Horses living in a group, whether in the wild or at a stable, tend to develop a hierarchy. Their relationships affect things like which animal gets first dibs on food and water. In this post, we dive into horses’ herd behaviour to help you understand why horses act the way they do.
Horse Herds in the Wild
A wild herd typically consists of a group of mares, their offspring, and one or more stallions. The herd provides a sense of security and opportunities for rest. It also makes it easier for the horses to reproduce and find food and water. When the colts (male foals) are old enough, they leave to form a bachelor herd.
A herd’s leader is typically an older mare, who is not necessarily stronger than the other horses but has extensive experience and knowledge about how to survive. She is responsible for the herd’s well-being.
There’s also a lead stallion who defends the herd and intervenes when any conflicts occur between horses. When the stallion becomes too old or weak, another stallion from a bachelor herd may challenge him.
Hierarchy and Dominance Within the Herd
Dominance within the herd determines the order for accessing resources like food, water, and shelter. Dominance could also take the form of controlling movement - either stopping another horse from moving or making it move when it does not want to.
The relationships within a herd are complex and change over time. Horses are not born dominant, and a horse may use dominant behaviour one time to gain access to food but not other times.
New horses tend to start at the bottom of the hierarchy. They can gradually work their way up the ranks by challenging other horses, gaining their respect, or taking the place of a colt that leaves the herd. Some horses are uninterested in moving up in the hierarchy. They’re willing to sacrifice luxuries like access to the best food to avoid having responsibility for the herd.
Horses communicate with other herd members using body language, vocal sounds, and scents. To establish dominance, they may use squeals, pinned ears, rolling eyes, or the threat of kicking or biting. To show submissiveness, they often lower their head, chew, and lick their lips like they’re eating or drinking - a vulnerable action.
Friendship Within the Herd
Horses are social animals with a natural desire for the company of other horses. They get stressed when they’re all alone. It is possible to use another animal, like a sheep or goat, as a companion, but the ideal scenario is having horses live together in a group.
Horses that are getting along well will stand close together peacefully and may do mutual grooming, where they nibble at each other’s withers, neck, and back. They may also stand nose-to-tail so they can swish flies away from each other.
Herds sometimes develop subgroups of horses with particularly close relationships. Horses may have a favourite companion for mutual grooming and general hanging out and may show signs of stress or grief upon separation. It’s hard to know why horses prefer certain horses over others, although it could relate to personality or coat colour.
What role do you think you would take in a horse herd? Let us know in the comments!
Horses have strange smelling behaviours, pickiness about feed, and an extraordinary sensitivity to touch. In this post, we dive into horses’ senses of smell, taste, and touch.
Sense of Smell
Horses’ sense of smell is about 50 times better than humans’, although not as powerful as dogs’. Their noses can distinguish the scent of predators, other horses, medications hidden in their feed, and even possibly human emotions, like fear and happiness.
Horses have anywhere from 25 million to 100 million olfactory receptors, which help detect scents. The human nose contains 5 to 6 million receptors, while dogs and rats have about 300 million.
Horses’ large, flexible nostrils suck air into their large nasal cavity. Inside the cavity, turbinate bones distribute inhaled air, and tiny hairs slow it down to trap it in mucus. Horses can identify a scent’s direction because each nostril’s receptors connect to separate parts of their brain.
Like several other animals, including cats and pandas, horses have an organ known as the vomeronasal organ (VNO) at their nasal cavity’s base. In horses, this organ’s most significant role is detecting other horses’ pheromones - chemical substances that affect animal behaviour. More specifically, stallions will use the VNO to determine whether a mare is in heat.
To direct odours to their VNO, horses use the Flehmen response, lifting their head up high, peeling back their lips, wrinkling their nose, and temporarily stopping breathing. Horses sometimes also use the Flehmen response for strong, unfamiliar smells like perfume and gasoline.
