A STUDY OF EQUINE BEHAVIOUR
1) The horse and it's evolution / adaptation to habitat
2) Behavioural evolution
3) Instincts influencing behaviour
4) The horse's senses and its' view of life
1) The horse and it's evolution / adaptation to a changing
Equus caballus, our present day horse, has been in a similar
form for approximately 2 million years. His evolution began
some 55 million years ago as a small mammal with five toes,
called Hyracotherium, also known as Eohippus.
The evolution of the horse has been accurately documented
as a complete fossil history has been discovered over the
years. The evolution is closely tied to the earth's' climatic
changes, making it necessary for the horse to adapt to survive
in a changing environment.
During his evolution the position of the great land masses of
the world have changed enormously, to the extent of some breaking
apart and others colliding. Climatic changes have been extensive,
wiping out many other species.
The horse has therefore had to make the following changes
a) Increase in body size
b) Development and specialisation of the brain
c) Decrease in number of toes
d) Loss of toe pad and development of hooves
e) Lengthening of limbs in comparison to body size
f) Fusion of lower limb bones
g) Development of locomotor systems to increase efficiency
These developments have given the horse the
edge in the race for survival. They allow a relatively large
animal to be fast for it's size and weight. Cutting down the
number of predators able to kill it.
Other traits enabled the horse to efficiently
exploit the large grasslands which began to appear 50 million
years ago, these were:
a) Development of high crowned teeth
with a large surface grinding area
b) Increase in muzzle length, allowing more teeth
c) Development of hind gut fermentation
d) Brain development allowing more selective grazing.
Ancestor of all modern day herbivore mammals was an order
called 'CONDYLARTHS', these primitive mammals were in existence
between 65 and 70 million years ago. They had five toes on
each foot and a fine set of teeth, consisting of 6 incisors,
2 canines, 8 premolars and 6 molars, the maximum number found
in any mammal.
During the next 10 million years descent became
more specialised in the form of the horse's proved ancestors.
The main evolutionary stages of the horse to the present day
are as follows:
a) Hyracotherium 60 million years ago
b) Mesohippus 40 million years ago
c) Merychippus 25 million years ago
d) Pliohippus 5 million years ago
e) Equus 2.5 to 3 million years ago.
Hyracotherium was a small creature, some 0.5 metres high,
with an arched back, four hoofed toes and could probably trot
and canter. He was a browser, living on small shoots and leaves
of trees, of a higher quality than grass, these foodstuffs
were abundant and Hyracotherium thrived. His fossil specimens
have been found in both Eurasia and North America. However,
over the next few million years climatic changes meant that
Hyracotherium died out in Eurasia while remaining in North
America where he gradually evolved into Mesohippus over the
next 10 million years.
Further climatic cooling began around 22 million years ago,
lasting until 5 million years ago, when an ice-cap appeared
over the South Pole, causing sea levels to recede and allowing
a land bridge along what is now the Bering Straits between
North America and Siberia, once again allowing migration into
Eurasia. Browsing horses continued to evolve in North America,
due to the vegetation but the horses that migrated to Eurasia
became true grazing horses, due the habitat of plains.
These grazing horses could exist because they had high crowned
teeth, resisting the harder wear imposed by grazing rather
then browsing. Another adaptation to survival on the plains
was the lateralisation of their eyes, allowing a far wider
field of view to spot predators.
Another development was sustained flight in a straight line,
horses are not made to switch direction quickly, as do many
other species living on the plains, but simply to outrun a
predator. Necessity for speed fused the lower bones of the
leg together, giving added strength. Gradually the need for
more than one toe disappeared and around 4 to 5 million years
ago the horse became one toed.
The oldest recognisable fossil of Equus was found in North
America and is 3 million years old, within 300,000 years there
is evidence of Equus in other parts of the world. Much debate
amongst learned fellows goes on about the differences of modern
horses and their origins, i.e. Exmoor Pony and Arab, Prezwalski's
horse and Zebra, all definite and vastly different types but
it seems to be the consensus of opinion that there is no single
line of descent for all the modern equids. These are believed
to have come from a number of subspecies.
It appears that the modern horse Equus caballus, diverged
from other modern days equids, i.e. Zebra and Ass some 1.5
million years ago. Domestication may have occurred and then
spread around the globe with migrants domesticating the local
2) Behavioural Evolution.
