Peaceniks or Killers?

BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS

Part 1 – In this series I aim to cover all the weaponry horses have in their rather formidable arsenal. While predators may be seen as well-equipped killing machines, this particular prey animal is more than capable of inflicting serious and at times fatal injuries.

If you love horses, then undoubtedly you will find this image beautiful. Perhaps it will invoke feelings of calm, peace and serenity. Perhaps you may even imagine that these two below are friends and are greeting one another, or maybe they are in love?  This image could feature in a horse calendar, perhaps for the month of July alongside a romantic caption…

A

Sarcasm aside, the real point here is that horses should not be viewed as placid, even docile, animals living within a peaceful herd. Of course horses can be gentle, but about as gentle as a sleeping bear, or a wolf nursing her cubs.

Hoof Waving

This particular behaviour or action is not the same as striking, but could be thought of as a precursor to fully striking out, especially in this case. It also should not be confused with a similar action domesticated horses do when not communicating with another horse i.e. waving a front leg when expecting food. Reading body language is not as black and white as some may assume. Certain actions cannot be pigeonholed into meaning just one thing. The entire horse must be read, along with the circumstances and the environment. For example if you see a person waving from a distance, are they being friendly, asking for help, or merely batting a wasp away?

The raising of the front hoof is just one form of gesturing, and is often observed in the wild when one stallion meets another stallion. A watered down version of this can also be seen in domestic horses. In some ways there is less incentive for domesticated horses to demonstrate the same behaviour as seen in wild horses.

B

Males are routinely gelded, so there would be no incentive to find, steal or fight to keep mares. While there are stallions being kept for breeding purposes, or even in work, it’s unlikely there are other stallions around. If a number of stallions were kept in a mixed herd, then undoubtedly fighting would occur. This behaviour is also seen in domesticated mares when meeting a new field companion, and again it is a show of strength and dominance. At times the position the new horse takes within the hierarchy of the herd is established quickly after a short period of gesturing and vocalising. In these cases the new horse has not pushed for leadership status, or at least not yet.

Gesturing is the equivalent of a dog raising its hackles, or a gorilla beating its chest, and this is just one of many ways a horse flexes its muscles in order to show his adversary he is strong and powerful. There are probably only 3 likely outcomes when 2 stallions have come to this hoof to hoof point. Firstly, one of the horses may bottle it on deciding the other horse is more powerful, so takes flight. Turning tail and running is unlikely to ensure he gets away unscathed however. The second stallion won’t waste the massive amounts of adrenaline coursing through his veins and will want to make absolutely certain the weaker animal knows he is the leader of his herd. Therefore he could give chase in order to inflict serious injuries, even intending to kill the weaker horse. Weaker horses usually do get away – probably a bit battered – but will generally survive to fight another day.

C

D

The second outcome is that both horses become distracted, even spooked, and leave the area, both going their separate ways.

The third and most likely outcome is that battle commences. This happens when all attempts at non-contact intimidation has failed, with each horse believing that they are more powerful than the other.

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Image above – Very typical of the images shared on the internet usually with romantic, peaceful even inspiring captions.

Image below – The same two horses demonstrating the stark reality of completely natural equine behaviour.

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Next time – When intimidation becomes physical!

Images: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell
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