Primary Categories of Equine Behavior

Here's a look at the 11 primary categories of equine behavior categories, with comments from behavioral experts.

We all know horses can act goofy on occasion, both amusing and confusing their caretakers. But which, if any, of these equine actions are considered normal? One way for horse owners to find out is to study the 11 primary categories of equine behavior as outlined in My Horse University's online Horse Behavior and Welfare Course, based out of Michigan State University.

"Of course I am biased, but I think there is nothing in the world more important to the average horse owner better understanding their horse and, in turn, enhancing their horse's welfare, than to know more about horse behavior," says Dr. Camie Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University Horse Management Program and lead instructor for the online behavior course. "[That means] everything from understanding that the horse evolved to eat lots of reasonably low-quality forage through the vast portion of the day ... to always remembering that the horse evolved as a creature of prey, hence their first reaction is always to flee from a potential source of danger."

Here's a look at these categories, with comments from some behavioral experts:

Ingestive Behavior refers to a horse's eating and drinking habits. Given the choice, as most horse owners know, equines like to forage or graze most of the day. What is less commonly known is that they prefer to ingest many different species of plants, not merely grass or hay. This follows a pattern observed in wild horses and illustrated in experiments conducted by Dr. Debbie Goodwin, a lecturer in Applied Animal Behavior at the University of Southampton (United Kingdom) and honorary president of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) council.


"Horses have only been domesticated for around 6,000 years, and so much of their digestive physiology and foraging behavior has changed very little during domestication," says Goodwin. "Owners can meet their horses' nutritional and foraging motivational needs by providing a varied forage diet for their horses. There are many forages suitable for horses available on the market, so the variety offered can be tailored to meet the nutritional and workload requirements of individuals, and cater to their dietary preferences."

She recommends contacting your local feed merchant for long-chop hay or haylages, plus short-chop, bucket-fed forages that are suitable for horses and that provide "a variety of physical shapes and textures as well as tastes and nutritional content." Since these products are more common in Europe than in America, Dr. Christine Skelly, director of curriculum for My Horse University, suggests planting "a variety of grass and legume species in a pasture mix and/or feed mixed hay (grass and legume blend)." Be sure to offer only small quantities of novel forages at first, ensuring that your horse's usual forage is also available.

Though well-fed horses are unlikely to ingest toxic plants, it is important to note that this is still a possibility. As for water, the old rule of making it available 24/7 is worth heeding, even though in the wild, horses only drink a few times a day.

What goes in must come out, and that is where Eliminative Behavior plays a role. Some horses are not particular about where they defecate or urinate, while others have preferred elimination areas, especially in larger pastures. (Horses are notorious for avoiding these soiled spots, but mowing and dragging will maximize utilization and help kill parasites, while rotating pastures will refresh these areas.)

In addition, stallions will defecate on other horse's fecal piles, generally after smelling them. "Dung piles are used to signal the presence of a resident stallion," explains Natalie Waran, senior vice president of the ISES council and head of the School of Natural Sciences at Unitec New Zealand. "Horses are not territorial about space, but stallions are protective of their mares! The constant piling of dung ensures that it remains fresh, and the pheromones strong. Other stallions may 'over-mark' by placing their dung over that of the resident stallion to try to claim ownership."

Photo courtesy of MSU

"Curiosity killed the cat" applies to more than just felines. A horse's Investigative Behavior--an outgrowth of its natural curiosity--can get it into trouble when checking out objects left within reach. Because of the risk of injury, horse owners should keep pastures and barn aisles free of such enticements.

Is a horse's investigative behavior any indication of its intelligence? Not necessarily, according to Dr. Cindy McCall, professor and extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at Alabama's Auburn University. "I don't know of any studies linking investigative behavior with intelligence in horses," she notes. "And there are so many other factors [that] influence both investigative behavior (e.g., age, gender, management) and intelligence (e.g., type of test, reinforcers and reinforcement delivery system, previous experiences of the horse) that it would be difficult to draw conclusions about their relationship."

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