Why Do Horses Paw Water?

 “My horse has an annoying habit of standing at the water trough & splashing water”

You will see variations of this sentence posted across the internet on forums and social media platforms. At times it may pertain to a bucket in the stable, splashing water in a puddle or even when crossing a river  and other water sources. Well, it certainly isn’t a habit and should never be seen as annoying.  Owners may find that having a soaking wet stable from such an occurrence something of an inconvenience, although I would suggest a horse standing in a box is feeling far more exasperated than the owner.

Horses use a front hoof to strike out at water, and often change hoof during this manoeuvre. It is a similar movement to when a horse gently paws the ground of his paddock when planning to roll. Although there can be obvious differences between preparing to roll in water, or roll on grass. Horses generally circle the chosen rollspot, while simultaneously sniffing the ground before actually committing to lying down. Only pausing between turns to paw at the ground, much like a dog scratching at the blanket in his basket. The knees will start to buckle as the horse prepares and will often fully drop to their knees before changing their mind and begin the entire process again i.e. pawing, sniffing, turning, pawing etc.

Why Paw The Ground?

We know horses evolved to eat mainly grass, yet the grass plains these early horses roamed 10 million years ago are very much different from today’s manufactured pastures. Moreover, 55 million years ago their habitat was forested areas and they thrived on a diet of shrubs and tree leaves. With the expansion of grass plains forming from a changing climate horses evolved to have the attributes we see today and with similar diets. But in both habitats, they each have something in common, in that, in large areas the ground would have been covered in dense vegetation such as tall grass or trees and shrubs. While horses are very capable of napping while standing, deep sleep can only be achieved while laying down. Additionally horses must lay down in order to give birth, and to roll which will  remove irritants such as parasites and vegetation, and to cool down in water.

Being a prey animal, the horse developed long legs, a longer neck, and both monocular and binocular vision, as well as lightening quick reflexes and speed. Yet Mother Nature insists on balance, after-all the predators must also eat. The weakness of the horse is its blind spot due to the position of the eyes. Physiologically the animal is well equipped to recognise a predator from a great distance, but will fail to see what may be lurking directly at his feet. Hence, pawing the ground while sniffing is beneficial in identifying or removing harmful debris, or dangerous critters. Randomly dropping to the ground whether it is long grass, sand or even a dense forest could have proved perilous.

And Water?

Much for the same reason, apart from crocodiles and alligators which are alerted to the sound and movement of splashing, most creatures will move away from the source. Now think about that puddle your horse won’t walk through. Owners in my experience can be bewildered why their horse refuses to walk through a puddle, especially on a horse yard. Both the position and the colour can influence how a horse will respond to puddles. If it’s in shade or dirty, the horse will instinctively act with caution, particularly if the bottom isn’t visible.  If it is reflecting strong sunlight that is dazzling, again the horse may feel confused about what he is seeing. You will see the horse slightly twist his head as he changes from binocular, to monocular vision in an attempt to identify whether it is safe or not.

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If he is forced to walk through it he may even stop to sniff it before pawing at it, because he’s checking for (and dispersing) critters and checking the depth. Horses generally like to see what is lurking in or under a puddle. Pawing has many functions and is not always a precursor to rolling. Splashing can also be achieved with the muzzle, and is most commonly seen at the water trough. Horses often use this method in a forward, backward motion before drinking, and again, this not only removes small critters from the immediate muzzle area, but moves away vegetation such as algal blooms. The horse is essentially clearing an area in which to drink from. Using a hoof in a very small area such as a trough or bucket could be a precursor to rolling, especially if the horse is hot. Its instinct driving him to cool down, as is the pawing, even when he is probably aware he cant physically roll in such a small area.