Horses often sniff each other’s nostrils when they first meet. Mares fix their newborn foal’s scent into their brain while grooming it. However, horses can also form negative associations with certain smells.
Sense of Taste
Horses’ taste buds are located mainly on the roof of their mouth and the back section of their tongue. They have approximately 25,000 taste buds, compared to between 8000 and 10,000 for humans.
Horses can distinguish between different flavours, like sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. They tend to prefer sweet and salty foods, perhaps because sweet foods fill them up, while salty ones replenish their salt levels. Sour or bitter foods, however, risk being poisonous.
If there’s plenty of grass or hay available, horses will eat the foods with the most appealing taste and texture, although they tend to avoid toxic plants. Left to their own devices, horses will not necessarily choose the most nutritious option and may consume more food than is necessary to meet their needs.
Horses tend to prefer young, tender plants to mature, tough ones. They may refuse food or water with an unusual taste or smell. However, they’re less choosy when hungry.
Sense of Touch
Horses’ sense of touch is highly sensitive, especially around their nose, lips, and ears. They can feel a fly landing on their back and the rider’s slightest shift of weight in the saddle. A particular horse’s level of sensitivity depends on factors including its age and the thickness of its skin.
Horses use their coarse whiskers - found around their muzzle and eyes - to gather information about their environment. They’ll paw the ground then touch it with their muzzle to check its safety, firmness, and depth.
Those who ride and work with horses should use a light touch on the reins and ensure that tack fits correctly. Know that horses prefer being rubbed and stroked - in non-sensitive areas - to being patted or tickled.
Do you have a favourite fact about horses’ sense of smell, taste, or touch? Let us know in the comments!
From dancing parrots to dogs shaking hands, talented animals are a popular source of amusement. Horses have had their own share of talent, from painting to performing mathematical calculations. In this post, we share the stories of 4 gifted horses.
Cholla: The Painting Horse
Born in Nevada in 1985, Cholla was a copper buckskin mustang-Quarter Horse mix. He had a black mane and tail, a dorsal stripe, and zebra stripes on his legs. After noticing that Cholla followed her around as she was painting his corral, his owner—Renee Chambers, a ballet dancer—decided to try giving him a paintbrush.
Although Chambers put the paint on the brush and stuck it in Cholla’s mouth, he did the painting independently. He appeared to enjoy painting, creating colourful abstract designs.
Cholla’s paintings have been displayed and sold internationally, and he even received an honourable mention for the Italian Arte Laguna Prize in 2008. The contest was open to all artists, although the judges did not realize initially that he was a horse. Cholla died in 2013.
Thor of Hopehaven: The Trick Performer and Painter
This American Sugarbush Harlequin Draft gelding lives on a farm in Georgia. He has a dark coat with a patch of spots around his hindquarters. His owner, Dorinda Hemmings, is a painter and has taught him a number of tricks.
Thor’s tricks include bowing, shaking hands, opening and closing a mailbox, and fetching a drink from a cooler. One day, Hemmings noticed him pick up a paintbrush, so she tried setting him up with a canvas. Hemmings picks the colours then gives Thor the brush.
Clever Hans: The Talented Tapper
In Berlin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, awed crowds gathered to watch the performances of Clever Hans, an Arabian stallion. Hans answered questions from his trainer—Wilhelm von Osten, a high school math teacher—by tapping his hoof to indicate letters and numbers or by moving his head.
Hans gave accurate answers to math questions, stated the time, spelled names, and identified colours, musical pieces, and more. The German Board of Education studied Hans for a year and a half but did not find any hoax. However, in 1907, biologist and psychologist Oskar Pfungst discovered that the horse was responding to very subtle cues from questioners, in what is now known as the “Clever Hans effect.”
Clever Hans was drafted during the First World War and died in 1916.
Lady Wonder: The Psychic Horse
Lady Wonder, a black mare with white feet and 3 white stockings, was born in Virginia in 1924. Her owner, Claudia Fonda, worked at an iron foundry and raised Lady from a young age. Suspecting that her horse had special abilities, Fonda trained her to move blocks containing letters and numbers.
