Horses have been man’s close companions from time immemorial and are perhaps the most important animals when it come to shaping our society, the most important aspect is that they continue to do so (Hall, 2005; Levine, 2005). Horses have been under domestication for a very long time. The prolonged period of domestication has drastically reduced the wild populations of the horses, the only one left are the wild counterparts of domestic horses called the feral horses and the newly introduced Przewalski’s horse. The chronic periods of domestication has resulted in profound changes in the behavior of horses which has resulted in a change in natural selection. In spite of all these factors horses seem to adapt very well with their changing environment and seem to have adhered to most part of their normal natural biological characteristics (Levine, 2005). Although, the subject of horse behavior and management is very important, research in these areas still remains in isolated fragments as the different topics are extensively researched by strong yet small and scattered groups all over the world. This is in contrast to research in other disciplines other than horses where there are numerous closely associated groups in a small locality. This article aims at exploring the normal and abnormal behavioral characteristics of domesticated horses and the welfare issues pertaining to them.
Domesticated Horse Behaviour is Different
Domestication of horses has resulted a change in its hereditary patterns and the displayed behaviours; but this is also restricted to some extent (Hall, 2005; Levine, 2005).
Domestic horses are usually different compared to their wild counterparts and forefathers in several of the following factors merely not because they have been domesticated right from birth and have been in contact with humans, but also because such domestication has resulted in a change in their normal characteristics such as:
- Aggressiveness which has become less
- Becoming more tame
- Various sensory regions of the brain (sensory awareness) have become reduced over time (e.g. The horse does not respond or become aware to visual or other kinds of stimulations because of the lack of need for it or that there is no need. Because of this domestic horses rarely suffer from stressful situations.
- Domestication has resulted in a tremendous change in behaviour, performance and physical characteristics.
The majority of domestic horses readily get used to a diversity of shelter environments. The adaptability of horses is so profound that within a span of a few days they appear reasonably relaxed, comparatively satisfied, and display a sequence of maintenance behavior which is in a lot more cases identical to the horses at liberty (Klingel, 1975). Some of the aspects of basic maintenance are grooming, eating, resting, drinking and eliminating. These kinds of behaviors are the result of extensive research data accumulated by performing a 24 hour videotaping of mares in stables and stalls in different housing conditions in North America. There is a striking similarity in the behavior of mares in paddocks or at pasture or the naturally occurring horses in social groups found at liberty mainly because of the domestication as the undercurrent. These similar patterns can also be extended to mature stabled geldings and this is usually controlled by the factor of high bodily effort in the case of young horses, for young mares in heat and also for stallions (Levine, 2005). On the contrary old horses are usually less active due to advanced age and have longer periods of resting, longer eating periods, which is usually reflected by a prolongation in daily activities thus resulting reduced number of diurnal major activity over a 24 hour day period. Almost all horses have a fixed schedule that completely correlates with the requirements and the dictates of the stable that they are currently housed.
The maintenance behavior of horses is divided into four broad categories: rest thermoregulation, ingestive behaviors, and coat care. Ingestive behaviors comprise of eating, procurement of salt and drinking. Coat care consists of allo-grooming and auto-grooming. Behavioral thermoregulation includes both means of conserving heat in cold weather and means of dissipating heat in hot weather (Curtis and Houpt, 1983). Autogrooming includes rolling, rubbing tail, on rubbing one part of the body or inanimate objects or on the other and swishing. For example, horses will rub their heads on their forelegs and young (or limber) horses will scratch their head and ears with their hind limb. Self-grooming can include rubbing or using the head to swipe at the body. Mutual grooming involves grasping a fold of the partner’s skin with the teeth.
In wild type and domesticated horses, male horses use up the best part of their time with an estrus mare in courtship behavior and a little quantity of time in actual breeding activities. However, they do mate more repeatedly, as often as every one or two hours over a time frame of two to three days (McDonnell, 1999), than what is usually permissible in restricted breeding environments. In restricted (hand) breeding environments the courtship occasion is significantly reduced. A typical male horse is estimated to get an erection within a period of two to three minutes of being kept near an estrous mare and ejaculate in a short as one to two mounts (Squires, 1999). In addition to standard estrous performance, mares may display character changes during estrus. Information from mare keepers range from estrus related with augmented excitability and distraction, to estrus related with the mare’s most supportive performance. Chief behavioral issues during estrus periods of mares not being bred are easily handled by reducing estrus with hormones called progestogens.
