Animal Behaviour

HORSES

Like many other domestic animals horses were first used by humans as food. Roast horse was a popular item on the menu in cave restaurants, but chasing horses into traps or pits to catch them was an exhausting job. Eventually, some bright cave-person hit on a brilliant idea. Why not sit on the back of a tame horse when you need to chase the wild ones? Taming a wild horse was not easy, but once the horse got used to having a human on its back, this new form of transport was a great success. Horses have been used in battles and other tasks, such as ploughing fields, playing polo, racing and even milk production. These days there are lots of different breeds of horses, from tiny Shetland ponies to giant plough-horses.

How horses talk to each other

Horses are very social animals. When they run around together, horses use their tails to signal to each other. For instance, tail up means “Go!” Tail down means “Stop!” These messages help to prevent horses running into each other, the way brake lights do on a car. When horses point their tails right up to the sky, they are really having fun and showing off.

When strange horses meet they investigate each other thoroughly. To begin with, a horse will raise his head as high as possible to get a good view, and he shoots his ears forward to listen properly. Then the horses begin to chatter, starting with long shrieks that mean, “Who are you?” If the horses have met before and are good friends, they soon begin to exchange short whinnies which mean, “Good to see you—are we still chums?” When two horses get close, they lower their heads and breathe in deeply. This allows them to sniff each other and work out which group each of them belongs to.

To let another horse or a human know that he is angry a horse turns his head quickly in the direction of his opponent. His ears will be pinned back and he may bare his teeth by pulling his top lip up and making his nose wrinkly. He may lunge forward at the same time. If he is going to kick, he will tend to lash his tail from side to side first. If these threats are ignored the other horse or the human may be badly injured by the angry horses’ teeth and hooves.

If a horse shows he is upset by swishing his tail and stamping his feet, move away from the horse’s hindquarters. If he pins his ears back, it is best not to stare at the horse – just walk away quietly and calmly.

How to say ‘hello’ to a horse

To say “hello” to a horse, you have to show that you mean no harm. Never rush up to a horse. Let him come to you. Gently offer your hand so he can sniff it. He will not bite but he may well lick your hand to taste you. Be extra gentle with foals. They are more likely to panic than adult horses.

If the owner says it’s OK, you can offer the horse a piece of food from your hand. Hold out your hand as flat as can be and place your thumb straight alongside your fingers. The horse will use your hand as a dinner plate. He may push the food around on your hand before he eats it. This can tickle but it doesn’t hurt.

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Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.