Fonda built a large, piano-sized typewriter that Lady could press with her muzzle to answer questions. Approximately 150,000 people visited the supposedly psychic horse, paying $1 to have her answer 3 questions about topics ranging from romance to horse race results and the location of missing children.
She gave enough correct answers that many people believed in her powers, even some scientists. Of course, many were also skeptical, attributing her success to unconscious cues or trickery. Lady Wonder died in 1957.
What do you think about these horses’ exceptional abilities? Let us know in the comments!
They say it’s good to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes - to imagine life from their perspective. We may not be able to get a horse’s-eye view of the world, but learning about horses’ vision helps us understand why they act the way they do. In this post, we explore horses’ eyes and sense of sight.
Horses have the largest eyes of all land mammals - 8 times larger than human ones. These huge eyeballs make objects appear larger to horses than they do to humans.
Horse eyes are generally brown but may also be blue, green, yellow, amber, or hazel. Having non-brown eyes is often linked to the horse’s coat colour.
Although people sometimes think horses are colour-blind, they can see green and blue. Red, however, may appear to horses as green or yellowish, grey, or brown.
Equine eyes have trouble picking up details. Horses typically have 20/30 vision, compared to humans’ gold standard of 20/20 vision. What that means is that, what a human with good vision can see in detail from 30 feet away, a horse can only see clearly from 20 feet away.
Like humans, horses can be nearsighted or farsighted. They can also suffer from other eye problems.
Horses do have better night vision than humans and even see better on a cloudy day than a sunny one. On the other hand, they take longer than humans to adapt to a sudden change between light and dark.
Unlike humans’ round pupils, horse pupils are horizontal. This feature of grazing animals gives them panoramic vision along the ground, helping them spot predators and see clearly while they’re fleeing. Interestingly, the eyes rotate as the animal grazes so that its pupils remain horizontal.
Range of Horse Vision
Horses’ eyes are on the side of their head, giving them 350° of vision. Most of that vision is monocular, meaning that they see separate images on either side of their head. Horses’ perception of peripheral motion is keen, and they can move their eyes independently to scan for predators.
It sometimes seems like a horse does not recognize with its right eye an object that it saw previously with only its left eye. Although the 2 parts of a horse’s brain do connect, the animal may not recognize an object seen from a different angle or with different lighting.
Horses do also employ binocular vision - vision that uses both eyes at the same time. The range is about 65° in a triangular shape in front of the horse’s face. Since depth perception works best with binocular vision, and horses’ vision is mostly monocular, they have some trouble determining relative distance.
They also have 2 blind spots: one directly behind them, and one in front of their face. The front blind spot extends from the horse’s eye level down to the ground. It’s hard for us to imagine, but horses can’t see the grass as they’re grazing, and objects faced head-on seem to disappear if they get too close.
To make up for their vision limitations, horses use their whiskers to sense objects in their blind spot. They also move their head to get a better view.
Did you learn something new about horses’ vision? Let us know in the comments!
You may have heard that horses sleep standing up. That claim is only partly true, but the reality of horse sleep is just as fascinating. In this post, we dive into horses’ strange sleeping behaviour.
Stages of Horse Sleep
Besides wakefulness, horses have 3 stages in their sleep-wake cycle. In the state of drowsiness or deep restfulness, a horse is relaxed but still easily roused.
Next, the horse enters slow-wave sleep (SWS), in which its brain is less active, with slow, synchronized electrical waves. Horses stay standing for both deep restfulness and SWS.
However, the animal must lie down for the deep rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep so that its skeletal muscles can relax. REM sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep because, counterintuitively, the horse’s brain is just as active as when it’s awake. As the name suggests, horses in REM sleep display jerky eye movements (with closed eyelids) and rapid, chaotic brain waves.