Behavioural evolution was closely linked to
physical evolution by necessity of survival, therefore those
of the population best able to adapt to changes in their environment
lived the longest and left most descendants, gradually building
a population best suited to survive. Those unable to adapt died
out naturally, their life spans much shorter they left few descendants
so their lines died out. This is known as natural selection
and occurs in all feral populations. When man interferes and
creates artificial, 'sheltered' breeding circumstances then
many individuals are able to breed who would not have done so
in a wild state.
As we have seen, the horse evolved from a pig like animal
some 65 million years ago to the horse as we know it today
some 1.5 to 2 million years ago. The main physical differences
are the length of neck, length of legs and decrease from five
toes to one, plus a general increase in size.
Think of how the landscape has changed over this time and
the necessity of the physical changes for survival. As the
forests and swamps gave way to more open areas the horse,
or his ancestor, needed to see around him for greater distances
to be aware of predators and have a chance of escape. His
neck increased in length. As the open areas became larger,
he needed a greater range of vision so his eyes gradually
moved to the sides of his head, giving almost all-round vision.
He needed to run faster to escape predators so his legs increased
in length, in addition to gradual fusion of the lower limb
bones to give added strength.
We have 2 variants of evolution: for instance Did horses
leg's become longer to enable them to escape or did the individuals
with slightly longer legs manage to escape and therefore to
breed so left descendants, also with longer legs thus carrying
on the trait?We can see the gradual development of a swift,
far sighted animal that survived by running away. Hence we
have our modern day horse, who is naturally fast for his size,
is by nature nervous and a flight animal.
3) Instincts influencing behaviour.
c) safety in numbers
d) freedom of feet
e) no predators on back.
The horse's natural nervousness makes him very wary. He knows
he has no real form of defence except flight. A cornered horse
will lash out with hindfeet, forefeet or teeth under extreme
provocation but he would prefer to flee. Instinct tells him
to run away from whatever he considers a threat.
Because of this instinct to flee, it is very important to
the horse to keep his feet free. If one of his feet is trapped
or held, he cannot run away. Reluctance to step into mud or
water, where the depth cannot be judged, therefore the safety
of the feet, is usually down to this instinct, especially
in a young horse or an older horse with a handler he does
It is perfectly natural for a horse to pull his foot away
if you try and pick it up, he must be taught to overcome his
instinctive fear and handling of a foal's feet at an early
age saves much hassle later on. Notice how uneasy horses are
if there is a dog running around during shoeing, when they
must stand on 3 legs for long periods. Dogs are predators,
and a horse's natural enemies in the wild, therefore even
if a horse is used to dogs, when he is in a defenceless state
his instinct is to be afraid. In fairness to both your horse
and your blacksmith, it is better to keep the dog shut in
during his visit.
Reluctance to leave the stable yard or a group
of horses goes back to the instinct of safety in numbers. A
horse needs to keep his head down for long periods to eat enough
to maintain himself in the wild state, when his head is down
he cannot see predators. This is where safety in numbers comes
in, as herds always have some 'watchers' while others are grazing,
to raise the alarm should a predator be sighted. Therefore alone
the horse feels very vulnerable and instinct tells him to stay
with the herd for safety.
No predators on his back, is a natural deep rooted instinct
This is often in direct opposition of what we wish to do
with a horse, and the amount of contact a horse has had with
humans during his life has a direct influence on how strong
this instinct is. For instance a horse that has lived virtually
wild until it's training begins is far more difficult to train
to saddle than one who has lived close to man all it's life.
From personal experience of training young horses from many
different backgrounds I have never found an exception to this.
In saying 'difficult' I mean this relatively. Horses that
have been well handled from an early age do not seem to fear
a person on their backs and accept it immediately with little
or no resistance.
Horses that have not been handled very much have an inbuilt
fear of man, as a predator, and are more likely to resist,
i.e. by jumping away when someone first attempts to mount
them or by bucking when the weight of a person is felt on
their backs. In except a very few cases this fear is overcome
with patience and reassurance, but one needs to move quietly
and tactfully with this type of horse or they become easily
upset. In the case of breaking a horse to harness, much more
ground work is done than before backing, in most cases, but
even so a horse that has not been handled is much more likely
to take fright at long reins unless very carefully introduced.
This does not in any way mean that the horse is 'bad', it
simply is unused to man and his demands, many of which, to
a horse, are very dangerous.