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Attentive owners should ensure their horse is not feeling overly warm in the stable, which should minimise, or eradicate the horse’s need to find respite. As with troughs and serial trough splasher’s, offer shelter in the field and lose the rugs, or even construct a small water hole so that the horse can roll in water.  Rolling, even laying in water is a natural, and an essential part of a horse’s life and something they have always done, and have evolved to do. Imagine being utterly compelled to do something but find yourself impeded, you would feel just as frustrated as the horse splashing in his water bucket. Vices generally form from frustration and boredom and causes mental stress, which could all be avoided by meeting the animals basic needs. A horse habitually splashing in a bucket, or a water trough is a signal his basic needs are not being met. So rather than feeling annoyance, try to understand what the horse is telling you, and find a solution.

Images – By Kind permission of photographer Gary Odell

The True Nature of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 4

Kicking

By now, and if my readers have read the previous 3 articles in this series, it should be accepted that a horses defences are used in different ways, depending on the situation and environment. It is an over simplification for a bite to be a bite, or a strike just to be a strike. The force used, the intention and the meaning can vary greatly. Therefore kicking with the hind legs also has multiple purposes, and is not always used to deliberately inflict damage.

The Double Barrel

The double barrel is a term used to describe a manoeuvre in which both back hooves leave the ground simultaneously in an upward and outward motion. While all kicks can cause catastrophic injuries, the double barrel could be the most lethal.  Horses have several methods of kicking, yet this manoeuvre would be the most powerful of all of them. The rump of the horse is made up of several enormous deep and superficial muscle groups. These muscles can be utilised for both speed, and employing a kick while in motion i.e. cantering or galloping.  This is completed by first powering their upper body off the ground to gain height without compromising forward momentum. During the downward motion of the leap the horse raises his rump to kick out. It is a fluid motion which allows the horse to utilise his defences while still moving at speed. Also of course, the double barrel can also be performed while the horse is stationary.

Image – The Double Barrel

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Faux Double Barrel

This manoeuvre can also be performed to demonstrate a warning. In this motion both back legs are brought up but are not fully extended outwards, but with the hooves staying vertically below the hocks. This is a threat, and owners of domesticated horses should read this as the horse saying Go Away. This brings us back to the earlier point in that horses do not always kick or bite to deliberately inflict damage. Horses are quite capable of discerning the level of threat, and responding with the appropriate level of defence. In most cases when a human is kicked it’s because they have not read, or missed, or even ignored the previous warnings and signals the horse has given out, and leading up to a kick. Horses can also kick as a warning or even a reprimand, yet again, with no intention of causing harm. Mares often reprimand an exuberant foal with a non-damaging kick, horses also give field mates a ‘slap’ to move another horse away.

Image – Faux Double Barrel

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Unfortunately, humans are too feeble to withstand a warning kick, we break too easily. Of course there are cases where a horse has kicked a human to deliberately cause massive damage, but in some cases the horse is giving the human just a ‘slap’. Sadly the horse will be labelled as dangerous, and only because the human missed the signals. If anyone can survive a kick, then the horse never intended to kill that person in the first place, because if the intention was to kill…they would have been killed.

Single Barrel

This is probably the most usual form of kicking that people are aware of, and seen most often. The horse extends just one back leg, either with all three still on the ground, or as with the double barrel, lifting the hind-quarters off the ground but only extending one leg. Also, similar to the double barrel, this action can be performed either stationary or while in motion. Often favoured if the intended target is off to the side of the horses hind-quarters. While horses are agile enough to twist their back/pelvis to deliver a double barrel it’s unlikely the off side hoof will make contact due to the angle and position of the target. Quite often the double barrel is attempted but only one hoof hits the animal with the other hoof missing entirely, although this could also be intentional.

Cow Kick

This manoeuvre is performed by one back hoof moving up, and forward towards the belly, or off to the side. This can be used in defence but it’s also a very useful motion to remove anything irritating from the underneath of the horses body i.e. biting insects/flies and vegetation such as burs or cacti. Horses often cow kick when showing symptoms of colic  as the horse is aware something in that area is hurting him, so attempts to remove it. This is not an early sign of colic however, if the horse is cow-kicking in pain because of colic, then potentially it’s already in the late stages.