REM sleep is essential for horses’ well-being, as well as for learning and the creation of new memories. It’s likely that horses dream during this stage. They may move their legs while dreaming and probably dream about experiences from their day.
Horse Sleeping Behaviour
As prey animals, horses do most of their dozing standing up so that it’s easier to flee if a predator appears. Like several other large land mammals, they have a feature known as the stay apparatus, a system of tendons and ligaments that lets them lock their leg joints while sleeping.
When horses are sleeping, they distribute their weight among 3 of their legs and rest the fourth one, normally a hind limb. They also close their eyes, relax their ears, and droop their head, neck, and lower lip.
Before lying down, a horse wakes up for a moment to check its environment. It then lies down - likely on its side - and enters REM sleep via deep restfulness and SWS. It cannot lie down for too long since its weight restricts blood flow and puts pressure on its internal organs.
Among horses living in a group, 1 or 2 horses will typically stay awake while the rest of the herd lies down. These guard horses get their own chance to sleep when other horses replace them. Horses are careful to sleep in sheltered locations, preferably with their head pointing toward the escape route.
Horse Sleep Requirements and Issues
Horses sleep for only a few minutes at a time, alternating between dozing, lying down, eating, and moving around. Sleeping may occur during the day or night, although the nighttime is more common, especially among horses that work during the day.
On average, horses sleep only 3 hours total over a 24-hour period. At least 30 minutes of that sleeping should be REM sleep. Foals sleep for about half the day until they’re 3 months old, at which point they start sleeping less.
Although a horse can survive for several days without REM sleep, sleep deprivation can cause crankiness, issues with metabolism and body temperature, and even collapsing. Reasons that a horse might not get enough deep sleep include pain or discomfort at lying down and feeling uncomfortable in its environment.
Horses may also suffer from narcolepsy, a neurological condition in which they enter deep sleep frequently yet unintentionally. Horses with narcolepsy enter REM sleep nearly instantly, causing them to collapse.
Do you have a favourite fact about horses and sleep? Let us know in the comments!
Pricked up, drooping, or swivelling rapidly - a horse’s ears are always up to something! In this post, we’ll delve into horses’ hearing to help you understand how horses perceive the world.
The large, cup-like pinna - a part of the outer ear covered in skin, fur, or hair - funnels sound waves toward a horse’s inner ear. Horses’ conical ear shape allows them to focus their attention on one sound at a time.
Horses tend to pick up frequencies between 55 and 33,500 Hz, and humans those between 20 and 20,000 Hz. Horses’ ability to pick up higher-frequency sounds helps them hear predators. Interestingly, horses can detect low-frequency sounds while they’re grazing since vibrations travel via their hooves and jawbone to their ears.
Horses can detect sounds up to 4 km away and within a similar decibel range to humans, although their ears are better at hearing faint sounds. Horses are also experts at noticing our tone of voice.
Horses’ ears contain 10 muscles, as opposed to 3 for humans. Their ears can each rotate 180°, allowing them to listen to 2 different sounds simultaneously.
Horses’ Hearing Behaviour
Once its ears have determined a sound’s approximate location, a horse turns its gaze in that direction. It may raise its head to get a better view, then freeze to avoid being noticed. If the noise came from anything threatening, the horse will bolt.
As prey animals, horses find sudden noises frightening - especially in unfamiliar environments. Some horses particularly react to sudden noises. You can buy equine earplugs at a tack shop or insert cotton wads.
As a longer-term solution, try desensitization (gradually exposing the horse to frightening sounds in a nonthreatening environment) or counter-conditioning (rewarding the horse after it’s heard a scary sound).
Like humans, horses’ hearing can start to go for various reasons. Some horses with a splashed (white) coat pattern are born deaf. Others lose hearing in one or both ears due to an infection, head trauma, insects like ticks, a disease or other health condition, or ageing.