Lack of understanding of how a horse thinks can lead to many
unnecessary conflicts, horses think like horses not like humans,
and to endow your horse with human characteristics can be
very dangerous. In moments of stress or excitement the horses
will always act from instinct and can injure us easily without
any intention of doing so. For instance, I remember feeling
particularly stupid getting up out of the mud after standing,
foolishly, in front of an Akal Teke stallion, right in his
blind zone. He saw another horse, leapt forwards and literally
flattened me with out realising I was there. I must say he
did notice when he hit me, but it was too late then! Luckily
I wasn't hurt and my main concern was that no-one else had
noticed my stupidity.
Although it is very necessary to build a bond with every
animal you work with, this should be based on respect for
one another. If you encourage your horse to think you are
another horse, don't be surprised when he takes a playful
lump out of you, just as he would one of his contemporaries
in the herd. He needs to respect that you are different from
him and that you are the 'leader'.
Horses in a domestic situation look constantly for guidance
and this is your chance to build a good relationship with
your horse. This delicate balance of trust and respect is
achieved by consistency in your dealings with the horse at
every level, firmness when he does wrong and praise when he
does right. Horses are very responsive to voice and quickly
learn 'good boy' and 'no'. I cannot overstress this point
as an undisciplined horse is a potentially dangerous one.
4) Eyes and ears / a horse's view of life.
With eyes on the side of his head, the horse can see almost
all-round himself, although he has a blind zone behind him
and a little way in front of his head. The blind zone means
that if you walk straight towards a horse you disappear when
you are right in front of him, to keep you in his vision he
will either turn his head away or walk backwards, both actions
are likely to be interpreted as 'not wanting to be caught'.
Approaching from an angle keeps you in the horse's view all
the time, although when you are a short distance away he may
swing his head around towards you to get a binocular vision.
Hence the old adage, 'approach a horse towards his shoulder'.
Many old wisdom's from generations back hold very true and
although our forefathers did not have the scientific knowledge
available today they learned a lot by practical experience
of what did and did not work when handling horses.
Not surprising, horses dislike activity in the blind zone
where they cannot see it and unless they are very relaxed
they will invariably turn their heads and sometimes their
whole bodies to try and see what's happening. Any movement
in this blind zone may be interpreted as threatening, especially
by a young or little handled horse and if the horses is unable
to move away or turn his head is quite liable to kick out.
Again, the old adage ' never approach a horse from behind,
he might kick' holds true.
Focusing: Horse do not seem able to change their lens shape
to focus as can many animals, and 50 years ago it was thought
that they focused on distant or near objects by raising or
lowering their heads due to the retina being ramped i.e. sloping,
so that the bottom of it was nearer the lens than the top.
Now this is known to be untrue and what has been discovered
is that in the upper and lower extremes of their eyes horses
are long-sighted, and the centre of the eye focuses on near
objects. The retina vision is more detailed as there is a
higher concentration of visual cells there. Also the cinemascope
of the horse's eye is not round, like ours, but much wider
and shallower, extending almost all the way round the body.
To focus on objects close beside them, horses must either
keep their heads low, or if their heads are high, tilt them
sideways. If this tilting is prevented in a ridden, or driven,
horse, they will have to skip sideways to get further away
and reduce the degree of tilting needed. This action (spooking
or shying) is often punished either deliberately or by loss
of balance and snatching at the reins. The horse then learns
that such objects hurt and try to avoid them more quickly,
thus compounding the problem. Hence you see that the horse's
view of life on a physical level is not the same as ours,
and if we try to understand more about what the horse sees
and how he needs to adjust his movements to see objects clearly,
it may help us to communicate better with him.
A horse's ears are far more sensitive than ours, and far
more selective, suggesting that their range of both high and
low notes is greater than our own. For instance, a horse will
hear the noise of another horse approaching long before we,
sitting on their backs or riding just behind them, do. Horses
ears are funnel shaped and very mobile, with 16 different
muscles to move them, enabling him to catch sounds from any
Different ear positions show various things in 'Equus', the
name given to the horse's language by Monty Roberts, for instance;
Ears pricked show extreme attention forwards.
Ears to the side show listening to that
side, when 1 ear, both ears drooping show relaxation and
Ears half back, submission, doziness.
Ears back, attention backwards, submission.
Ears flat back, anger or fear, often the
ears are not parallel, showing split attention
By reading your horse's mood and intentions
accurately, many unnecessary conflicts can be avoided.
Calls - several different.
Neigh, contact or recognition. Horses recognise
others by their neigh just as we do by voices.
Stallion's neigh, recognisable by grunt
Hollywood filmmakers constantly use a neigh
in wrong situation, i.e. as fear instead of recognition.
