The Innate Behaviour of the horse in relation to Play.
Play is something that all mammals do. Play is essential for the health of the horse both mentally emotionally and physically.
Play Fight has its role for the males. It is based around dominance so is also called dominance games. In the wild the youngsters would ‘practise’ all the strategies needed to become fast, quick witted and physically strong by play fighting. Stallions play with their foals and teach them fighting strategies when they get older **
Play can take many forms and young boys, whether horse or human, definitely play rough compared to the girls.
Watching two male horses play together they will often stand quite still and just push on each other’s lower jaw with their muzzles, sometimes this escalates to biting. This can move on to moving each other around either by driving or biting their back end or they can drive each other away and set up a game of chase. Rearing for some horses is great fun and some paw at the air whilst they are up there! Pawing the ground is popular, pretending to be very fierce. Biting at the back of the leg to bring the opponent down to his knee or knees is another favourite and there are many other ways that they choose to have fun and let off steam.
Watching two female horses is often a very different scenario to the one with the boys, if they play at all, which the majority do not, it is the game of tag that can be seen**. They simply run one way and stop and run the other way, getting more and more excited as they go. Girls are more likely to be seen grooming together than playing together. However there are always exceptions and it is usually seen with more dominant mares.
In all my years of watching horses play and sometimes quite rough play, I have not seen them draw blood or harm each other***, this is never the idea of play, even play fight practise is not about harming and it is fascinating to see all the strategies a horse has developed in the wild herd so as not to get injured. Two stallions who are equally matched physically will not fight to the death, they have other ways of backing off without losing ‘face’’ **
Play is multi-functional:
- Play gives a good feel adreneline release
- Play keeps the body fit
- Play keeps the social bond of the herd intact and healthy
- Play keeps boredom at bay
*** Please note that the horses I have observed in serious play have not been wearing shoes and have been horses that are used to living out and in a herd and have got good social skills in place. If you want your horse to have more play time then make sure you are setting him and the other horse up for success by making sure you have gone through the safety check list.
I have just written a home study course on the innate behaviour of horses and its application to welfare and training so please feel free to take a look on my website or contact me for further information.
My best wishes Sue