Horses seem to suffer from less age-related hearing loss than humans, although that could partly be because we tend to be exposed to more noises and toxic substances. Since hearing loss tends to start with higher-frequency sounds, you might not realize right away if a horse struggles to hear.
In general, it can be difficult to notice a horse’s hearing troubles since it takes in so much information using its vision, smell, and sense of touch. To check for deafness, see whether the horse reacts to a sudden noise like clapping your hands, or try a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test.
There’s no way to cure horses’ hearing loss, although there may be a treatable issue like ear mites. However, deaf horses can get along perfectly fine, as long as their training and handling includes more visual and tactile cues.
Do you have a new appreciation for horses’ ears? Let us know in the comments!
Have you ever wondered about the difference between a male and female horse? Maybe you think of stallions as being dominant and mares as being meek or moody. In this post, we’ll explain the key terms related to horse gender, then we’ll enter the murkier territory of the characteristics associated with each gender.
Filly - A female horse under 4 years of age
Mare - A female horse that is 4 years or older
Broodmare - A female horse, often between 4 and 16 years old, that is kept for breeding
Dam - A horse’s mother
Colt - An uncastrated male horse under 4 years of age
Stallion - An uncastrated male horse that is 4 years or older
Stud - A high-quality stallion, often at least 3 years old, that is used for breeding
Sire - A horse’s father
Gelding - A male horse that has been castrated, or gelded. Gelding often occurs between 6 and 12 months, although it can happen into a horse’s teens.
Rig - A male horse that has been improperly castrated or has one or both testicles undescended
Note that there’s some variation in the ages associated with different terms. For example, mares must be 5 years or older for thoroughbred racing, not 4 years old.
GENDER AMONG WILD HORSES
In the wild, horses live in groups with one stallion and several mares. The mares focus on their survival and the survival of their foals. Mare leaders guide the herd to food, water, and safety.
The stallion protects the foals and mares from predators and other stallions. If there’s a predator, the stallion fights to protect the group. If there’s another stallion, the stallion tries to prove that he’s stronger, faster, and tougher.
GENDER AMONG DOMESTIC HORSES
We often apply human stereotypes about gender to horses. It’s hard to know how many of our ideas about the difference between stallions and mares are based on their group behaviour and other inherent characteristics, and how many are based on our assumptions.
Nonetheless, stallions are often described as being more muscular and aggressive towards other horses, while mares are often more docile, though they may be ill-tempered. Due to changes to hormone levels during the gelding process, geldings tend to be calmer than stallions.
In horse racing, both male and female jockeys and horses compete against each other. British flat racing includes about 63% male horses and 37% female horses, with approximately 67% of winners being male and 33% female.
Racehorses of both genders have similar abilities. Male horses have an average rating of 69 out of 140, while, for mares, the number is 64. One factor behind the different number of male and female horses may be that successful male racehorses are valuable as studs, siring several foals per year, while a mare can only have one foal per year since her gestation period lasts for 11 months.
Have you noticed any differences between male and female horses? Let us know in the comments!
Neighing is one of the classic behaviours associated with a horse. Although horses mostly communicate using body language, they also use a variety of sounds to communicate basic ideas and emotions. In this post, we’ll describe some of the most common ones so that you can start to learn how to speak horse.
It’s not only humans who slowly exhale through their mouth and nostrils. Horses tend to sigh when they’re around humans and for similar reasons to us, like contentment or boredom at being asked to perform repetitive exercises.
Snort or Blow
When a horse pushes air through its nostrils, producing a loud purring noise, it may be excited to hit the trails. Watch out since an eager horse might make sudden movements, and its snorting can make other horses excited.
Snorting can also be a sign that a horse is anxious or about to fight another equine. Of course, a snorting horse may simply be clearing its nostrils or having air forced through its lungs while exercising.
When a horse makes this soft, affectionate noise, it’s probably saying hello or expressing excitement about being fed. Mares also make this sound to summon their foals, and stallions use it as part of their courtship ritual. On the other hand, a horse could nicker out of apprehension at a perceived threat.