Nickers, divided into greeting, i.e. to
human friend, especially with food. Stallion's courtship
nicker, low and forceful. Maternal nicker of a mare to her
Squeals, very close contact, especially
sexual. Often goes with stamp of forefoot, showing warning,
or strike out of forefoot, a stronger threat.
Snorts, alarm and challenge signals to alert
rest of herd. Sign of excitement in domestic horses. Conflict
between fear and desire to investigate something strange.
Screams and roars, not often heard. Sign
of horse in extreme emotional state, usually rage and fear
during fighting. If ever a horse screams at you, get out
of the way, he really means to hurt you. Very rare.
Grunts, effort, fighting or jumping. Pain,
foaling or colic. Not a deliberate signal.
High blowing, noise made in NASAL SEPTUM,
usually sign of pleasure when cantering.
Nose blowing/Clearing, relaxed sound when
horse feels well in his environment. Often made after working
on long rein. Occasionally will reply if you do it back.
Posture betrays emotional state. Horses
watch each other constantly for signs of attitude.
Signs of body tension are alarm signals
to a horse. Since horses include us in this posture watching,
they interpret tension in us as an alarm signal. Tense,
frightened people actually frighten horses and make then
want to run away. Sight of stiff, jerky movements indicate
danger to a horse. If we are leader then doubly worrying
for horse. People who get on well with horses always relaxed
and unhurried, making horse relax. Many fierce horses, used
to rough treatment are, surprisingly, very quiet with children,
probably because they are relaxed. Emphasis on OUTLINE as
potent signal explains why the sight of a familiar person
wearing an unfamiliar hat or carrying something large ca
be source of fear for horse. They look for outlines, not
features and the change worries them.
TAILS and EARS
Good forms of signalling as very visual.
High-tailing shows excitement . Can also
be used by mares to attract stallion but then combined with
lower head carriage and drooping ears so as not to be mistaken
for a 'startle' position.
Tail flattening: submission and fear
Tail lashing: annoyance and irritation,
often seen in frustration and conflict
Ears best indicators of horse's attention.
Turned in any direction show what horse is listening to.
Turned back not necessarily bad temper,
can be listening backwards.
MOUTHS and NOSES
Head thrust, nose tipped abruptly forwards
and upwards with jerk of neck. Aggressive threat movement.
Commonest threat between horses. May become a lunge,
where whole body is used, or extreme cases, a charge.
Nudge, attention seeking, can be to
show distress to handler.
Loafing horses nudge companions to move
them or start mutual grooming.
Head shakes, natural way of dislodging
annoyances such as flies and dust after rolling. Also
used in frustrating conditions, such as wishing to bite
but not daring or unable to reach food.
Annoyance at the bit, bridle or
at being ridden at all. Shaking and tossing usually
Nose shake, poll stays still and
nose only moves. Often used by stallions displaying,
either to another stallion or to mares. Often
also seen by ridden horse after completing difficult
Jerk back, sharp backwards and
upwards movement. Usually away from something
frightening, horse or person. Carried further
it becomes a rear, especially in youngster. Half
asleep horses also jerk heads upwards as nodding
off, usually to dislodge flies, has annoyance
Head bob, with pricked ears and
intent stare. Trying to focus on middle distant
object puzzling him.
Neck swing, carries head away from danger
without jerk back. i.e. stallion avoiding mare threatening
him or dislike of a hand on head.
Snaking, head held very low, outstretched
and wobbling from side to side. Stallion herding mares,
aggressive mares chasing dogs. Young colts 'practising'
on other animals such as chicken.
Neck wringing, peculiar contorted movement
of neck that throws head about. Usually seen in aggressive
but indecisive horses, i.e. stallion not bold enough
to confront an enemy or ridden horse who hates being
ridden but will not rebel honestly. Most common in Arab
horses, apparently, unhappy, sinister action making
horse blind, partly deaf and totally uncoordinated while
Body check, one horse swings in front of
another preventing movement. Threat.
Rump presentation, mild threat to kick
Elevated movements, excitement
Hindleg lift, threat to kick, probably following
Foreleg strike, warning to keep distance
Pawing, investigation, frustration.
Aggressive, attacking threat given head
on to person or another horse.
Defensive threat, horse wishing to defend
himself, given rump on. May turn into defensive attack
if forced, element of fear rather than rage. Most threats
to people are defensive ones.
Submission, admitting defeat, turns away
with ears half back and drooping. In threat fight, first
one to turn away is loser.
Sue Tanzer has worked with many types of
horses, particularly Thoroughbreds and Arabs, specialising
in horses with problems and starting young horses.