Let Horses Be Horses, Even in Elite Sport
By evolutionary standards, it wasn’t long ago that horses roamed freely with little to no human interaction. Their domestication about 5,000 years back is a mere blink in time compared to the rest of their history spanning tens of millions of years, according to two Italian behaviorists.

So when we think of sport horses today—globetrotting in vans and airplanes, sleeping in stalls, meeting new horses every day, and geared up from head to hoof in tack while carrying riders over jumps or trotting diagonally across dressage courts while thousands of people watch—it seems a far cry from the horse these animals were only a (relatively) short time ago, they said.

That’s why, even at the highest level of competition, we must keep horses’ ethological considerations in mind, said Emanuela Dalla Costa, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECAWBM, a certified animal behavior specialist in the Università degli Studi di Milano’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, in Italy.

Dalla Costa teamed up with Barbara Padalino, DVM, PhD, associate professor of animal science in the University of Bologna’s Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences, to speak about the ethological needs of all horses, including high-level sport horses, during the 2nd Conference of the Avenches National Equestrian Institute (IENA), held Sept. 11, 2021, in Switzerland.

Even Domesticated Show Horses Are Still, Ethologically, Horses From the Steppes

As horses’ caretakers, we have removed many of their primal causes of concern by protecting them from predators and providing a safe environment for raising their foals, Dalla Costa said.

But that doesn’t change horses’ basic nature: Their priorities still include their safety and the need to reproduce and care for their young, regardless of their real challenges, she said.

“Horses that are kept in stables are protected from predation, and they receive sufficient food and shelter from climatic extremes,” Dalla Costa explained. “But on the other hand, they are facing new challenges in their everyday life. And we should always take into account that they still have some [innate] reactions to environmental factors. And they can perceive these factors as dangerous for them—even if we, the humans, know that they aren’t.”

The Herd Life

A primary ethological need for horses is to live in groups, the researchers stated. They seek the companionship, security, and hierarchy of a stable herd of familiar horses.

Without that, horses can feel stressed and, in a sense, lost. “They are moved from one place to another; they are going in crowded arenas with many unpredictable stimuli; they are moved from a stable where they know the horses to another place where they meet horses they do not know and people they do not know,” Dalla Costa said, speaking specifically of competitive show horses.

That doesn’t mean horses shouldn’t be involved in competitive sports, she explained. Rather, it means people should recognize these needs and try to accommodate them and condition horses carefully—with knowledge and compassion—for the life they’ll lead.

“I think that more attention should be given to these aspects,” said Dalla Costa. “We need to prepare horses to be ready for these challenges and for how to cope with these new situations.”

Mutual Grooming

Allogrooming—grooming one another—is a related, critical ethological need, said Padalino. “Horses are social animals, and they need allogrooming, which allows them to form a bonded relationship,” she said.

Horses should ideally be allowed to groom other horses. “They are horses, and they need to live a horse life, not only closed up in the box without the possibility of interacting with anybody,” she said.

But if that’s not possible, riders should spend time grooming their horses every day—focusing on the withers, where horses tend to groom each other. “I’ve done a study on that, and at least it works as a substitute, and it might even strengthen your relationship with your horse,” she said.

Grazing, Chewing, and Exploring

In a natural environment horses spend a minimum of 55-60% of each day grazing. So the least we can do for our horses, including top-level sport horses, is make sure they’re spending at least 55% of their time budget eating forage, said Padalino.

While people—especially in elite sports—usually consider the nutritional content of their horses’ food in great detail, they often forget about the other component that represents a major ethological need: chewing time.

“Clearly we need hay, or pasture,” Padalino said. “That’s the key to reaching that 55%.”

Horses also have a strong drive to explore their surroundings, Padalino added. “Horses are curious; that’s a real need,” she said. “They need to explore the environment, even if it’s just the ramp on the van before they load. Just give them time to explore.”

Fear and Flight Responses: They’re Not the Horse’s Fault!

Because horses are a prey species, they’ve evolved to respond quickly to potentially dangerous stimuli, said Dalla Costa. So much so, that among all domestic animals—including cows and pigs—horses have developed the largest amygdala, the part of the brain that moderates fear responses.

“Thus, it is clear that the process of domestication has … not extinguished innate biological flight responses,” she explained. “This is very important …, and you should always take into consideration that even in 2021, if your horse feels in danger of something, he’ll probably respond with flight, whether that’s just moving over or trying to escape you or the situation.”

While you can reduce escape behavior with training, you can’t eliminate it completely, she added. “This can sometimes lead to accidents that frequently are considered by others, and by horse owners, to be the horse’s fault and caused by the ‘unpredictable behavior’ of the horse,” Dalla Costa said.

Take-Home Message

Horses have deeply ingrained biological and ethological needs that haven’t disappeared through domestication. When domestic life, including management styles and competition schedules, doesn’t meet those needs, it can lead to compromised welfare and the development of undesirable behaviors or stereotypies (e.g., weaving, cribbing), Dalla Costa and Padalino said.

However, considering these ethological needs can help horse people become more sensitive to them and turn to scientific knowledge to find solutions that will help horses live better lives through improved management and training, they said.