watching horses
Q.I’ve read several articles that suggest watching your horse in the pasture for a span of time to learn more about the herd’s social structure and horse behavior in general. I’m excited to try this, but I’m not sure where to start. What are some specific things I should watch for, and can I use these observations help improve my relationship with my horse?

Kristen, via e-mail

A.What a great subject! I think if you sit by the pasture and watch, it won’t be long before you will come up with lots of ideas about horse behavior.

A few things to watch for include the rhythm and duration of alternating periods of grazing and resting and which horses like to stand by which when resting.

One thing I encourage my students to do is to take Equid Ethogram, A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior, open it to the chapter on maintenance behavior, and tick off all the behaviors they see while observing a herd. Get a feel for the frequency of those behaviors. For example, how often do horses drink, groom, urinate, defecate; when do they yawn; and how often and for how long do they rest? If the herd is a mixed sex, breed, or age group, it can be fun to compare animals or to compare one group to another. It is also fun to compare behaviors during different seasons and in various weather conditions.

These observations often inspire management modifications to try to improve your horse’s quality of life. For example, if you figure out your horse’s preferred companions, you can make sure they are stalled where they can see one another when inside. Or, if you notice one horse seems intimidated by another, you can keep them further apart in the stable.

Another aspect of behavior that many people enjoy observing in their horses is social interactive behavior. Most of us that house our horses in groups have some idea of the social dynamics in any particular assemblage. For example, we might think we recognize the leader of the group, a horse’s preferred buddies, or which ones don’t appear to enjoy each other’s companionship. So it is enlightening to see if this is really the case and how often our hypotheses are correct in regard to routine management (e.g., feeding, turning horses in and out, etc.).

Here are some examples of behaviors to look for by classification.


Maintenance Behaviors

  • Ingestion: Graze, graze recumbent, paw while foraging, browse, coprophagy (eating manure), pica (eating nonfood items), drink
  • Elimination: Urination, defecation
  • Locomotion: Stand alert, walk, trot, canter, gallop, trek, jump, stampede, swim
  • Rest: Rest standing, sleep standing, rest recumbent, yawn, stretch
  • Grooming and Insect Control: Roll, shake, autogroom, mutual groom, swish tail/ swat insects, stamp
  • Investigation: Sniff, mouth, lick, paw


General Social Communication Behaviors

  • Facial expressions
  • Threat postures
  • Submissive retreat
  • Infantlike submissive posture
  • Shying
  • Vocalization
  • Social facilitation
  • Food or water guarding (not a natural behavior but, rather, the result of the way we feed domestic horses)
  • Interspecies interactions
  • Object play (nibble, sniff, lick, nuzzle, mouth, chew, pick up, shake, carry, toss, pull, paw)
  • Locomotor play (frolic, run, chase, buck, jump, leap, prance)
  • Play fighting (head/neck/chest nip and bite, neck grasp, neck wrestle, foreleg nip/bite/grasp, rump nip or bite, stamp, push, rear, hindquarter threat, kick, evasive balk, jump, or spin)
  • Play initiation gestures