When we consider our horse’s day-to-day care we often pay special attention to their physical needs, however less consideration is given to the psychological factors that may affect them. Equine behaviourist Justine Harrison explains further.
Many behavioural problems seen in horses are often fear-related. Aggression, reluctance to go forward, or refusal to load may be mistakenly perceived as the horse being difficult, stubborn or naughty, when in fact they are simply frightened. Learning to recognise early changes in your horse’s body language and behaviour can help you see when your horse is anxious, fearful, frustrated or becoming aggressive. This could mean the difference between having fun with your horse, or getting injured.
Equine body language is extremely sophisticated and a horse’s posture, facial expressions, and behaviour are all used to communicate how they feel.
This can be difficult to identify in some horses as their warning signs are very subtle. The shape of the eye changes from being soft and round to having a clear, triangulated upper eyebrow with wrinkles above the eye. Their heart rate will rise and breathing will become faster. Tension can be seen in the face, a tucked chin, tight lips, the mouth clamped shut and a stiff posture can also indicate if your horse is worried.
Fear is easier to recognise: nostrils flare, the whites of the eyes are visible, eyes roll, ears are laid back, the tail may be clamped down, and muscles can tremble. Their behaviour may also change and your horse will move more stiffly as his anxiety increases. Jogging, spooking excessively, refusing to stand still, sweating, head tossing, tail swishing, snatching at the bit, or teeth grinding can all indicate a horse is fearful.
If you think your horse is becoming anxious, act accordingly. Stop what you are doing or remove yourself and your horse from the situation. Noticing your horse’s warning signals and changing what you are doing could keep you both safe.
Author info: Justine Harrison is a qualified Equine Behavourist who applies the science of behaviour and learning to help you understand and solve horse behaviour problems.