In my work as an equine behaviourist I am often asked if it is ‘bad’ when a horse does certain behaviours such as licking and chewing, yawning or pawing the ground. Owners know that such behaviours can be a sign of stress, anxiety, frustration or fear and quite rightly worry about them. My answer is inevitably ‘it depends’ followed by many questions. This reflects the exciting and occasionally frustrating thing about studying animal behaviour – it can be complex and difficult to work out why animals do the things they do.
In general, you can’t take a single behaviour in isolation and say for sure what is happening. For example, a horse pawing the ground might be due to frustration or confusion during training, at feeding time or when tied up but horses might also paw the ground when exploring, grazing, clearing snow, if irritated by mites or in some play patterns/communication with other horses.
To help us consider whether an animal is behaving in a normal or abnormal way, or if they are showing a behaviour due to stress or a different reason we need to ask lots of questions and to consider the behaviour in context. Would a horse do this behaviour in the wild? In what situation? Is the behaviour we are seeing out of context or in context? Is the intensity/frequency of the behaviour normal? Is the behaviour a learnt behaviour? What is maintaining the behaviour? For example, a horse eating some wood is normal, around 10% of their diet is browsing on bushes and trees, but eating their way through a stable or tree would indicate some behavioural issues. Swishing the tail might be in response to irritation from flies, or a warning that you are getting too close.
We must appreciate that a snap-shot of behaviour is not enough to make statements or conclusions from – only comments and suggestions of what the motivation might be and what the animal might be thinking/feeling. However, the more we learn about species-specific behaviour, the more educated our questions will be, the better we will be able to interpret the answers and ultimately the better we will be able to understand animals.
With the increasing number of different training methods this is now more important than ever. Until there is a better understanding of how to interpret equine behaviour and body language people won’t be able to assess whether the way they manage their horse is meeting his/her needs (one of the first things to consider before training a horse or trying to solve a behaviour problem) or which training methods are more ethical and which should be avoided and thus make informed choices. I feel that more emphasis on learning and applying what is known about animals before ‘following’ a trainer would greatly help the horses who share their lives with us.
By Suzanne Rogers, Learning about Animals (www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)
(P.s. Learning About Animals has so great events and courses coming up so make sure you check them out. Emma
HORSES: Series of six evening classes in equine behaviour
Six evenings every Thursday from January 19th – 1st March 2012
Held at the Holistic Horse and Pony Centre in East Horsely, Surrey. 7.30-10pm. More details coming soon. Limited places so early booking recommended or contact me to express an interest before the full details go out.
First Aid for Dogs: course with Claire Hemmings
Saturday 25th February 2012
£40 for the four-hour course. Details. Taking bookings now.
RABBITS: Rabbit behaviour day
Sunday 26th February 2012
A whole day dedicated to rabbits. Covering rabbit behaviour, body language and communication, how to have a happy rabbit, how rabbits learn and how behaviour problems can develop.
£20 for the day; £15 for members. Details. Taking bookings now.
DOGS: The Holistic Nature of Canine Behaviour Problems with David Ryan
Saturday 24th March 2012
This one-day seminar explores the nature of dogs, how they maintain emotional equilibrium, why they fall into problem behaviours and the principles behind some simple solutions. Includes case studies, anecdotes and the opportunity for audience discussion.
£45; £33.75 for members. Details Taking bookings now.
HORSES: Exploring the latest findings in equine cognition
31st March 2012
Morning lecture with equine scientist Leanne Proops; £15, £11.25 formembers. Details) Taking bookings now.”)