The words we choose can have power – just ask any marketing expert or advertising guru. It’s not my profession but I do have an interest in the words people use to market products and services.
“Play with your horse” – is frequently heard in the horse world. For example: Don’t work with your horses, play with them; We play at liberty together; I play with my horse before getting on to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind; My horse likes to play at liberty with me. Some training methods even have ‘games’ you can play with your horse.
Sounds great, right? For most people, playing and games beat work, any day. But I’ve seen many people ‘playing’ with their horses (at liberty, during groundwork, horse agility etc.), and I’m here to say sometimes the only one playing is the human. Play between two participants should be fun, and often the horse isn’t having any part of that.
It can be hard for people to step back and objectively assess how they are working with a horse. But I’d like to put forth the idea that we should understand how the horse views the methods we use, and if we are going to call something ‘play’ we should ensure that the horse truly perceives it as that.
Play is necessary for good health. Animals (including humans) generally won’t play unless their primary needs are already being met. Play can be solitary, or can occur between two or more animals.
What defines play is also very personal. My husband is an avid white-water kayaker, and would call much of his time on the water play. I, on the other hand, dabbled briefly in the sport, and found it mostly terrifying. But we both love mountain biking, and you can hear me whooping it up as I ride single-track in our town. No matter what sport or activity you or I consider play, it always involves a sense of pleasure when it happens.
So how do horses play? We could place most horse play into three categories: locomotory (movement based), interactive (social), and manipulative (object) play. Horses run, and buck and fart. They bite each others knees in mock battles. They race, and they posture. My horses pick up objects in the arena or field, like traffic cones or sticks, and swing them at and into one another.
They express themselves in play in a wide range of ways that even cross social hierarchies. Play can be a time for a lower-ranked horse to have mutual fun with a higher-ranked horse. Good play is fluid, involves communication and give-and-take between both parties, and is always enjoyable for each.
Unfortunately, sometimes when people ‘play’ with their horses, it doesn’t meet the above description. It can involve excess levels of pressure to cause the horse to stay with them at liberty, or to cross an obstacle in horse agility. Or it can involve threats of pressure or withholding rewards to achieve results. If I came over to your house to play and threatened you with a stick, or withheld a food reward if you failed to kick the ball back to me, would you see this as play?
Short, blunt answer that might get me angry emails? You don’t. At least not in ways that involve force, threats of force, or withholding food rewards.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy time with your horse, or that they can’t enjoy time with you. In fact, I routinely recommend owners doing things with their horses that they both find enjoyable to strengthen the bond between them. For example:
Perhaps most importantly, make sure their species-specific needs are met, so that they can play. Depriving a horse of one or more of the 3 F’s (friends, forage, and freedom – ad lib) creates stress, and stressed animals find it challenging to play. Once those basics are met grab a cup of coffee and take a seat on a fence rail, and enjoy true horse-play from your position outside the pasture.
As always, I welcome your feedback and comments.
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
Fear-based behaviors are common in horses, and if left...
Many horse training methods claim to be kind, and in...
Fear-based behaviors are common in horses, and if left...
True narcolepsy is rare in horses, but sleep deprivation is not.
This video shows an older mare who is sleep deprived, falling into REM sleep while standing. Horses must lay down to achieve REM sleep, and when deprived from doing so it may manifest as the behaviors you see here. Sleep deprivation is harmful to the health of all animals, so it is very important that your horse has the ability to lay down each day, and feels safe to do so.
Horses won't lay down to sleep for a number of reasons such as pain, lack of suitable resting sites, or when they don't feel safe to lay down. It's reported that two factors resulted in this mare not laying down to sleep - the arrival of a new horse, and undiagnosed arthritis pain ... See MoreSee Less
Sleep Disorder Case : Horses require 30mins/day REM sleep. Siri is a 22 year old Arab X mare. Last summer after a new, dominant horse was introduced to the herd, she lost weight and was seen to have frequent episodes of partial collapse, once falling onto her side. The episodes resolved, but a couple of weeks ago the same behaviour was observed again and New Forest Equine Vets were called in to investigate. Collapse in horses is fortunately uncommon, but when it does occur can obviously be hazardous to both horse and handlers. Three types of 'collapsing' are seen in horses; seizures, syncope (fainting) and sleep disorders. Siri underwent a very thorough clinical examination including neurological and musculoskeletal assessments, and had a range of blood tests performed. The most significant findings were; The original association of the behaviour with the arrival of a new field-mate. A low grade right hind lameness, with severe persistent right hind pain with flexion tests. The gradual lowering of the head, before the front legs buckle. We also found a cardiac arrhythmia; Siri has a second degree AV block, but this is a normal finding in horses and would not cause fainting. Siri's condition is a Sleep Disorder. True narcolepsy can occur in horses, and is usually associated with events like grooming or saddling. Siri is most likely suffering from sleep deprivation. Horses require 30 minutes of REM sleep per day and although they can doze standing up, they need to lie down for REM sleep. We expect that when the new dominant herd-mate arrived, Siri was not comfortable to lie down in the field with him. Now she has lameness and finds it painful to flex her right hindlimb, which is likely to be preventing her from wanting to lie down to sleep. She is currently on a bute (pain relief) trial, and her owner has made her a lovely deep stable bed that she is coming into daily to encourage her to lie down – so far, no further collapsing episodes have been seen. A very interesting case and a good reminder of how important it is for horses to feel comfortable, physically and psychologically in their herd/environment, so that they don't miss out on their REM sleep.
3 days ago ·