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Play a critical element of horse keeping

Jan. 10, 2013 | 0 comments



Horse play may look like fun and games, but it actually has multiple functions and is indispensable in modern equine husbandry systems, says Dr. Jenifer Nadeau.

Play is an integral part of horses’ maturation and their social communication, the equine Extension specialist for University of Connecticut told listeners tuned into "Horse Play!", the December webinar presented by My Horse University and eXtension HorseQuest.

Horses are social group-living animals just like humans for whom, like humans, play is a vital component of development, Nadeau said. It accounts for 75 percent of a foal’s kinetic behavior and begins as early as the first day of life.

Horses may be domesticated, she pointed out, but they still retain plenty of feral behavior. There’s agonistic behavior that maintains the dominant hierarchy or pecking order through practices that include kicking, rearing, charging and "champing", as when foals show their teeth and smack their lips together.

Behavior patterns

Allelomimetics are mimicking and contagious herd behaviors. They are used by man when herding horses or driving them into canyons or, in olden days, over cliffs.

Epimeletic behavior is giving attention or care, as in mutual grooming when horses nibble on each other’s withers. It is also calling when separated or when new horses arrive. "I always wonder what they’re saying – Hey, are you from Jersey? What are you doing here?" she joked.

Ingestive behavior is the result of a horse’s psychology and physiology, including a small digestive tract that requires frequent eating. Because of stress or insufficient forage, horses may eat other horses’ manure or chew on wood and other’s manes or tails.

They might begin cribbing, which releases endorphins and gives the horse a natural high, or bolt their feed. For the latter, slow feeders for hay are a great invention, Nadeau noted.

Harking back to the wild when horses dug through snow or ground to find food or water, they might paw. If fed in response, she observed, the behavior is rewarded and the habit enforced.

Eliminative behavior can be seen in the way horses drop their manure in one particular area, called the "rough", and eat elsewhere on the "lawn"; while territorial marking is referenced when horses sniff a manure pile, reflecting wild stallions’ habit of marking their territory with urine and feces.

Stallions show sexual behavior by biting, striking with their forelegs, rearing, charging and crowding, Nadeau said, while males gelded late might do the same because they’re still producing testosterone. Mares will kick or threaten, as well as squat and wink their breeding apparatus.



Horse play, however, is behavior and activities that appear to have no immediate function to the horse and usually involve a sense of pleasure and elements of surprise. It is a critical element of modern horse keeping, Nadeau said, because it enhances fitness, practices and hones specific skills, and helps a horse gain familiarity with its surroundings.

Just as children are more apt to play, studies show young horses play more than older horses do. Fillies play less than colts and mares don’t bother to play at all.

Horses prefer to play with others of similar age and sex, and they are faithful to their playing partners.

Foals are at their best in the morning, with peak playing time documented between 8 a.m. and noon. Babies usually start by running circles around their mother. The circles get bigger until, around two weeks old, the youngster begins to scamper off in a single direction.

A foal will also begin to "frolic" with all his feet coming off the ground, exuberant random bucking, headshaking and body twists. He will stamp, prance, jump, leap and rear.

Some horses enjoy playing with an object, whether a ball in their pasture or chasing the farm dog.

Nadeau’s audience included owners of horses that liked to ring bells, splash in the water trough, rear and throw a traffic cones, toss jolly balls to each other and over their fences, and open and close a sliding shed door.

Since horses can become habitualized to play objects, like cats, Nadeau suggested variation may be required to keep things fresh.

Social play begins to develop around one month of age. It is often characterized by an alert posture and nose-to-nose approach with some nipping and a mutual head toss.

"The approach lets the other horse know, ‘We’re not serious. This is just playin’," Nadeau explained.

Horses like to play chase and king of the mountain, while play-fighting is particularly popular with juveniles and bachelor bands of horses, and often occurs at the same time as sudden changes in the weather.

There’s neck grasps and neck wrestling, nipping of forelegs and rumps, spins, jumps and hindquarter threats.

Also known as combat or contact play, play-fighting is aggressive fun with the horses alternating between offensive and defensive roles. Male foals are more likely than female fillies to join in. "It’s much like football," Nadeau joked.


Research results

Research shows horses turned out two hours a week are more likely to trot, canter and buck (considered play) than horses turned out 12 hours a week, so a 2012 French university study investigated why domesticated herd animals play more than mature wild horses do.

It found the horses who exhibited the greatest amount of play behavior in the paddock had the highest TCSS (total chronic stress score) when evaluated in their stall, Nadeau said, noting TCSS is based on aggressiveness with people, withdrawn and antisocial behavior, and observable back pain.

The study concluded that horses that play are showing signs of stress, while happy adult horses graze, rest and move slowly. However, Nadeau said, more studies are needed before such generalizations can be made.

\Considering the number of horses that indulge in vices like kicking, biting, rearing, striking, bolting, weaving, stall walking, pawing, cribbing, wind-sucking and head-nodding, Nadeau explored whether play or lack of play might be a contributing factor.

"I found no evidence showing a development of vices for play or lack of play," she said, adding vices appear to be linked to boredom, nutritional deficiencies and/or lack of socialization.

For additional information, she suggested "A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram" and "Understanding Horse Behavior", both by Dr. Sue McDonnell.

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