Horses are prey animals that are evolutionarily tuned to be constantly alert for the presence of predators.
If a horse experiences stress or fear they have 4 behavioural responses and they may do one, two or exhibit a combination of responses:
Flight – fleeing from danger is the horses preferred option to remove themselves from danger, whether the danger is real or otherwise. An example of this would be bolting.
Freeze – where a horse can’t flee a situation they may plant their feet and stand almost motionless. An example of this may be the handler is trying to lead a horse into a trailer and the horse is fearful.
Fidget – horses may also fidget. This is known as a displacement behaviour where the animal is conflicted about what to do and so fidgets on the spot. An example of this would be when out hacking and the horse sees a shadow that produces a fearful response but the rider is using a forward aid to prevent the freeze response and rein pressure to prevent a flight response so the horse fidget on the spot.
Fight – a horse that is cornered or has learnt that an aggressive response works may show a fight response. Usually a horse will only show this response when it has tried the above 3 or is not able to show the above 3 responses. An example of this would be a horse that is fearful of the handler kicking out when the handler goes to put a headcollar on in the stable.
Remember in the previous learning we considered the horses mood and how we can use descriptions to try and determine their affective state? We can use a different set of descriptions to identify a horse that may be in discomfort or pain:
Posture and weight bearing
Shifting weight/resting limb
Pointing a limb
Prolonged resting of a limb
Cross legged resting of a limb
Dragging a limb
Dangling a limb
Base narrow or base wide
Low head carriage
Tucked up abdomen
Leaning against objects
Urination posture and effort without stream
Straining to defeacate
Stepping on the spot
Lifting/holding limb up
Kicking out or back
Kicking up towards abdomen
Stretching (head high, deep abdominal, hindlimb extension, neck curl