The Panic Kick

It is a manoeuvre and it is for defence, but technically this type of kick is more to do with instinctive reaction, than an intentionally well aimed kick at a specifically chosen target. Moreover this is another reason novices, children, dogs and non-horsey people get kicked. Horses can kick out of surprise, they can quite literally do it in their sleep, in fact, a dozing relaxed horse is more likely to kick if surprised. Alert horses are fully aware of their surrounding and environment, and have already identified what is a threat or not. So for example, if an owner suddenly drops a bucket behind a relaxed horse this could potentially trigger the kick instinct. Touching a horse that hasn’t seen/heard someone coming can again result in the animal kicking from surprise. Horses can kick out merely by someone or another horse running by, and especially behind them.

Image – Panic KickC

It’s likely the horse kicking out in this image is not doing so to inflict serious damage. It is either kicking out from surprise at the two horses running behind him, or he’s demonstrating disgruntlement at having his space invaded. There is but a narrow gap for the mare and foal to pass, but they do so anyway, and at their own risk. It could be that the foal has run ahead of mum, and she’s had no choice to also run past, in order to shield her foal from being kicked. It’s more likely however they both needed to pass this horse even with no room to spare so rushed through. I also know there is a water source nearby, and their intention was to reach it. Driven by this incentive, the danger of getting kicked is less than their need for water. Either way, the horse doing the kicking deliberately aims low, if this was full on aggression he could have, if chosen to, double barrelled the mare. Simply put, he’s punishing insubordinate behaviour with a slap, rather than intending to inflict serious injury.

Further reading;

Part 1

The true nature of horses, peace loving or formidable killing machines?

Part 2

The True Nature Of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 2

Part 3

The True Nature of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 3

Images – By kind permission of Gary Odell

The True Nature of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 3

Part 3

Biting

The specific area in which a bite is placed may appear random, yet this particular manoeuvre is not without its tactics. Full force biting is very different from nipping, as many owners of domestic horses could no doubt corroborate. It would be very unusual for any owner that has been around horses for many years to have not felt the gnashers of an equine on their skin. My own gelding would periodically bite, and my bottom was always his favourite location. The bite was never hard enough to cause injury, or even a bruise, nonetheless hard enough to make me squeal, which probably pleased him greatly. Yet knowing the grievous injury that horses can inflict from biting, it is evident they know exactly how much force to apply, and in which area to apply it. In my case bottom biting always occurred in the stable. Bearing in mind he was usually a very mild, and gentle mannered horse, this behaviour was less about being dominant, and more to do with communication, and indicating his frustration at being in a box.

It is this behaviour which is more likely to be observed in domestic horses when at pasture. Biting is not always intensely aggressive, because at times a nip will suffice when instructing another horse to move, or when showing or confirming dominance. Bites are more often than not always on the rump, barrel and/or shoulder. Biting can also occur when a stallion intends to mount a mare in oestrus, before mounting and during mating. Therefore, it seems horses have several distinctive forms of biting, and for different reasons depending on the situation.

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Full force biting is without a doubt severe aggression with the sole objective of causing grievous injury. Something has gone catastrophically wrong, and for a very long time, for a domesticated horse to do this to a human. To coin a phrase this would be a horse that has become so frustrated or confused by bad training and incorrect handling he has literally lost his shit. Recent or ongoing pain can also cause aggression. Usually however in these cases most attentive owners circumvent such an aggressive event occurring by treating or euthanizing the horse.

For non-domesticated horses, aggressive full force biting is usually seen between two battling stallions when either securing females or when attempting to keep them. The two main areas to inflict catastrophic injury are the neck/face area and the legs.  To be able to force a horse to the ground would be the ultimate way to show dominance. Horses as prey animals instinctively understand that being forced to the ground by a predator could potentially result in death. Moreover, if the legs are rendered useless the horse loses the capacity to kick and defend itself, or even run away.

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There are abundant images across the internet of horses sitting like a dog, or laying down. These are not comfortable horses, and it is far from cute. Many show the horse pinning its ears, and I can personally testify that even when instructing a trained horse to sit or lie, they pin their ears and demonstrate unwillingness. Laying down to sleep or rest is completely different, and is done through choice, and only when the horse feels the environment and situation is safe to do so. In general horses do not like to be forced to lie on the ground!

