Don’t ignore these common equine behaviors when you see them! More often than not, they indicate an underlying emotional state that can help you better understand your horse’s needs.
Horses are largely nonverbal communicators. As such, we can observe the behavior or body language of our equine companions in order to get a glimpse into their emotional states, gain important information, and decide how to manage and interact with them while prioritizing their well-being.
In this article, we’ll cover some common but often misunderstood or overlooked behaviors, describe what those behaviors might look like, and what our horses may be telling us by communicating that way.
Common equine behavior
Licking and chewing
At times, we’ll observe our horses’ mouths moving as if they are licking or chewing. This is a separate behavior not associated with actual eating or grazing. “Licking and chewing” is commonly associated with submission, relaxation, thinking, or processing. However, the actual cause of this behavior is, more simply, a shift in the horse’s nervous system.
When a horse experiences excitement, fear, stress, threat, confusion, or other arousal that is sufficient to activate the fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. One consequence of the sympathetic nervous system being activated is the cessation of salivation. In other words, the horse’s mouth goes dry.
Once the situation that caused the shift in the nervous system resolves, the horse’s parasympathetic responses return, and the horse shifts from “fight or flight” to “rest and restore”. In this state, saliva returns to the mouth, and in response we notice the horse licking and chewing as a reflex.
When noticing licking and chewing, acknowledge that your horse is experiencing a physiological shift, and realize it can be helpful to ask yourself some questions in order to gain useful information.
In hindsight, can you identify the situation or catalyst that shifted the horse into “fight or flight” in the first place? This can be tricky, as it may not have manifested as an obvious spook or bolt. Sometimes, a horse who is simply intently focused (head up, ears pricked, but without yet escalating to a spook or bolt) while assessing a novelty in his environment or a new situation, will exhibit licking and chewing as he is given time to adapt, adjust, or explore at a comfortable pace.
How long does it take to notice licking and chewing after the initial disturbance to the horse’s system? Observing this can give you insight into how slowly or quickly your horse shifts out of a “reactive” mode and into a “responsive” mode. This can have huge implications for safety and success during training sessions! Horses can best learn, focus, and respond while not in fight or flight mode, so patience and timing are important in these situations.
These are a group of behaviors somewhat new to equine training and management conversations. They include, but are not limited to, partly-closed eyes, turning away the head, licking and chewing, yawning, lowering the head, indirect or cautious approach, ears to the side especially with a tense face, and a “shut down”, flat, or frozen demeanor. It’s important to use discernment with calming signals, and to remember to observe the horse as a whole. For example, eyes partly closed with regular slow breathing, relaxed face and posture may denote a relaxed or even sleepy horse. However, eyes partly closed with shallow breathing, shut down demeanor, and followed by a turning away of the head could very well be a calming signal.
Calming signals may be the horse’s way of communicating to us or their equine companions that they are feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, or uncomfortable. What should you do when you notice a calming signal? Responding to these behaviors in a timely manner with such things as releasing pressure, simplifying interactions, or pausing with the intention to resume in a modified way once the calming signals have ceased, can help avoid conflicts, dangerous situations, and reactive behavior from our horses.
Granted, this is a huge category of behaviors, each with its own description and traditional solutions. But there are generalities to misbehaviors that are crucial to be aware of.
First, it’s important to understand that a misbehavior is a human label. We are the ones who categorize behaviors as acceptable or unacceptable, and these are often categorized based on human values (safety, convenience, etc.). Biting, bolting, bucking, rearing, avoidance, cribbing, weaving, pawing, striking, spooking, and vocalizations are just some of the equine behaviors that may fall into the “misbehavior” category. Contrary to what some people may think, horses are not out to get us, pulling one over on us, or trying to dominate us.
In reality, all equine behavior is communication and information related to the horse’s state of being. If we can see it as such, we have an opportunity to discern which of the horse’s needs aren’t being met that’s leading to the undesirable behavior. It can’t be stated enough that the root of misbehavior is very often a management or wellness issue. Addressing these behaviors solely as training issues is rarely a long term solution, and often the behavior (or some variation) will resurface at a later time. Many, if not all, of these misbehaviors have their origin in pain, anticipation of pain, discomfort, fear, or confusion.
It’s also important to note that the vast majority of these misbehaviors start off as very subtle behaviors, such as calming signals! If we can learn to recognize the more subtle forms of communication from our horses, we can often prevent the difficult, challenging, and sometimes dangerous escalations that our horses must resort to when alerting us to what needs attention for them to feel safe and healthy.
The three F’s – meeting your horse’s needs
Caring for and managing horses as individuals and herds can be incredibly nuanced. However, a great place to start when assessing the origin of behavior issues, and whether or not your horse’s needs are being met, is learning about the three F’s of equine wellness. These are Freedom, Friends, and Forage, and are foundational pieces of equine physical and emotional wellness.
Freedom: The opportunity to move and behave naturally constitutes Freedom. Allow space and time for the horse to move at any gait, with access to important resources such as food, water, shelter, and herd mates.
Friends: An established and stable herd where horses can have physical contact and interactions with their friends is vital to their sense of well-being. It allows them to fulfill needs such as socializing, playing, mutual grooming, and sleeping under the watchful eye of a trusted herd mate.
Forage: A horse’s physical and emotional health is dependent on continual access to good quality forage. Besides being crucial to digestive health, continuous foraging can prevent unwanted behaviors that stem from boredom. Be sure your horse does not have to compete with herd mates to access forage.
When it comes to equine behavior, stay curious, keep learning, and keep asking questions. An open mind, an ever-deepening awareness, and keen observational skills can make all the difference in our equine friends’ wellness!