1.2 Horse Behaviour: Wild vs. Stabled

Wild vs. Stabled

Why is this course important?  Knowing how horses behave and why they respond the way they do, will give you the tools and confidence to safely work with them.

Wild or feral horse behaviour compared to domestic horse behaviour:

The very instincts that help the wild horse survive as a prey (hunted) animal are often in direct conflict with life in the domesticated human world. Horses are social, herd animals. Living successfully and peacefully with a group depends on using the right signals (cues) as well as understanding the language.

Domestic horses, while pastured, spend the majority of their time grazing. Time spent grazing depends somewhat on availability of forage (grass, hay…) and the needs of the animal. Grazing behaviour can also be affected by factors such as; how many horses are in the paddock, social relationships, types of plants, and pasture design.

Sleep patterns: Horses have sleep patterns typical for prey species that evolved on open plains.  Horses can sleep standing up. In order to achieve deep stages of sleep, it is thought that horses need to lie down.  Observations of herds of wild and semi-wild horses show that horses take “power naps” and use the buddy system to get the rest they need while keeping safe from predators.  Wild horses get more sleep each day than stabled horses.

For any horse or group of horses, there is usually a pattern of rest and other activities, such as grazing. The pattern varies with the weather and season, and there are variations in activities. Stabled horses, affected by the activity around them, typically get much of their sleep during the evening and early morning hours. Horses tend to learn the pattern of the barn and their deepest rest and sleep tend to occur soon after the busy ‘people day’ ends.

The behaviour of the domestic horse has been changed from that of the wild horse due to housing and management.  Some of the differences caused by management include:

  • increased amount of time that horses are confined in stables
  • competition (and breeding) – higher energy requirements therefore horses are given grain
  • common practice of giving twice-daily feeding of concentrated meals such as grain and a flake of hay
  • size of pasture provided can influence type of exercise, for example, locomotion at a canter is restricted in fields of 3 acres and less but not in fields of 5 acres or more.

Activity 2: Discuss with your group

Discussion IconPost a discussion point on a behaviour that may be caused by how we manage stabled horses (a behaviour that is not likely to be seen in a wild horse).  How does our management affect the horse and what changes could be made to improve horse welfare?  Use the Unit Discussions forum for lesson-based activities throughout the course.

Check out the links below to help with your discussions.

What causes stable vices or stereotypies? (pdf)

Driving Horses Mad (pdf)

Horse Publications Group has provided the above article, “Are you driving your horse mad?” (Horse Sport, August 2005) for use in discussion for this course.

Thank you to Amy Harris, Editor and Horse Publications Group for their support.

View video: Stereotypic behaviour video (Youtube)

(note: no audio with above video)

Stereotypic behaviours are undesirable behaviour patterns that are repetitive and do not appear to serve a purpose. What causes a horse to behave like this?