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Equine Ethology

Early Ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen’s influenced how we study behaviour through the identification of the four whys. Eventually this became the frame work around how behaviour is studied today. (Tinbergen,N. 1963)

Previous studying techniques had tended to be either ethologically or psychologically based and often resulted in opposing opinions particularly regarding the nature versus nurture argument. (Mills Nankervis 1999).

Inevitably it became clear to Ethologists and Psychologists that all four methods should be addressed and combined to fully study and record all acts of behaviour.

Every behavioural act has a piece of evolutionary history, a biological, mechanical function and learned life experience behind it. Often a combination of these can be evident.


Biological Mechanics. Physiological causation of Behaviour, the physical body of the horse reacting to external and internal stimuli. E.g. Bodily movement or neurological signals. (Mills & Nankervis 1999).


The development of behaviour and experiences of an individual from birth over a life time. In recent times the ontogeny of the horse is greatly affected by human interaction. (M.H Zeitler-Feicht 2004)


The evolutionary process in which phenotype and genotype of individuals adapted and evolved, emerging the most suited to their situation. Natural selection.

Behavioural adaptions take place and become innate behaviour. E.g. a behaviour becomes necessary for the species survival. For instance the horses flight ability. (Fraser, Andrew Ferguson. 1992)


Why the horse performs the behaviour e.g. the horse gallops to escape predators and therefore survive. The function of a behaviour can indicate its survival value. (Mills & Nankervis 1999).

When studying the behaviour of wild and domestic horses, differences occur due to the sometimes highly restrictive methods of domestication. Wild Mustang horses for instance roam as bands or harems over large areas of ground. The harems consist of a lead mare, dominant stallion and mature mares of differing number. The harem will also consist of the young stock from the mares over the past years. The social hierarchy of the group contributes highly to the socialisation of the group with mostly a linear system denoting the order of movement, best grazing opportunities, allo-grooming and resting places. (D.Mills S. McDonnell 2005).

All horse are born with innate social behaviour. However an understanding of the behaviour seen as gestures, motions and movements has to be learnt.

Foals born into a wild mustang Harem will very quickly be exposed to this behaviour communicated from the dam and between the different members of the band. An innate behaviour of foals and young stock is the submissive snapping of the mouth to older more and/or dominant members of the band.

If a foal is born in a domesticated environment and has limited contact or no contact with horses in a group situation, basic social learned behaviours are over looked. The individual will be unable to recognise signs of aggression and/or experience play and experimentation and become fearful of group socialisation or become overly aggressive. (M.H Zeitler-Feischt 2004) & (Fraser, Andrew Ferguson. 1992).

The social communication of the horse both feral and domestic is primarily visual with facial and bodily movements. Sound is not a primary communication. The survival of the feral or wild horse would depend upon being not vocalizing and identifying a location to predators. (M.Roberts 2002,2007)

Feral horses seldom lose sight of their band members (D.Mills S. McDonnell. 2005) and therefore are less likely to whinny in an attempt to locate them as often as domesticated horses who are frequently subject to these situations.

Equine communication
Equine Communication

Olfactory communications are also a large part of communication, socially and as a sexual communicator. Stallions identify the oestrus cycle of mares through pheromones which tells him when they will be receptive to mating. Identification and also the location of other stallions in the area can also be detected from the smelling of urine and faeces. (S. Budiansky 1997)

Feral mares within a harem are familiar with their stallion and mating is usually harmonious. They enter a courtship over the course of her heat cycle. The stallion will engage in communication via low vocal nickering, arching of the neck and collected trotting, close grazing, flehmen posture and mounting. If the mare is not responsive to mating she may walk away or kick out in rejection of his advances. She will at the peak of her breeding cycle stand and allow mating with the stallion. (M.H Zeitler-Feischt 2004)

The sexual behaviour of feral horses is strongly linked to their social harem environment and suggests that the domesticated mare and stallion who are unable to express themselves are deprived of natural and innate behavioural patterns.

Often in domesticated situations the stallion is chosen for the mare and they are mated while being restrained by handlers, often with the use of restrictive hobbles or padded boots. The mare and stallion have no interaction or familiarity and often the mare is introduced to another stallion as a teaser further complicating the situation. (Fraser, Andrew Ferguson. 1992).

Domestic horses turned out in groups in large paddocks will communicate via the same facial and bodily movements, with a mostly linear hierarchy as with feral horses.

Domestication can mean changes to group situations resulting in more conflict and also unsettling and stressful environments for horses of a lesser rank being unable to flee from more dominate members of the group. (Fraser, Andrew Ferguson. 1992).

This can also be an issue for stabled horses if housed in neighbouring stables. Prolonged stabling or insufficient turnout can lead to horses developing a number of learned behaviours, including weaving, box walking or crib biting. All of which are not seen as behaviour in feral horses. (M.H Zeitler-Feischt 2004)

Horses have hard wired, instinctual or innate behaviours. For example the ability to stand once born within an hour, search and find the first milk or to trot and gallop.

All these behaviours are carried out numerous times and perfected by the horse, the horse learns how to perform the behaviours more effectively.

The foal which searched under a neighbouring high feeder for milk has since learnt that not every high dark area can deliver milk. (Mclean, Andrew 2003)

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