Equine behaviour: a horse's basic needs

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What do horses want? 

Horses eating as a herd_60912

What do horses want?

I remember the first time that I visited a horse farm in the USA. It was unlike the glamorous images that I had seen in photographs or films. It was much rougher than I imagined. There were still white post and rail fences, bordering paddocks that were bigger than anything 

I have been used to in Scotland. There were American barns, too. And horse groups that really were living as a herd – not just a three-horse unit like I have here. 

But beneath this huge facade were fences in need of a new coat of paint; American barns that were not as horse friendly as they could have been; and herds of horses with no less behavioural problems than we have here in the UK.

So why is it that our vision of what horses want is quite far removed from what horses actually want? The answer is because horses have basic needs. They don’t have rich needs, like the visions we have stored in our memories from watching American horse movies or visiting high-end racing yards in Southern England. 

Things to look out for

So, what is it that horses truly want? The three main things that all horses want is to have friends, to play, and to have unlimited supplies of forage and water. If you watch a herd of happy horses, you will see them display lots of affiliative interactions throughout the day. These actions can include standing with heads close, standing with nostrils close, touching muzzles, mutual grooming and rubbing necks. 

My small herd of three have their own unique take on affiliative interactions. When all three are inside our converted roundel in the winter, when the weather is harsh and they no longer want to spend 24 hours a day out in an open paddock, they constantly touch and play with each other. 

Zara licks Maia’s face across her stable door and keeps doing this until Maia gives in and mutual grooms Zara’s head and neck. When Rona walks under her wooden bar and through Zara’s stable to greet Maia in the morning, she is welcomed by a kiss on the forehead over Maia’s door. And when Rona and Zara share a stable, they can often be seen lying down together, almost touching. It’s a beautiful sight to behold and it’s during these moments that I feel that I’m doing something right as a horse owner, by providing my horses with an inside set-up that allows them to interact with each other just as they would in their paddock.

But what about the days when there’s tension in the air? What about the days when our horses display more agonistic interactions with each other than affiliative? 

Thankfully, these days happen rarely in herds of happy horses. But the signs to look out for are chasing, biting, threatening to bite, foreleg striking, kicking and threatening to kick. Horses don’t display these behaviours lightly and, if they do, it’s a sign that they’re frustrated or fearful. The good news is that these behaviours can be rectified if you find out why your horse is unhappy.

Horses that are hungry, or that are not getting enough interaction with other horses can display these body language signs. Giving your horse unlimited access to hay, haylage or grass (basically any fibre-based forage) can help with this. If your horse needs to be on a restricted diet because of genetic ailments or because he’s overweight, then providing three smaller meals per day in haynets, hayballs and via forage replacers such as Fast Fibre will help alleviate boredom and keep his digestive system in order.

Providing a set-up where your horse has friends and can interact, play and touch these friends will help greatly too – in fact, I think this management practice helps the most. 

Zara was a horse who was prone to being overweight before we moved her to our converted roundel, and before we gave her an en-suite miniature Shetland (Rona). Zara always looked hungry before on a restricted diet. She always looked like food was her only saviour.

But when Rona came along and they both started sharing a space (although Rona has a bar that she can walk under to reach her own stable that Zara does not have access too), Zara suddenly blossomed and lost weight. The haylage pile was not her only source of joy and now she shares said haylage pile with Rona. 

Food toys such as Horselyx blocks have also been invaluable. These blocks are healthy and give the horse something to do that is different from the normal food ans drink regime. 

Just think simple and you can’t go far wrong. Stables with good ventilation that are horse-friendly, outside space for proper play, and plenty of good quality forage are what your horse would tell you he wants, if he could.

Melissa Volpi is studying equine behaviour. To find out more about the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants (SEBC) professional training course, please email Felicity George at [email protected] or visit

Related categories: Horses

Last edited: 08 February 2019 at 16:52

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