Maternal Behaviour and mare-foal interaction
The danger of infant harm or death affects maternal actions, chiefly protectiveness. Mares are found in groups with a single male horse or groups with more than one male horse in which fatherhood is less certain (Crowell-Davis and Weeks, 2005). Mares in groups with more than one male horse were more defensive of their foals, mainly when male horses and foals came near one another. The speed of attack between the male horse and foal was a major forecaster of motherly defensiveness, and mare defensiveness was drastically interconnected with reduced reproductive achievement in the successive year. Mares that altered group types with a foal at foot, or had their group type experimentally changed, were more defensive of their young ones in multi-stallion group than they were in single-stallion groups (Crowell-Davis and Weeks, 2005). Equids are remarkable amid the group ungulates because feticide and infanticide have been shown to be present. Both happen where fatherhood has been doubtful, and equid social organization is comparable to other animal class in which feticide has been reported. Male horses benefit from infanticide as the mare has greater reproductive achievement in the subsequent year. Stallion hostility is a major modifier of mare actions and motherly effort, possibly due to the danger of infanticide.
Equine play behaviour
Numerous authors find it awfully complicated to explain this kind of actions compared to other social behaviours. Play behaviour is largely thought to be mostly young action but it is also observed among adults of many groups (Muller-Schwarze et al., 1992). Play behaviour is very vital for accelerating development, providing a foundation for cognitive and motor skills, developing adaptive behavioural flexibility, facilitation of social interaction, and also acting as an interface between genes and culture. Therefore, there may be selective advantages in the performance and persistence of play in the behavioural repertoire of horses (Fagen, 1981). Like many festures of horse social behaviour, play behaviour is also limited to social setting largely because of the danger of harm in the wild. This is restricted to social or private play situations. The bottom line of the play behaviour is that it leads to overall development of the horses and also helps them to bond with each other.
Time budget of feral and domestic horses
Time budget refers to the specific amount of time the horse spends during the course performance of daily activities. A typical time budget involves grazing, sleeping and loafing. Horses graze for about 12-20 hours per day, sleep for 2-6 hours daily and loaf for 2-6 hours. All activities other than grazing and sleeping are termed loafing (Benhajali et al., 2008). Studies have shown that there is not much of a difference in the time budgets of feral and domesticated horses (Flanigan and Stookey, 2002) except for the fact that domestic horses spend less time foraging because they do not have the freedom of free movement like their feral counterparts. On the contrary feral horses move a lot because they do not have the protection that domestic horses have (Benhajali et al., 2008).
While behaviorists list all the unusual, abnormal, or odd behaviors ever seen in stabled domestic horses, the record seems very extensive. But in actuality the bulk of abnormal actions of domesticated horses fit into a few distinct groups; the rest are quite rare observations.
Behavior Indicating Physical Pain or Disease
Strange behavior or an alteration in behavior is often the first indication of physical soreness or illness. The shrewd custodian of horses and the veterinarian depend a lot on behavior in estimating equine health. Alteration in hunger, extended or seemingly uncalled-for nervous or restless states, and non-physiologic body positions or actions (e.g., pressing the head against walls, sawhorse stance, leaning the body, looking/kicking toward abdomen, shifting weight on limbs, lifting/ringing tail and cocked head) are all examples of behaviors that probably indicate bodily core causes (McGrevy and McLean,. It is outside the reach of this article to depict all of the behavioral indications of physical soreness and illness. The majority of good horsemen’s veterinary self help books can familiarize the beginner horse custodian to the standard behavioral hallmarks of physical distress and illness. Stereotypies are recurring, highly organized, apparently functionless motor responses and patterns. They happen in all confined, wild and domesticated animal species (McGreevy and McLean, 2005). In addition horses may display a number of other problems associated with different diseases.
Horses like other animals used in sporting and other recreational activities enjoy many benefits in terms of developing a close relationship with the owners or keepers, getting better veterinary attention and developing high financial or sentimental value. But in some situations conflicts may arise between the horse’s quality of life and the financial interests of the owner. This kind of conflicts may result in the horse being over pushed to achieve limits or goals, housed in extremely restricted environments (physical or behavioral restrictions), artificial mating and weaning practices. The situation is even worse outside the equestrian world where they are used for meat, research, hormone production, vaccine production, draught animals, pack animals, and generation of agricultural products. These kinds of non-equestrian horses suffer even more compared to their equestrian counterparts. If a horse is destined for activities other than equestrian, it loses its financial value and hence gets poor living conditions and husbandry practices. It is important that horses are treated better irrespective of their use as they have been good companions since time immemorial. Time budget is a very important factor when it comes to the welfare of the horses. Horses must be give a lot of free area to graze which will give them lot of grazing time and if protection is afforded they will have good sleeping time too which is vital. It is therefore imperative that protection prevents agitation of the horse thus leading to satisfaction and better gain for the owner.
Horses have a very complex nature of behaviour which has resulted from years of domestication and bonding with man. Although these animals appear very hardy and strong from the outside they need proper care, husbandry techniques, veterinary attention and support more than any other domestic animal. In addition to this time budget should be correctly controlled so as to provide the horse with as much freedom as possible but with adequate protection. The complex behavior of horses shows them as emotional and loving animals which require the care and need as much as humans do and this will result in better gains for the owner.