In consideration of the horse's nature and behavior, horsewomen and horsemen are obligated to provide horses an appropriate environment, unconstrained neonatal development, formation and fulfillment of the mare-foal bond, adequate nutrition, sufficient sociobehavioral circumstances, as well as training and horsemanship modalities based on the horse's innate perspectives and sensitivities.
By nature the horse is a precocious grazer of the plains, a social and herd animal, and flighty. Horsemanship and training are best accomplished through behavioral appreciation of the horse and facilitation of the horse's nature, rather than by force or coercion. Horses are best trained in a relaxed, calm state. Training that puts the horse into the flight or sympathetic state generated by fear and punishment while restricted by rigs or round pens is discouraged, and not in accordance with acceptable standards of animal training. Horsetraining and horse teaching methods are best based on scientific studies regarding the nature of the horse. Horses learn preferentially in a relaxed state from a calm experienced handler with adept communication skills.
Social behavior in natural feral settings is the 'natural' behavior that 'natural' horsemanship utilizes to appreciate the nature of the horse.
As to dominance, the science reveals that free-ranging horses form social hierarchies that are complex and rarely linear. Under natural open range conditions with adequate resources, horses seldom have the equivalent of an alpha individual because the roles of leadership and defense are more critical than domination. Dominance theory as a training modality is not only discouraged, but appears inappropriate. The formation of order in horse groups sustains collective welfare and enhances group survival, and reflects leadership rather than domination. It is important veterinarians and students of equine behavior appreciate this science.
There is no alpha. Leadership is shared and alternated and variable and context dependent in established harems in natural settings. Dominance is rare, and certainly not prevalent. When present at all, it facilitates group protection and stability. Horses share leadership. Survival is herd based, rather than individual based. The lead mare leads the horses to water and grazing and resting places. She drinks first to make sure the water is safe, rather than because she dominantes the others. Students of equine behaviour appreciate shared leadership and herd stability. Horses seek competent leadership and are willing to accept competent leadership from humans.
The horse is special in retaining the ability to thrive in feral conditions independent of man. This allows us to study their true nature versus their stable nature and to apply that knowledge to their welfare as it pertains to training.
Horse retains the ability to survive without us, and survive well.
It behooves humankind to take care with horses. Sensitive horsefolk respect the 60 million year development of the horse's social behavior and development. They appreciate equine intelligence in regard to both training and husbandry, and what the future might hold.
Stabling is unnatural. Horses graze and walk together 60-70% of the time under natural circumstances, eating and moving from spot to spot independently but within a few meters of the next horse. Stable managers and horse owners should make every effort to accommodate or recreate these long-evolved herd grazing and life-in-motion preferences for proper physiological function and mental health.
Horses require other horses for proper health and prosperity. Horses prefer the constant companionship of other horses. A horse should seldom be kept alone. Horses being mixed with other horses and expected to share resources should be properly acclimated socially, and be given the required space to adjust to new herds without injury or undue stress. Every effort should be made to provide horses with the social benefit of appropriate companion horses through times of stress and illness.
Horsewomen and men need to appreciate the sensual nature of the horse, and understand the physiological needs of the horse. Horses prefer the open view. If they cannot be in physical contact with other horses, they need to see and smell other horses for proper behavioral functioning and responsiveness.
Water is the most important nutrient, and must be provided in consideration of equine behavioral preferences. Salt is the most important mineral, and should be provided daily in some fashion.
Grazing while moving is the preferred predominant equine activity. Horses did not evolve to metabolize grains and non-structured carbohydrates, or to remain stationary for even short periods of time. Serious metabolic issues develop when horses become sedentary grain eaters, and this lifestyle should not be imposed on horses.
Play and sleep are naturally occurring preferences that require accommodation however horses are housed or stabled, as sleep deprivation results in behavioral deterioration.
Horses are physiologically dependent on shared social grooming and sensual contact companionship. If stabling precludes these preferences from fulfillment, then every effort need be applied to replace or recreate these needs on a daily basis.
These behavioral considerations apply to horses in transport, and for those horses too, however unwanted, man is obligated to provide the proper environment, social functioning, nutrition, medical care, and exercise to sufficiently assure health and comfort.
As to performance, every care and precaution need be taken to avoid exceeding the adaptability of the horse. All of the horse's normal natural sensation should remain fully intact and functional without undue pharmaceutical influence. The horse's metabolic, physical, medical, and behavioral limitations are best be monitored by equine veterinary professionals on an intense comprehensive basis.
Professional veterinary societies and organizations are encouraged to provide education regarding equine behavior.
McGreevy, Paul, (2004) Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists Philadelphia: Elsevier Limited. ISBN 0 7020 2634 4
Olsen, Sandra, Horses and Humans, The Evolution of Human-Equine Relationships, 2006, Sandra Olsen, Grant, Choyke, and Bartosiewicz, BAR International Series 1560, Archeopress, England, ISBN 1 84171 990 0
McGreevy, Paul; McLean, Andrew, Equitation Science, Wiley Blackwell, UK, ISBN 2009048321
McGreevy, P.D. et al, (2007) "Roles of Learning theory and ethology in equitation" Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2, p. 108-118.
McGreevy Paul D., (2006) "The advent of equitation science" The Veterinary Journal 174 p. 492-500.
Waran, N., McGreevy, P., & Casey, R.A., (2002) "Training Methods and Horse Welfare", in Waran, N., ed., The Welfare of Horses, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers (2002) 151-180.
Magner, D. (2004.) Magner's Classic Encyclopedia of the Horse. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2004.
Dr Gustafson is a practicing veterinarian, equine behavior consultant, and novelist. The application of behavior science enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Behavioral and nutritional strategies enrich the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses who are willing to learn and perform.