Hence, a stallion can disarm his adversary, display his dominance and ultimately win the battle by successfully flooring the other horse. The floored horse could also find himself utterly defenceless in evading further attack from bites and kicks. As in part 2, the capacity to rear in order to avoid serious injury to the head is now absent, therefore the horse is defenceless. It is not just the pain of bitten knees and hocks that floors the horse, the actual victim bends the legs to avoid the bite also, in order to evade injury to the area. In the same way a horse will rear (in a fight situation) to both evade and inflict injury, horses will also drop to their haunches to protect their legs. Either way however, whether he has been forced to the ground through injury, or to protect himself from injury, he will at this stage have lost the fight.

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The only option at this point is the same with most animals, including humans, in that if fight didn’t work, the only option left is flight. Of course, anyone that has owned horses will have observed they are extremely adept at getting to their feet in a blink of an eye. Losing has its place in nature, and more often than not the horse will survive to fight another day, and gain more fighting experience with each battle.

Image below The Battered Warrior most of the injuries are concentrated around the neck and rump from bites and kicks…and to think many owners worry about a few fly bites!

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Next Time – Kicking!

Further reading;

Part One

The true nature of horses, peace loving or formidable killing machines?

Part Two

The True Nature Of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 2

All Images – By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell

The True Nature Of Horses, Peace Loving or Formidable Killing Machines? 2

Part 2

The Strike

Everyone will accept that horses kick, and most assume the back legs of the horse are the most dangerous area of the animal. Yet the front legs are equally as lethal, the power and destructive forces of a strike can inflict deep tissue wounds and shatter bones. A strike, striking and striking out are all terms associated with the horse using the front hooves to kick. There are different forms of striking, each depending on the level of threat, and the amount of force the horse needs to apply. In the last article we saw that a horse starts with gesturing by raising one front hoof, this would be the same as a boxer raising his fists, the gesture is both defensive and threatening. If neither party backs down, then the only course of action is to use those fists, or hooves in this case.

Low Level Striking

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This action is applied with three hooves remaining on the ground, with the fourth aiming to inflict damage to the shoulder or front legs. Low level striking is more likely to occur when each horse is facing one another for a number of reasons. To start with, this would be the next stage after hoof waving, so it’s a natural progression, the hoof is already locked, loaded and ready to be used. Another reason is universal for any species, in that energy should not be expended uselessly. A serious wound to the shoulder or leg at this point could render the opponent incapacitated, and the fight would be over sooner rather than later.

Low level striking can also occur when a horse is attempting to kill or maim predators such as snakes, coyotes and even crocodiles. In this case both front hooves can leave the ground and quite literally pummel the intended target. In theory this action could still be thought of as striking, but stomping would actually be a more descriptive term.

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Image credit – photographer Rob Palmer  (the dog survived)

This particular manoeuvre causes catastrophic injuries due to the speed that stomping can occur, along with the full body weight of the horse bearing down on its intended target. Furthermore the forward action of the horse will result in all four hooves trampling its prey, finishing by kicking out with the back legs as the horse moves away from the animal. It is very unlikely an animal without the speed and agility of a dog would escape unharmed.

Mid-Level Striking

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With both front hooves off the ground the horse is partially rearing, and putting more body weight into the downward motion of the strike. Damage can be inflicted with either or both hooves simultaneously. The opponent’s defensive response would be to also rear to avoid injury to the head and torso. Thus, the fight escalates to full rear high striking.

The High Strike

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While many animals display deimatic behaviour as a defensive mechanism, it’s more likely the horse is standing (rearing) in this image to not necessarily to look larger but to utilise its front hooves, while attempting to avoid the opponent’s hooves. Additionally the posturing and attempts at intimidation was initially demonstrated pre-fight, but to no avail. Each, at this stage, will attempt to be higher than the other. The horse using his weight in the downward motion post rear is also used to inflict injury. So while the horse is attempting to strike at the full rear, he also has the opportunity to use his teeth and hooves while bearing down on his opponent, powered by the full weight of his body. Therefore it is important in this case, to be higher than the opponent, to both avoid, and to inflict injury.

