A basic understanding of horse behaviour is needed if we are to provide a safe and healthy domestic environment for our horses, and ourselves. Horses have been domesticated all around the world for many centuries and a wealth of information is readily available on different practices or procedures recommended to obtain intended objectives.
Despite millennia of domestication and the resulting ‘specialization’ of horses for work or leisure through artificial breeding, horses have retained their natural behavioural characteristics and evolutionary programs.
It is no wonder that conflicts arise between our maintenance or training schemes and the natural programs for large social non-ruminant grazing herbivores, all too often stabled, isolated, and fed on an inadequate concentrated diet.
Not to mention that handling or training is frequently through coercive and restrictive tactics that are usually based on notions of dominance that only tend to make matters worse with stress or depression as the final outcome.
Horses resent demonstrations of authority. They have evolved to recognize rank only in disputes over resources like food and water. They normally avoid aversive or unpleasant situations and are extremely wary of predators-their greatest fear is to be trapped by another creature. (McGreevy, 1996)
Joel Berger (1986), in one of the most complete ethological works on feral horses, noted that during his 6 year study ‘Males were often aggressive to other males, but dominance was discernible in less than 5% of all interactions’ and that ‘more than 98% of a stallion’s annual time budget was spent in nonaggressive activities’. Furthermore his studies concluded that ‘Intraband dominance appeared to be of little importance to females.’
Lately there has been much talk about the importance of the application of equine behavioural knowledge in the management and training of horses; however facilities (artificial environments) are still not designed in consonance with the horses’ evolutionary needs, nor do training techniques ensure the general well-being of the horse concerned.
It is common knowledge and scientific fact that in order to ensure not only the welfare of horses but instill conditions for their individual well-being, we would have to allow horses to live as closely as possible to the niches for which they had evolved and help them adapt to the many constraints imposed by domestication.
Equestrian traditions which have their basis in establishing a co-operative relationship with the horse would appear to more closely approximate the social relationships seen in free-ranging equine society. (Goodwin, 1999)
Nowadays we find feral horses in very different habitats all over the world. Horses have adapted to life on islands, deserts, mountains and in plains. Despite these adaptations and to those imposed by domestication, we must continue to consider horses for what they have evolved to be:
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