Whinny or Neigh
This loud sound can indicate that a horse is anxious, such as if it’s in a new setting or separated from its herdmates. On a similar note, horses neigh or whinny to warn other horses about a new, strange element in their environment.
A neigh or whinny may also come from a confident horse demanding food. Whinnies have 2 frequencies, one that signals whether the emotion is positive or negative and one that indicates the emotion’s strength.
Like humans, a horse may groan to convey reluctance or satisfaction. There are also a couple of occasions when a horse is likely to groan naturally: getting up or down, which forces air from its lungs, and giving birth. However, groaning can also indicate that the horse is in pain, such as from ulcers or a saddle that does not fit right.
A horse may produce this short, high-pitched noise if it’s meeting another horse or angrily telling a horse to leave it alone. Stallions also often squeal when they approach a mare to check whether she’s interested in mating.
This deep, throaty sound is longer and louder than a squeal. Horses sometimes roar when fighting each other. Roaring can also refer to a respiratory disorder in which the horse’s larynx is paralyzed.
Hope that you never hear a horse make this sound since it tends to occur when a horse is dying or at least suffering intensely. A horse may also scream when it’s fighting another horse.
Which of these sounds have you heard a horse make? Let us know in the comments!
Although horses make some sounds to communicate, such as neighs, body language is their main way of getting their message across. As prey animals, it’s safest for them to be able to communicate without making any noise. In this post, we’ll teach you about horses’ movements and what they mean.
Horses’ ears can rotate nearly all the way around. Ears that point forward indicate alertness or interest, while those turned toward the back are listening to a noise from behind. Rapid swivelling means that the horse is frightened about a specific noise or overwhelmed by too many stimuli.
If a horse’s ears are fully pinned back, it’s angry and likely about to bite or kick. On the other hand, if its ears are turned toward the side, chances are it’s relaxing or taking a doze.
A horse’s gaze also lets you know its mood or the focus of its attention. Tense facial muscles or darting eyes can both indicate fear or stress. If the whites of a horse’s eyes are showing, the animal is alarmed and likely very upset.
A horse with a fixed stare may be feeling ill. If its eyes are half-closed, that could be a sign that it’s in a good mood.
A horse’s head movements give you more clues about its thoughts. While a lowered head suggests relaxation and a raised one tells you that the horse is focused on something interesting in the distance, a head swinging from side to side signals dissatisfaction or even aggression. Flared nostrils can also be a sign of nervousness.
On a more positive note, a drooping lip reveals that the horse is relaxed or asleep. Chewing when it has no food in its mouth, meanwhile, suggests a relaxed, pensive state.
If you think about a horse’s front legs, maybe you picture a stallion pawing at the ground. This behaviour means that the animal is bored, impatient, stressed, or angry. Raising a hind leg or stomping can also be a sign of irritation.
A cocked back leg, with the edge of the hoof resting on the ground, may be the stance of a relaxed horse, but shifting between legs could also indicate discomfort. Riders are often concerned that a horse will kick with its hind legs. Watch out for swinging hindquarters or other signs of anger.
Although a horse’s tail may seem nearly inanimate, this part of a horse is actually quite expressive. Especially among Arabians, a raised tail indicates excitement, while, among all breeds, a tail clamped between the legs tells you that the horse is nervous or stressed.
A slow swishing is nothing to be concerned about - the horse is likely trying to chase away flies. A rapidly swishing tail, however, can be an expression of irritation or anger.
Do you now have a better idea what a horse is trying to tell you when it swings its head or cocks its hind leg? Let us know in the comments!
Hello, My name is Shelby Gatti, and I am the owner of Shelby Ranch. I love being able to share my passion for animals with you and your family. At Shelby Ranch you can expect a ton of family adventure from horseback riding to mechanical bull riding & axe throwing.