What would your horse like for Christmas?

Horse in snow

There seems to be a growing confusion over what our horses like, want, or even need. Horse owners are encouraged to focus on feed, supplements, tack, gadgets or the next new innovation in rugs and ignore the bigger picture of what our horse's really need.

When we see unnatural or ‘problem’ behaviours in our horses, our first question should always be ‘are their basic physical and behavioural needs being met?’ By considering the behaviours a horse should perform naturally, we can judge what is the best environment and management routine from his point of view. There has been extensive research into the horse's needs and what is most important to him.

After years of research equine behaviour scientist Andrew Fraser listed the following as the basic needs of the horse:

• Safety: the horse’s primary need – this is being part of a herd and its long-term security, the ideal is a mixed herd of 8-12. They also need the space and freedom to move away from, or react to, any potential danger.

• Eating & drinking: the horse would naturally graze on a wide variety of herbs and grasses and they browse in trees and bushes at will (one study noted horses eating 200+ different types of grasses and herbs). They eat while on the move for at least 16-18hrs a day. 

• Body care: this is need to be able to groom, scratch and roll freely. Our horses should self-groom at least once an hour, mutual grooming and rolling is a daily occurrence. They need to be able to regulate their own temperature by finding shelter whenever necessary. 

• Rest and sleep: horses sleep for only around 4 hours a day. They need to lie down flat with their legs outstretched for their daily 30 minutes of deep REM sleep and would have a lookout to be vigilant on their behalf at all times. Many horses sleep only when turned out in company.

• Movement: the horse is constantly moving and naturally would move one of his feet every 3-5 seconds, even when eating. They rarely stand still unless dozing or sleeping, when they would have a lookout who would warn of any danger. It is vital for a horses physical and mental health to be able to canter and gallop freely. Dr Sue McDonnell at the Havemeyer Equine Lab found some of her Shetland ponies travelled up to 100 miles a day when fitted with GPS trackers. This is a startling discovery and a great reminder how much exercise horses and ponies really do need, and rarely get.

• The ability to explore: investigating different areas keeps a horse's mind stimulated and he can learn about his environment, what is safe and what is dangerous.

• Territory: this is the horse's individual and herd space. It is also the need for a constant home ‘range’ which would naturally be around 40km square.

• Social needs: horses form long term pair-bonds and relationships with other horses within their herd. Horses are extremely friendly, social animals and are not naturally aggressive. They are one of the few animals that play as adults. Having an equine friend gives a horse safety, security and confidence. Having the freedom to socialise, play and mutually groom with other horses is vital for a horses mental and physical wellbeing.

Many of our domestic horses have extremely restricted lives and never have the opportunity to fulfil their basic needs. When addressing behaviour problems, many issues can resolve themselves simply by making small changes in daily management, and giving the horse the freedom and opportunity to make choices for themselves.

So if you are considering giving your horse a flashy browband for Christmas, think about what he would really like. Ask your yard owner if he can have more turnout (even an hour longer every day will make a huge difference, but do ensure he has something to eat if grazing is limited). Could he spend time in a new paddock or environment, have the choice of a variety of forages to browse through both in his field and stable, a big clean straw bed for a good night's sleep, more time with his horse friend or something to play with for his Christmas present. You could also think about how to entertain your horse by enriching his environment (for some tips have a look in my Happy Horse article here), maybe make some toys for him yourself – he'll thank you for it. You could then make a New Year resolution to keep it up for next year...

A very Happy Holidays to you and your horses, donkeys and mules!


The Behaviour of the Horse - Andrew F. Fraser (CABI Publishing 1992)
Dr Sue McDonnell - Havemeyer Equine Lab, New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania