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 around?

It seems likely that we can find answers by looking at domestic horses, at feral horses, and at horses that have passed back and forth, over generations, between domesticated to feral. We can be comfortable doing this because domestication changes only a few genes, and those minor changes usually don’t have much affect on behavior2. In studies of reintroduced horses, large herbivores and pigs, the natural behaviors in the domesticated version remain intact in the reintroduced version.3 That is, the social behavior patterns of free ranging horses are all found in domestic horses.4 Often the domesticated version of an animal differs from the wild version only in fearfulness.5

This chapter works through some of that topic.

We’ll start with a basic question: why does a horse do what it does when humans aren’t butting in?

Common behaviors, such as play or rolling, are likely to meet four criteria:6

  1. They are performed by all horses;
  2. They are self-rewarding, most likely involving the release of opioids, which play a role in motivating the horse to do certain things.7 That is, basic behaviors are performed because they feel good, not because of what they achieve. Several authors have shown that endogenous opioids and dopamine are involved in reproductive behavior, play, grooming, exploration, social behavior and more, so the animals do experience short-term satisfaction of released endorphins when performing these behaviors.8
  3. They have a rebound effect: when a horse is deprived of such a behavior and then finds itself in a situation where it can perform the behavior, the behavior returns. For example, play between two horses is disrupted if one is stall boarded, and one field boarded. But when the stall boarded horse is returned to the pasture with his field boarded friend, play will resume — sometimes with more vigor than just prior to deprivation.
  4. If they cannot be performed (for instance, if a horse does not have enough space to roll, or a partner to play with), their absence results in stress.

The self-rewarding nature of common natural behaviors has been studied in rats and primates. Findings9 show that play, self-grooming, and allogrooming can be induced by injecting endorphins, melanocortines and morphine, and can be suppressed with naloxone (an opioid antagonist) and haloperidol (a dopamine antagonist). It is safe to say that in the horse, play, self-grooming, and allogrooming all feel good. And it seems that social behavior is a natural addiction.10

The Unnatural Horse

Throughout this book, I try to learn about domestic horses by looking at horses in the wild. We must be careful in doing this.

In the wild, feral horses do nothing but interact with each other all day. But domestic horses are often not allowed to interact with each other, instead spending time alone in a paddock or a stall. In much of Europe, about 75% of horses are housed individually.11 When horses are free to choose their diets, they spend most of the day eating,12 and eat nothing but coarse grasses and plants. In captivity, they dine on concentrates, high quality, low fiber forage, and soft grass. Horses eating coarse grasses and plants all day produce large quantities of saliva throughout the day, buffering gastric acidity.13 In captivity, horses develop gastric ulcers. Environmental deficiencies trigger stress and stereotypies. Free horses have not been observed with such stereotypies, but of course our captives show them all the time. Our unnatural horses have high levels of mental illness, and we don’t recognize it.

So my extrapolations from feral horses to the horse in your back yard may not be appropriate in every case. Your horse could be as happy as a horse in the wild if he was part of a stable band, and had an opportunity to graze all day and night.

Time Budgets

A time budget for a horse is an exhaustive accounting of what horses do during the course of a day (or other interval). To create one, the researcher finds a comfy position and sits quietly for as long as the horse being tracked is within view. When it moves out of view, the researcher needs to move too — carefully so as to not disturb our subject. A clipboard, stop watch, binoculars, bottle of water, mosquito repellent and folding chair will prove useful, and a good attention span is essential. You may also need to individually recognize each member of an entire band of horses, because you will likely need to record the behavior of individuals.

Most of the clipboard work will require some quick analysis. You’ll be working with a fixed number of behaviors which may be listed on the left side of your clipboard. When you see one such behavior begin, you’ll record the start time. When it ends, you’ll record the time it stopped. If you have 10 horses in the band, you may need ten stop watches, because they don’t all start and stop the same thing at the same time. Later you can calculate total time per activity, and also analyze when different behaviors are most likely. If 10 stopwatches is beyond your budget and observational talent, you can videotape the band, and do the hard work back in the office.

If this sounds like too much work, you can “time sample” — at some interval such as every 5 minutes, you can tabulate what each horse is doing.

If that is too much work, you can read a book for 10 minutes, then decide what most of the band seems to be doing it, and tally this next to your list of common horse behaviors.

Typical behaviors that might be recorded include allogrooming, autogrooming, bonding, drinking, grazing, locomotion (perhaps broken down by gait, though horses rarely move by any gait except a walk), playing, resting, rolling, and sleeping. In this section on Behavior, I cover each of these topics.

The Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii, and pronounced shuh-VAL-skee) is the only species of truly wild horse left in the world.14 They became extinct in the wild in 1969.15 The subspecies survived through careful captive breeding, and has since been reintroduced. I’m including some time budget analysis of this horse here because it might suggest a more “normal” distribution of activities than that found in captive domesticated horses (Equus ferus caballus).

This is the set of categories used by Anne-Camille Souris in her analysis of a newly released Przewalski herd in Mongolia16:

  • Grazing Head down, chewing and biting mouth movements. The horse may stand still or walk slowly
  • Resting The horse is standing and relaxed. The neck can be horizontal or low, the head relaxed and a little low or in the continuation of the neck, nose directed toward the ground, and the eyes closed or half-shut. The ears are in lateral position or directed behind and one of the three hind legs is flexed
  • Standing The horse is standing, with a sustained position. All legs are stretched. The head is high and the neck is held with tension. The ears are directed forward or are moving to intercept surrounding sounds
  • Moving Walk, trot or gallop with a minimum duration of 10 s. The horse is not involved in grazing.
  • Other behaviors All other behaviors, e.g. social behaviors, urination, defecation, drinking, interaction with other Przewalski’s horse groups or other species

Recording from 8 AM to 8 PM. Grazing and resting account for the greatest proportions of time in a Przewalski herd’s daily life, with resting increasing during the hottest part of the day, and grazing decreasing.17 Standing, moving, and other behaviors are approximately constant throughout the day.

This time budget was based only on observations during daylight hours. What happens at night? In other herds? Under other conditions? Some of the literature on this is summarized by Boyd and others, and is shown in the table below.18

Regardless of whether Przewalski horses are observed during the day (D), night (N), or round the clock (24), and regardless of whether they are observed in Spring (Sp), Summer (Su) or year-round (Yr), in most studies they spend most of their time feeding, and the bulk of the remainder standing.19


Time budgets change with circumstances. One study of densely crowded Arab breeding mares found that the some behaviors — such as rolling, allogrooming, and lying down — were rare as compared with the findings of other studies.20 In this study, social structure was poorly developed, few horses had preferred social partners, and there were few occurrences of positive social behavior.

The information reported above grouped behaviors into 5 or 7 categories of the time budget of Przewalski horses. Analysis with more categories may be more interesting. Here are results from a study that scored for 12 different categories of behavior in Przewalski horses. It is evident that the categories not described in other studies, such as play and mutual grooming, don’t consume much of these horses’ time.

Behavior Time Observed (hours)
Feeding 46.4
Nursing 1.3
Drinking 0.5
Standing awake 20.6
Stand-resting 15.7
All Standing 33.9
Self-groom 1.7
Mutual groom 0.7
Locomotion 7.4
Play 1.2
Lie lateral 1.2
Lie sternal 4.1

Sue McDonnell and other researchers have provided another useful analysis of a day in the life of a horse. The table below provides reference ranges for normal behavioral parameters of activity for the horse housed alone in a stall or small paddock.21

Studying Your Horse’s Behavior

If you are to have any luck getting your backyard wildlife to approach you, you’ll need to maximize the incentives, and give them a reason to approach. Food works just fine for this. You’ll also need to minimize the disincentives. You can’t expect critters to approach you when you are moving, talking, or looking directly at them.

Think of your horse as wildlife. To draw him toward you, stand still, at a distance that shows you respect his space. Keep your arms at your sides (you’ll note that horses don’t have arms; you should consider that the more horse-like you are, the more relaxed your horse will be). Keep your fingers and thumb closed and relaxed, so that they do not look like big claws. Put them in your pockets or behind your back.

One study22 examined horses reactions to an unfamiliar person who did one of three things in their stall:

  1. Motionless Person (MP) condition: The experimenter entered the horse’s stall and stood with her back against the closed door, facing inward and looking at the ground. Of the three conditions, this one produced the most investigative behavior and the least aggressive behavior.
  2. Approach Contact (AC) condition: The experimenter entered the horse’s stall and stood motionless at a distance of 1.5 meters (5 feet) from the horse until it resumed eating. The experimenter then slowly came toward the horse, looking at its shoulder, and tried to stroke its neck.
  3. Sudden Approach (SA) condition: The experimenter walked slowly along the aisle of the barn, and suddenly appeared at the horse’s stall door when the horse was feeding, head down. Of the three conditions, this one produced the least investigative behavior and the most aggressive behavior.

