Modern Australian

10 things we do that puzzle and scare horses

  • Written by Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney

Horses, like our dogs and cats, are familiar to many of us, be they racehorses, police horses, or much-loved pony club mounts. So it might surprise you that horses, in Australia, are more deadly than snakes, and indeed all venomous animals combined.

An equine veterinarian is more at risk of workplace injury than a firefighter. Does horses’ apparent familiarity lead us to misinterpret or misunderstand their behaviour?

Read more: 8 things we do that really confuse our dogs

Some of our interactions with horses correspond to interactions between horses themselves. Giving our horse a scratch on an itchy spot or allowing them to rub their head against us, while frowned on by some trainers, mimics how horses behave together.

But there are many other interactions which, from the horse’s perspective, are unusual or downright rude.

The culture clash between horses and humans can trigger defence or flight responses that can leave us badly injured. Here are ten common challenges we present to horses:

1. Invasive veterinary care

There are many veterinary practices we impose on horses to keep them healthy. Some of them, such as injecting or suturing, are invasive or painful. Horses’ natural reaction to pain is to flee. If they can’t, they may resort to aggression, such as biting or kicking.

Horses don’t know veterinary treatments are meant to help them, and hence vets who treat horses are at more risk of injury than those treating other species. Equine vets sustain more workplace injuries than construction workers or firefighters.

Hand gently pats a horse's nose Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND 2. Patting them Many horse people routinely pat their horses as a reward for a job well done. But horses have not evolved to find this rewarding. They don’t pat each other – instead, they scratch or gently nibble each other as a form of bonding. A recent study showed patting increased horses’ heart rates, whereas scratching lowered them and was associated with behavioural signs of relaxation and enjoyment. 3. Picking up feet, hoof trimming and shoeing An important task in horse-keeping is hoof care through regular cleaning, trimming or shoeing. This requires us to pick up a horse’s foot and hold it aloft for several minutes. This practice of immobilising the hoof restricts the horse’s ability to flee if it perceives a threat, which may be why many horses find hoof-handling stressful. Training a horse to accept having its feet and legs held requires patience to prevent injury to both the horse and the handler. Read more: Dressing up for Melbourne Cup Day, from a racehorse point of view 4. Grooming sensitive areas Horses in groups regularly groom each other, favouring areas that aren’t sensitive or ticklish. We like to groom our horses all over. Grooming the sensitive groin, inguinal and perineal regions is likely to be unpleasant for horses. This may account for the tail-swishing, agitation and even biting of the handler often seen when people groom these taboo areas. 5. Pulling or clipping hairs and whiskers Many horse owners like to impose strict order on their horses’ body hair, including pulling out “excess” hair from the mane and tail, and trimming or removing body hair, facial whiskers and the protective hair inside the ears. These activities are frequently resented by horses. Some European countries have banned whisker trimming altogether because of the importance of whiskers to horses in detecting the proximity of surfaces and foraging outside their field of view. Can of horse flyspray Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND 6. Spraying them with chemicals such as flyspray Spraying fly repellent is common enough for many humans. But it creates a strange noise and may also be perceived as aversive when it lands on sensitive skin. The strong scent of the chemicals can also be aversive to horses, given their highly sensitive sense of smell. Patient training is often needed to counter-condition horses so they stand quietly while being sprayed. 7. Feeding by hand or from a bucket As grazers, horses do not feed each other (except when nursing foals) and in free-roaming situations, aggression over food is rare. In contrast, food aggression is often seen in domestic horses. We provide highly palatable foods and treats that can bring out unwelcome behaviours because horses are highly motivated to eat these foods. Some learn to mug their carers, for example by knocking the feed bucket out of their hands. In such a situation, crime really does pay and the horse can swiftly learn to repeat the behaviour. Of course, the horse’s confusion increases and its welfare plummets if it is punished for this. Unhappy horse in a trailer Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND 8. Putting them in a trailer or horse box Horses are claustrophobic and have 320° vision, so our practice of loading them into dark, narrow spaces with unstable footing, such as into trailers (floats) and horse boxes, is often a challenge for a species that has evolved to avoid such spaces. Difficulties with loading and with dangerous behaviours during transport are routinely reported. These responses are generally manifestations of panic and include rushing off the trailer and pulling back when tied up. 9. Branding Searing a permanent mark onto the skin of horses is often required for identification purposes. The use of super-cooled brands or firebrands is unpleasant because they cause a third-degree burn and require the horse to be restrained, either in stocks or via chemical sedation. Thankfully, less invasive methods of identification, such as microchipping, are gaining increasing acceptance among breed and competition societies. 10. Stabling and other forms of isolation Putting horses in stables might seem benign, and many horses voluntarily enter stables because that is where they are fed. But stabling prevents horses from engaging in most of their grazing and social behaviours. Horses rarely voluntarily isolate themselves from other horses, and prolonged social isolation can lead to behavioural problems such as separation distress, rug-chewing and stereotyped behaviours such as weaving and stall-walking. Read more: Is your horse normal? Now there’s an app for that If you’d like to benchmark your horse or pony against thousands of others that we have gathered data on, consider using the Equine Behavior Assessment Research Questionnaire. Understanding why horses find so many procedures unpleasant, frightening or painful is the first step to cutting them some much-needed slack. They do not defend themselves out of malice but from fear. Taking a walk in their hooves allows us to make them happier and safer to be around.

