Behavioral Problems in Horses--Part I
Horses are highly social animals that require contact with others for normal daily care and well-being. Many behavioral problems are associated with confinement and/or isolation. The main goal of managing these problems is identification followed by correction.
Aggression is a common problem in horses and includes kicking and biting, chasing, neck wrestling, etc. Signs of aggression include ears flattened backward, retracted lips, rapid tail movements, pawing, head bowing, snorting, squealing, levade (rearing with deeply flexed hindquarters), and threats to kick. Submissive horses respond with avoidance, lowering the neck and head, clamping the tail, and turning away from the aggressor.
Generally, this behavior is seen in stalls or small spaces that the horse feels can be easily defended. The varieties of aggression toward people include fear, pain-induced, sexual (hormonal), learned, and dominance related. Some horses, especially young ones, play with each other while showing signs of aggression such as kicking and biting. Although harmless to other horses, this "play" can prove dangerous to people.
As stated earlier, the first step in managing equine aggression is to identify the cause and, if possible, to remove it. Training and positive reinforcement, combined with desensitization and counter-conditioning are an excellent means to a positive end for a large number of horses. Environmental management is important as well; good management should include sufficient resources such as space, food, and water.
Aggression toward other horses is often associated with sexual competition, fear, dominance, or territory (protecting the group and resources). There are some horses that are pathologically aggressive; these should be separated completely from other horses (and humans). First separation, followed by keeping less dominant or subordinate equines away from dominant horses. Horses should have sufficient resources, and desensitization and counter-conditioning is the best treatment approach. In cases of sexually related aggression, castration and progestins can help. Adverse effects of such treatment should be weighed carefully, and the horse should be monitored closely. Punishment should be avoided.
Aggression by mares toward people is normal during the first few days after giving birth (parturition). This behavior is hormonally driven and usually lessens with time. Mares should be familiarized with their caregivers before delivery and have minimal contact with other people after delivery. No treatment is required in most cases.
Stallions that are aggressive when used for breeding are often overused or used out of season. Stallions can develop preferences and a simple change of the mare may help. If stallions were stabled with mares when they were colts, they may have some social inhibitions, and forced mating can result in aggression. The goal of treatment is to treat the main cause of aggression; changing the mare (because of preferences) or artificial breeding can also be attempted. Physical restraint and desensitization can help as well. Clicker training has been used successfully to desensitize stallions with this problem.
Look for Part II: Abnormal Behaviors coming soon
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