Horses in this experiment all seemed to distinguish between non-invasive (the motionless person test) and invasive (the other tests.) and all showed more positive reactions to the non-invasive situation. A reasonable conclusion from this study if you want to maximize his approach and minimize his aggression: do not approach a horse so closely that he becomes uncomfortable. Don’t rush things. Let him come to you.

If you want to learn more than you can by standing in your horse’s stall with him, let him graze with his friends, and get out your cell phone. Use it’s camera to capture motion by video recording. Later, you can watch the video on your computer, freeze it, rewind, or just about anything to improve your understanding of what you recorded. If you are using a still camera, capture at least 3 frames from the same perspective, showing a behavior from start to finish.

The behaviors in this section are organized alphabetically, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Unfortunately, neither does any other organization. 🙁

If you are interested in horse behavior, you’ll also want to read Claudia Feh’s excellent review of relationships and communication in socially natural horse herds.23


1 Image source:

2 Jensen, P., Andersson, L., 2005. Genomics meets ethology: a new route to understanding domestication, behavior, and sustainability in animal breeding. Ambio 34 (4–5), 320–324.; Mignon-Grasteau, S., Boissy, A., Bouix, J., Faure, J.M., Fisher, A.D., Hinch, G.N., Jensen, P., Le Neindre, P., Mormede, P., Prunet, P., Vandeputte, M., Beaumont, C., 2005. Genetics of adaptation and domestication in livestock. Livest. Prod. Sci. 93 (1), 3–14.

3 Berger,J., 1986.Wild Horses of the Great Basin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.; Boyd, L., Keiper, R., 2005. Behavioural ecology of feral horses. In: Mills, D.S., McDonnell, S.M. (Eds.), The Domestic Horse: The Origins, Development and Management of its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 55–82.; Goodwin, D., 2002. Horse behaviour: evolution, domestication and feralisation. In: Waran, N. (Ed.), The Welfare of Horses. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp. 1–18.; Jensen, P., 1986. Observations on the maternal behaviour of free-ranging domestic pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 16 (2), 131–142.; Jensen, P., 1988. Maternal behaviour and mother young interactions during lactation in free-ranging domestic pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 20 (3–4), 297–308.; Jensen, P., 1995. The weaning process of free-ranging domestic pigs – within litter and between litter variations. Ethology 100 (1), 14–25.; Jensen, P., Vestergaard, K., Algers, B., 1993. Nestbuilding in free-ranging domestic sows. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 38 (3–4), 245–255.; Lazo, A., 1995. Ranging behavior of feral Cattle (Bos taurus) in Donana National-Park, SW Spain. J. Zool. 236, 359–369.

4 Christensen, J.W., Zharkikh, T., Ladewig, J., Yasinetskaya, N., 2002. Social behaviour in stallion groups (Equus przewalskii and Equus caballus) kept under natural and domestic conditions. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 76, 11-20.; McDonnell, S.M., Haviland, J.C., 1995. Agonistic ethogram of the equid bachelor band. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 43, 147-188.; Van Dierendonck, M.C., Sigurjo´nsdo´ttir, H., Colenbrander, B., Thorhallsdo´ttir, A.G., 2004. Differences in social behaviour between late pregnant, post-partum and barren mares in a herd of Icelandic

horses. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 89, 283-297.

5 Harri, M., Mononen, J., Ahola, L., 2003. Behavioural and physiological differences between silver foxes selected and not selected for domestic behaviour. Anim. Welfare 12 (3), 305–314.

6 VanDierendonck, Machteld C., and Berry M. Spruijt. “Coping in groups of domestic horses–Review from a social and neurobiological perspective.” Applied animal behaviour science 138, no. 3 (2012): 194-202.

7 VanDierendonck, Machteld C., and Berry M. Spruijt. “Coping in groups of domestic horses–Review from a social and neurobiological perspective.” Applied animal behaviour science 138, no. 3 (2012): 194-202.

8 Mench, J.A., Sheamoore, M.M., 1995. Moods, minds and molecules – the neurochemistry of social-behavior. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 44 (2–4), 99–118.; Van Ree, J.M., Niesink, R.J.M., Van Wolfswinkel, L., Ramsey, N.F., Kornet, M.L.M.W., Van Furth, W.R., Vanderschuren, L.J.M.J., Gerrits, M.A.F.M., Van Den Berg, C.L., 2000. Endogenous opioids and reward. Eur. J. Pharmacol. 405 (1–3), 89–101.