Authors: Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney

Read more


Indonesia's coronavirus fatalities are the highest in Southeast Asia. So, why is Jokowi rushing to get back to business?

MAST IRHAM/EPAIndonesia is still struggling to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Its fatalities are the worst in Southeast Asia, but so far the most dire predictions have not come true. And...

Yes, it looks like Victoria has passed the peak of its second wave. It probably did earlier than we think

It’s hard to recall a time when we didn’t nervously await the announcement of Victoria’s daily COVID-19 case numbers each morning.It was certainly disconcerting when the state recorded more than...

Voting is an essential service too. New Zealand can't be afraid to go to the polls, even in lockdown

GettyImagesIf we can do our grocery shopping under lockdown, we can vote under lockdown too.As much as supermarkets and pharmacies, the general election is an essential service and it must...

how a new carbon dating timeline is changing our view of history

ShutterstockGeological and archaeological records offer important insights into what seems to be an increasingly uncertain future. The better we understand what conditions Earth has already experienced, the better we can...

Should you hold your child back from starting school? Research shows it has little effect on their maths and reading skills

ShutterstockWhether to hold a child back from starting school when they are first eligible is a question faced by many parents in Australia each year.If you start a child at...

These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world's great parks

Adrian Marshall, Author providedVolcanic plains stretching from Melbourne’s west to the South Australian border were once home to native grasslands strewn with wildflowers and a vast diversity of animals. Today...

coronavirus leaves international students in dire straits

ShutterstockMany international students in private rental housing in Sydney and Melbourne were struggling before COVID-19 hit. Our surveys of these students before and during the pandemic show it has made...

Public housing renewal can make tenants feel displaced in their home, even before any work begins

Public housing estate redevelopments that displace residents to other suburbs are highly disruptive whereas projects that allow them to remain are suggested to be better. We tested this assumption through...

Timing the share market is hard – just ask your super fund

ymgerman/ShutterstockThe past financial year has been one of the most volatile on record for stock markets, yet almost every Australian super fund has delivered similar returns. This not only demonstrates...

Got your bag? The critical place of mobile containers in human evolution

ShutterstockToday, bags are everywhere — from cheap canvas ones at the supermarket to designer handbags costing up to US$2,000,000. But archaeological evidence shows we have been using mobile containers —...

Royal Commission into Aged Care reminds Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy it sets the rules

The Royal Commission into Aged Care put the Secretary of the Federal Health Department, Brendan Murphy, firmly in his place when he tried to make an opening statement to attack...

Russia's coronavirus vaccine hasn't been fully tested. Doling it out risks side effects and false protection

A scientist holding a coronavirus vaccine at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Russian Direct Investment Fund/AP/AAPOn Tuesday, Vladimir Putin announced Russia was...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

7 tips for a healthier office & work-lifeHow to supercharge your immune system for cold and flu seasonHow to Avoid Blocked Drains and Stinky OverflowCBD on Cyber Monday: Buying the Best for You5 Beginner Projects You Can Make with Arduino Starter KitWhy Your Outdoor Living Areas Might Benefit From TilesRetirement on the Road: Planning a Post-Retirement Australian Road TripDesign a Pool to Fit Your SpaceHow to Get TEFL Certification for Teaching English in ThailandHow to Find a Lawyer in Sydney for Your Legal RepresentationHow to Pre-Prepare For Your Retirement3 of the most common beginner’s mistakes in table tennisTips to Choose Regular Wear Bands for Your Brand New Apple WatchThe Benefits of Living a Healthy LifestyleHOW TO STUDY ART WITH WIKIART.ORG