At Heart—Helping You Live Life to the Fullest

A Horse Unheard

Understand and correct alleged dominant and aggressive behavior in horses.

By Catherine Sullivan


When we arrive at the barn armed with a laundry list of chores and intentions, weighed upon by the trials of life—health scares, bosses who personify angry reptiles, kids who stick things in their noses and cars that seem to chuckle every time they break—we arrive to our horse. She, too, has feelings. Though we do not know it, she might be stressed from a new horse at the boarding stable who has bullied her in the pasture this morning, or she’s mourning the loss of a friend, or she bumped her shoulder and is feeling pained, or was frightened by the storm last night and didn’t sleep. She cannot share her trials in our tongue, though always she has tried in her own language. Horse and man both wish to be heard. Where we differ is in our willingness to listen.

Yet haste gives diminishing returns. When we fail to observe an ill or injured horse we exacerbate his condition by asking he work, and worse, we cause him pain. We whittle away at a partnership forged over years in small moments; a partnership of whiskers brushed against cheeks and companionable silences, where we each bask in the majesty that is our bond with horses.

Understanding Behavior

Behavior is most noticed when undesirable. Whether from lackluster performance at a show, a sudden refusal to trailer, or biting during saddling, perceived acts of aggression and/or dominance can be frightening and dangerous to animals and people. Yet all behaviors have a basis, and almost none are spontaneous.

They are instead rooted in a horse unheard.

Jill Sackman is a veterinary behaviorist with Blue Pearl Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospitals. Most behavior—especially the poor kind—is learned, she says.

“Most behaviors we attribute to dominance or aggression are behaviors owners have unintentionally reinforced. Horses are not interested in taking over the world. Almost always a pushy horse is a horse who has learned a particular behavior works,” Jill said.

She cites the manner we keep horses as a leading cause of undesirable behavior. Indeed, research in horses kept in a more natural setting, with stable herd dynamics, indicates very little inter-horse aggression exists.

“Horses are social animals that, in the environment most are kept today, are left isolated and with too little to do. In a natural setting, horses would graze 80 percent of the time in a relatively stable herd dynamic,” Jill said.

Today, many horses are kept in box stalls without the ability to see or touch other horses. Fluctuations in arrivals and departures from stables, and even horses removed from the herd for a riding lesson or farrier appointment mean horses must constantly reestablish hierarchy within the group. This is an enormous source of stress for equines; coupled with long hours spent in stalls, a lack of mental stimulation and lack of appropriate grazing, it is remarkable most horses are as mentally sound as they are.

Aggression is feared among all species. It is exercised only to the extent needed to achieve the desired result. Why? When two animals fight, either or both may be killed. Typically, animals will accept confrontation only when the alternative is worse. For example, solitary lions will risk being killed by a pride only if the risk of injury or death is perceived as being lower than the risk of continuing to live as a solitary animal. In most species, only sexual competition is strong enough to warrant true fights, and this is true both for females attempting to protect their young from being killed by non-siring males, and for males attempting to drive out an existing alpha male to gain control of his females.

As to other causes of aggression of animals residing in natural settings, resource guarding over food, at least among wild horses, is less common. In domestic settings with limited pasture, dominant horses will take the choicest grazing in the optimal spot. Wild groups consist of small numbers of horses grazing over vast amounts of space, thus reducing the need for competition and thereby aggression.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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