9 Alvaro, J.D., Taylor, J.R., Duman, R.S., 2003. Molecular and behavioral interactions between central melanocortins and cocaine. J. Pharmacol. Exp. Ther. 304 (1), 391–399.; Fabre-Nys, C., Meller, R.E., Keverne, E.B., 1982. Opiate antagonists stimulate affiliative behaviour in monkeys. Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 16 (4), 653–659.; Schino, G., Troisi, A., 1992. Opiate receptor blockade in juvenile macaques: effect on affiliative interactions with their mothers and group companions. Brain Res. 576 (1), 125–130.; Keverne, E.B., Nevison, C.M., Martel, F.L., 1997. Early learning and the social bond. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 15 (807), 329–339.; Trezza, V., Damsteegt, R., Achterberg, E.J., Vanderschuren, L.J.M.J., 2011. Nucleus accumbens -opioid receptors mediate social reward. J. Neurosci. 31 (17), 6362–6370.

10 Nelson, E.E., Panksepp, J., 1998. Brain substrates of infant–mother attachment: contributions of opioids, oxytocin, and norepinephrine. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 22 (3), 437–452.

11 Bachmann, I., Stauffacher, M., 2002. Housing and exploitation of horses in Switzerland: a representative analysis of the status quo. Schweiz. Arch. Tierheilk 144, 331-347.; Søndergaard, E., Ladewig, J., 2004. Group housing exerts a positive effect on the behaviour of young horses during training. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 87, 105-118.

12 Houpt, K., 2005. Maintenance behaviours. In: Mills, D., McDonell, S.M. (Eds.), The Domestic Horse: The Origins, Development, and Management of its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 94-109.

13 Nicol, C. “Understanding equine stereotypies.” Equine veterinary journal 31, no. S28 (1999): 20-25.

14 Wakefield, S., Knowles, J., Zimmermann, W., van Dierendonck, M., 2002. Status and action plan for the Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). In: Moehlman, P.D. (Ed.), Equids: Zebras, Asses, and Horses: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SCC Equid Specialist Group, IUCN (The World Conservation Union), Gland, Switzerland, Cambridge (Chapter 7).

15 Sokolov, V.E., Orlov, V.N., 1986. Introduction of Przewalski horses into the wild. The Przewalski Horse and Restoration to its Natural Habitat in Mongolia. The Przewalski Horse and Restoration to its Natural Habitat in Mongolia. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper 61, vol. 181. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, pp. 77–88.; Bouman, I., Bouman, J., 1994. The history of the Przewalski’s horse. In: Boyd, L., Houpt, K.A. (Eds.), Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species. State University of New York Press, Albany.

16 Souris, Anne-Camille, Petra Kaczensky, Romain Julliard, and Christian Walzer. “Time budget-, behavioral synchrony-and body score development of a newly released Przewalski’s horse group Equus ferus przewalskii, in the Great Gobi B strictly protected area in SW Mongolia.” Applied animal behaviour science 107, no. 3 (2007): 307-321.

17 Image source: Souris, Anne-Camille, Petra Kaczensky, Romain Julliard, and Christian Walzer. “Time budget-, behavioral synchrony-and body score development of a newly released Przewalski’s horse group Equus ferus przewalskii, in the Great Gobi B strictly protected area in SW Mongolia.” Applied animal behaviour science 107, no. 3 (2007): 307-321.

18 Boyd, Lee E., Denise A. Carbonaro, and Katherine A. Houpt. “The 24-hour time budget of Przewalski horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 21, no. 1-2 (1988): 5-17.

19 Table from Boyd, Lee E., Denise A. Carbonaro, and Katherine A. Houpt. “The 24-hour time budget of Przewalski horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 21, no. 1-2 (1988): 5-17.

20 Benhajali, Haifa, Marie-Annick Richard-Yris, Marine Leroux, Mohammed Ezzaouia, Faouzia Charfi, and Martine Hausberger. “A note on the time budget and social behaviour of densely housed horses: A case study in Arab breeding mares.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112, no. 1 (2008): 196-200.

21 Image from Mills, D. And Redgate, S. “Behaviour of Horses” in Jensen, Per. The ethology of domestic animals: an introductory text. CABI, 2002. Page 139, which adapted it from McDonnell, Sue M. “Is it psychological, physical, or both?.” (2005).

22 Fureix, Carole, Patrick Jego, Carol Sankey, and Martine Hausberger. “How horses (Equus caballus) see the world: humans as significant “objects”.” Animal Cognition 12, no. 4 (2009): 643-654.

23 Feh, Claudia. “Relationships and communication in socially natural horse herds.” The domestic horse (2005): 83-93.


2 Comments for "The Natural Horse"

  • Janelle Straszheim

    You’ve been busy! I will read more of this tome as time permits. It’s approachably dense. Janelle S

    • David Stang

      You make me smile, Janelle.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *