June 15, 2024

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Horse Behavior – Innate Vs Learned

2 min read

…From an unusual and rather interesting email recently, asking for information on the innate vs learned behaviour of a young horse. A great topic to investigate!

After a dig around, this is what I have compiled for you:

Innate behaviours are the things an animal can do or has the urge to do without being taught. Behaviour that is hardwired in from birth. But you knew that bit. In horses that means; suckling, standing, running, neighing and possibly ‘mouth clapping’ (a strategy for appeasing older horses) are all innate. Please note that although the drive to do these is innate, the actual behaviour is perfected with practice. A foal cannot stand perfectly first try!

The fact that a foal has to learn how to do many innate behaviours well seems to cause a lot of confusion as to what is innate and what is learned.

Beyond these it is all learning. Learning basically covers communication, discipline and safety. Horses learn to communicate with each other, to interact as a member of the herd, to play to be social, to play dominance games, to read horse body language, to avoid predators, what is acceptable horse behaviour, what is safe to eat, what to be afraid of and mutual grooming. Biting seems to be a learned behaviour. It is an extension of the suckling reflex.

Foals need other horses to teach them these behaviours, and there appears to be much anecdotal evidence that foals weaned too abruptly or too young result in mal-adjusted adults. Or in plain English, if a foal is traumatised by being weaned to young it may be more likely to have bad habits. And if a foal is not taught by other horses how it can be behave, it may grow up to be a thug!

And so foals also need to be taught (in baby sized, regular lessons) how they may behave around humans. A foal’s reaction to people is ALL learned. Whether mother taught the foal or we did. They are a blank canvas for people at birth.

The best strategy for teaching a foal is to behave as it’s mother would. Guide good behaviour and discipline antisocial and dangerous behaviour. And as a bonus tip, where you can, mimic the way horses communicate and interact with each other. That’s the real secret of the ‘horse whisperers’.

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