The Natural Horse

The Natural Horse Last revised: April 12, 2017. Two Przewalski horses.1 Regardless of what we make of natural horsemanship, all of the definitions presuppose that we know what a natural horse is. If we really want to do natural horsemanship, then we need to understand the natural horse: what do they do when we aren’t […]


One of the most common social behaviors is allogrooming (also known as mutual grooming). It is expressed by the lateral parallel body position of two horses that allows for nibbling along the back or withers of each horse. While this behavior can be considered grooming, it is also thought to facilitate pair-bonding and dominance structure between band mates


There is one thing that all of our husbandry can’t change: horses love each other, just as elephants love each other and deer love each other. Horses can’t get enough of each other. They would be close together in a herd every minute of the day, given a choice. I was especially struck by this in driving across Wyoming, where a pasture can often be 100 acres or more. Survey such a pasture, and find who lives there: a half dozen or so horses. And where are they? Jammed together in one place or another, so close that one tail can swat the flies on a friend’s body. Horses never live alone in the wild, and should never be forced to live alone in captivity.

Courtship and Reproduction

Stallions are from Mars, Mares are from Venus
’The single most important difference between the sexes is the difference in their investment in offspring. The general truth is this: females do all the investing; males do none of it. Although the general rule has many exceptions, it accurately identifies the primary source of conflict between the sexes: in most sexual organisms, most of the energy and time invested in offspring comes from females. From this basic fact it follows that, for males more than females, reproductive success is limited by the number of matings with fertile partners. For females more than males, on the other hand, reproductive success is limited by the time and effort required to garner and transfer energy to offspring and to protect and care for them. Males therefore are usually more eager than females to mate at any time with any partner who may be fertile, while females are usually more careful than males to choose mates who seem likely to provide good genes, protection, parental care, or resources in addition to gametes. Combined with female interest in mate quality, male interest in mate quantity creates a widespread conflict of interest between the sexes. But I guess you knew that.

Dealing with Danger

The herd or band provides the horses in it with many benefits.

Each horse is superbly endowed to detect a predator at a distance. But when two horses are on the alert for predators, their chances at early detection improve even further.
If the herd chooses to flee, then when it is running, a predator in pursuit wastes valuable time trying to select a victim and trying to track it as the horses run away.
If the herd chooses to fight to protect foals, a foal has many defenders, and has a much better chance of survival than if he is defended by only one mare.


We are accustomed to watching dogs drink, and know that they somehow scoop it up with their tongues. We haven’t watched very closely, though, because we learn that dogs don’t scoop at all. They curl their tongues backward, push them into the water, lift them quickly, and a column of water is pulled up by momentum, not scooped up. They then snap their jaws closed on this column of water — effectively biting it — and swallow. Your cat doesn’t drink the same way as your dog, even though neither has a full set of cheeks. And your horse? Not like a dog, not like a cat, but like a human. He sucks the water in. Elephants do the same, but they suck it in with their nose, then blow it down the hatch.

Eating and Digestion

Grass Loves Horses

Horses are grazers. “Graze” comes from Middle English grasen, from Old English grasian, and that from græs, grass, so a grazer is a grass eater. Horses are grazers, as are cows, sheep, bison, buffalo, deer, elk, wildebeest, zebras, and kangaroos.

Special saliva. When a mammal or a plant-eating insect eats dinner, it creates saliva, some of which it leaves on the grazed grass. For over 40 years, scientists have known that grasshopper grazing increased the growth of the grass they ate. In 1980, Dyer applied a component of mouse saliva — epidermal growth factor (EGF) — to sorghum seedlings, and found this significantly increased the speed at which shoots and roots grew, and found that such growth was dose-dependent: more saliva meant more growth. EGF is not only found in grasshopper saliva. It is also found in mammalian saliva (including yours) and in spitballs.


Agonistic behavior is a group of social behaviors that relate to fighting. Agonistic behavior may include warnings (threats and displays), efforts to break off an unpleasant encounter (retreats, placation), fighting, and conciliation. Aggression is a subset of agonistic behavior. The word labels hostile or violent behavior, and may include threats of such behavior, but excludes retreats, placation, and conciliation. Aggression is much more common in captive domestic horses than in feral horse bands.2

Aggressiveness is a temperament in which a horse shows hostile or violent behavior toward a human, horse, or other animal. Aggressive horses are more likely to show threat displays under the right circumstances. In contrast, an assertive horse is confident and forceful. An assertive horse might be the first through the gate at feeding time; an aggressive horse might be more likely to bite another horse while waiting at the gate. A horse may be both assertive and aggressive.


The moving horse is incredible. It evolved for speed and endurance, and thousands of years of selective breeding further improved his speed and stamina. The horse has one of the highest running speeds (70 km/h or 43 mph) of mammals, and is easily the fastest animal to be able to carry a human. The great claims for the speed of the cheetah (over 70 mph) must be considered in light of the short distance it can maintain such speed: the cheetah can’t maintain its top speed for more than a quarter of a mile, and has been brought to bay by two dogs in 2.5 miles. The horse, on the other hand, can maintain a speed of about 15 mph for a distance of 50 miles. Researchers find that the horse’s maximum aerobic power output is 3.5 times higher than the value predicted by general formulas for mammals


It is easy for us to spot play in children and domestic mammals. We’ve heard that there is a place where the deer and the antelope play. Those who have looked closely have found play in birds and even reptiles. But play is harder to spot in amphibians or insects or plants. Horses certainly play, and young horses are especially prone to play.

Benefits of Play

Over 30 hypotheses have been advanced by scientists to account for play, but there is not solid support for any one of these hypotheses. Play likely has multiple benefits.

Many have reported that play is more common in young, healthy, well-fed and securely attached animals, suggesting its occurrence indicates well-being. But it is also more likely in barren or boring environments, suggesting that it serves to reduce boredom — a condition not associated with well-being.

Resting and Sleeping

We all need to sleep. Every living thing seems to sleep (or have a state of suspended animation of some sort), including plants, corals, insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. In deep sleep in ants, queens and workers fold their antennae, become non-responsive to contact with other ants, and may show rapid antennal movement (RAM sleep), their equivalent to our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Dreaming accompanies REM sleep, and it is reasonable to assume that ants are dreaming during RAM sleep. Electric eels dream, suddenly discharging when asleep. For us, sleep provides biological, physiological, and psychological restoration. We must assume that it does the same for horses, ants, and electric eels.

A horse divides his day into alternating periods of wakefulness and sleep. Sleep is composed of both Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) and Paradoxical Sleep (PS).


Horses roll. They do so in places where others roll. Eventually, the area where they roll may lose its vegetation and become dusty. What we can’t see is what they smell. Before a horse rolls, he sniffs the wallow. During the roll, he rubs the dust into his fur, and his scent into the remaining dust. He acquires the scent of the herd, and the next horses to roll acquire his scent.

A horse with normal withers will usually lie down on one side, rub against the ground, then roll to the other side and repeat. A horse with high withers may need to stand after the first side, and lie down on the other to complete the job.