 1992, and now supports four distinct social groups. Firstly there is the ‘Foundation Group’, 19 in number, consisting of the original Arabian stallion, his harem of Thoroughbred mares and their progeny up to the age of two years. Registered Arabians and Thoroughbreds were chosen as these are two of the oldest breeds for which records have been maintained, so that should there be any need or requirement to calculate a coefficient of inbreeding it would be easily possible. Additionally many of the original group had been blood tested to ensure authenticity of parentage and, in the case of the stallion, freedom from known hereditary defects. The ‘Second Generation Group’, numbering 22 individuals, consists entirely of progeny from the foundation group, all of which were foaled on the property. The resident stallion of the group, whose dam was purchased in foal, is now almost 10 years old and is accompanied by nine mares and their progeny to two years of age.

Colts are removed from the two harem groups once the resident stallion begins to show marked intolerance, generally between 2 and 2 years six months. They are then introduced into the ‘Bachelor Group”, currently numbering 9, of which three are colts (under 4 years of age), 5 are young stallions of 4 years of age. The group is led by a 7 year old stallion whose authority is unquestioned, and who brings the group in to training sessions or for supplementary feeding and health care.

During the early years of the project it also became clear that the foundation stallion was intolerant of his daughters once they reached an age where they began to come in season. But whereas the intolerance towards colts grew slowly his reaction to a daughter coming in season for the first time could be quite explosive, and in one early case a filly was driven out of the group under such pressure that she was forced to jump a gate to escape his wrath! This was but the first in a long sequence of surprises, many of which were either contrary to the current view or were not covered in the available literature at all. Of course this also led to management changes so that fillies were removed to a separate ‘females only’ group. It also marked the first radical departure from the behavior of natural groups as, in the wild state, these fillies would have been driven out on to the margins of the harem group’s territory from where they would no doubt have been captured by the highest status member of a bachelor group.  

Whilst it was a departure from the natural way of things it also served to illuminate the social cycle of equine life, and so began a roller-coaster odyssey of discovery in which the herd were to become not only my instructors but my brothers and sisters.

Since those early days the project has come through controversy, attack from the equine establishment and a ‘high-wire’ act of financial brinksmanship during which the threat of closure and the dispersal of the herd has, at times, been a demon that turned each night’s dreams into nightmare. Through this it has been the wonderment and privilege of serving ‘the herd’ and expanding our understanding that has provided the strength and commitment to keep going.

In the coming months I hope to share the product of these years with the reader, and to open a window on equine social behavior – the secret life of the horse.


© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2003

Part 2