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Next Time – Biting!

Further reading – Part 1

The true nature of horses, peace loving or formidable killing machines?

Images: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell

 

The true nature of horses, peace loving or formidable killing machines?

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 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 with a romantic caption…

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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 pre-curser 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, 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, at least with the same level of severity.

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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 absolute 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 however, probably a bit battered, but will generally survive to fight another day.

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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 behavior.

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Next time – When intimidation becomes physical!

Images: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell

Paddocks-When Size Matters

When strolling through the undulating landscape of Dorset recently, one particular right of way cut its way through a very large paddock. I entertained myself by trying to guess the types of horses that had been here. The field had been poached over winter, because even in May the grass looked decimated and was littered with discarded spoilt hay. This now empty field would have been a winter paddock, but I wondered at this decision. This was a steep hillside with beautiful views of the sea, but battered by the winds coming of the English Channel, yet there was no shelter, either natural or man-made. Ten minutes later I spotted a large barn which was flanked by smaller paddocks, much smaller paddocks. One particular paddock was approximately the size of 2 tennis courts, and I counted 9 thoroughbreds in there. Ears were pinning, tails were swishing and noses were curling as they jostled for space in an attempt to graze peacefully. Again, I wondered at this decision.

Continue reading “Paddocks-When Size Matters”

Why Do Horses Jump Rider-less?

We have all seen the videos in which a rider falls while show-jumping, and the horse continues to jump the fences. Most of the comments will have a very positive outlook on such an event. Most people will agree it’s because the horse loves jumping and has been trained well. The more ignorant comments will suggest that the horse is attempting to finish the competition without the rider. Actually, a well-trained confident horse would stop jumping once the rider has fallen.

Continue reading “Why Do Horses Jump Rider-less?”

The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 4

#11 Buy a horse you already know

Many riders go on to become horse owners after sharing or loaning a horse. However I am not talking about loaning with a view to buy here, as that is something very different. But a rider that has been financially contributing to the upkeep of someone else’s horse for some time, without the sole intention of ever buying it. Usually however, it is common that when such an opportunity arises, the sharer advances into horse ownership. This would actually be the most recommended path to horse ownership in my humble opinion. The rider would already be aware of  the horse’s personality and level of training, experience and confidence. They should also (hopefully) understand the work and cost involved in the upkeep of the animal. Experience would have been gained in dealing with the farrier, dentist and vet, and of course the animals dietary and exercise needs.

Continue reading “The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 4”

The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 3

#8 Try out the horse yourself

When one particular family with limited horse knowledge asked for my help to try out a horse for their daughter, I was happy to oblige. On riding the animal in the arena I achieved 3 good paces before taking it for a hack through a wood. Even when jumping a fallen tree, the horse behaved impeccably. He was alert and forward going, and I saw no evidence he had been given a special treat to make him subservient. The teenage daughter of the family rode the horse in the arena after I had finished, but only at walk. After the horse was vetted and bought the family complained it would buck with the daughter. Again I rode the horse, and again he behaved impeccably. Later that day I received a phone call to say the horse had bucked yet again, and the daughter had fallen.

Continue reading “The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 3”

The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 2

#5 Do not overlook the veteran horse

Do not be deterred from buying a horse that is over 12, 15, 18 or even 20 years old. If the animal is fit there is no reason why such an age should matter, or even be relevant. A 20 year old horse will hunt, show-jump, hack or even compete in dressage for example. Horse care has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades. They are afforded better dental, farrier and vet care, as well as improved feed and supplements, both of which can contain essential herbs and minerals to maintain good health. Most yards insist on fastidious worming programs, and flu and tetanus jabs. Manufacturers of equine consumables strive (and compete) to improve the quality of bedding in term of reducing dust and maximising absorption. Frankly put, there has never been a better time to be a horse, and 20 could be seen as the new 10!

Continue reading “The Realistic Guide To Buying A Horse Part 2”