There are many things that are important to horses, with these three high up. After thinking about it I find that many things easily fit into one of these categories.
Food - Horses have a huge obsession with eating. They are large animals who naturally live on grass, a low nutrient feed, so lots of it is needed. They’re called trickle feeders, as they graze 17 to 18 hours a day. You can imagine spending so much time eating results in a brain hard wired for eating. Because of this ongoing intake of small amounts of food, their stomachs release a constant small stream of digestive acids. If a horse is denied food for long periods, as in some stabling situations, they can develop stomach ulcers from these acids eat into the stomach lining. For horses, eating is no small thing.
Knowing how important food is to horses helps us be more understanding when we see horses exhibit what can seem outrageous behaviours in association with food and eating. It also explains why positive reinforcement training techniques using food are so effective. Reinforcing desired behaviours with food increases the likelihood of the horse repeating that behaviour enormously and creates motivation in the horse. Conversely, people who randomly give horses treats or give it before the desired behaviour, otherwise called bribery, may end up with rude and pushy horses. This is not the fault of the horse, they are just very motivated by food, it’s up to us to ensure we’re aware of which behaviours we are reinforcing with food.
Safety – Anyone who has spent time around horses will testify to the importance of safety to horses. It can be hard for us to comprehend just how fearful horses can be. To us they’re big and strong and shouldn’t be scared by 90% of the things that do scare them. To the horse, they are prey, and anything different or scary has the potential to be a predator who kills and eats them. Just because we’ve domesticated horses does not mean this deep belief within them has been removed. It’s present in every horse; the knowledge that other creatures see them as meat to be eaten. I was once charged by a male lion while on safari in Africa, and it’s not a feeling you forget. Horses do not know they’re in Australia. In their minds there could be a lion or tiger around the very next corner or lurking in that bush.
It’s important for us to be aware of how real this is for horses and take it seriously. If we accept this side of horses, it’s much easier to work with. A few days ago, a horse I was working with suddenly exploded from absolute calm to full blown panic. In one second the rope was gone from my hand, and he was halfway down the paddock. Not having a horse’s acute awareness of the surroundings, I looked around and could not see a thing. He, however, was head high focused on a distant point. I walked a bit toward that point and stood there looking at it, then I walked to him, stood beside him and we both looked together. He so appreciated that I registered his message and took him seriously. He dropped his head, I picked up the lead rope, and we continued as if nothing had happened. If you understand your horses fear, you can help them with it rather than fighting it.
Sex – Many of us do not see a lot of sexual behaviour as most male domestic horses are gelded. However, if you have a mare, you will see how interested the geldings still are when mares are in season. I saw my three geldings take it in turns to mount my mare one year when she was in season. Mares exhibit more sexual behaviours than geldings as they have not been desexed. Their behaviours can also be very influenced by where they are in their cycle. In the wild and on studs, sex plays a huge part in horses’ lives. Many stallion behaviours are associated with gaining mares, keeping them, and mating. Sex is a great motivator for horses as it is with most species.
Trying to understand what’s important to horses, and what motivates them, makes life so much easier for us and our horses. They are a very different species to us, and if we open ourselves up to that, we can celebrate and love this difference for all the variety and interest it brings to our lives. Food, safety and sex for horses are a high priority, and looking at these as innate equine needs enhances our understanding and care of these magnificient beings.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc. Happy Horses Bitless Considerate Horsemanship