HORSE PLAY! Aggression or play fighting?


Undestanding your horses behaviour.

Your horse gives you hours of entertainment so maybe it’s time you returned the favour and gave him the opportunity to have some fun….Have you ever been watching your horses and been quite horrified to see your horses ears flat against his head, snaking his neck towards his field companion and grab a mouthful of mane between his bared teeth, if so it can be quite disturbing to see this seemingly aggressive behaviour your horses display to each other…. is your natural instinct to separate them?

If only as owners we realized that there is no malice behind these movements and our horses are just play fighting, if only we knew that this extreme behaviour signals a close bond with his companion rather than a serious conflict.

As owners we can often mistake play behaviour for squabbling, when in fact, it is a sign of a healthy relaxed horse. Play fighting allows your horse to practice defensive moves ready for that elusive day when he might be cornered by a predator. Although to us his need for this behaviour is redundant due to the environment and care we give him, his natural instincts are still strong and in his mind, being good at play could one day save his life.

His behaviour may look rough but in practice horses rarely injure each other, as this would upset their social group. Only mal adjusted horses that have never had the opportunity to play are likely to cause any real trouble.

Play and social games such as chasing each other develops and strengthens herd stability and pair bonds. Many of the games they play help individuals to be accepted into the heard and assess who has the potential to become a heard leader. By testing each others boundaries when at play, serious confrontations are avoided and the stability of the group is maintained. So next time you see boisterous behaviour in the field, try not to jump to the wrong conclusion, your horses are just having fun.

Playtime is a lifetime need

All horses have a strong desire to play; even a day old foal displays this by skipping and leaping. Foals practice galloping and making sharp turns, pulling facial expressions and trying to wave their tails, by repeating these adult behaviours they are learning important skills for later in life. Adult horses are usually very patient with playful youngsters and put up with endless amounts of nibbling, biting and mounting.

A horses need to play doesn’t diminish as he grows older and horses that play together regularly become experts at reading each others body language. A stabled horse who rarely has the opportunity to play finds it difficult to read this refined body language, so when turned out, he may show deprivation by galloping and bucking enthusiastically, inventing games for himself in the stable like playing with his water bucket, if really frustrated he may even resort to some abnormal vices like crib-biting. A horse that hasn’t developed the skill of play when he is young may also have difficulty mating in later life because his ability to communicate through body language hasn’t been sufficiently developed.

Horses palying 2
Patterns of play -  Horses are born knowing how to play and you will recognize three patterns of behaviour.

The nip and shove
Horses nip each other around the neck and head and lean their bodyweight against each other in an effort to get the other to move.

Chase and charge
Two or more horses will canter or gallop in a specific direction, when you watch this, check to see if the horse at the back is using driving behaviour to initiate the chase.   

Pair-bond play
Two horses will show nip and shove behaviour with the necks overlapped as if they were grooming each other. This behaviour often follows a grooming session and shows that the two horses have established a close bond with each other.

horse playing 3
Action packed
Watching two horses play is fascinating. They exhibit extreme behaviour that you would only normally see between two fighting horses, usually a very rare sight. Take notes on how your horses initiate play, which patterns they follow and who seems to have the upper hand.
  1. Are your horses in close contact after following a grooming session?
  2. Is one of your horses pestering the other around the head?
  3. Has one of the horses escalated to nipping and the other using his bodyweight in attempt to avoid these antics?
  4. Has one horse been provoked into action and joins in the play fight which escalates into many sequences of moves which are repeated, showing nip and shove?
  5. Is the nipping focused around the neck area and one horse retaliating against the others attacks?
  6. Is one horse keeping the upper hand through the play fight causing the other to bow or paw the ground in annoyance?
Rules of the game
  • Behaviourists have noted a list of rules that govern horse play. Remember that play only occurs when horses are relaxed. If they sense danger or feel at all uneasy, play stops abruptly.
  • A horse may signal his wish to play by opening and shutting his mouth, this is especially common amongst young horses. Once they start to play the mood is infectious and others will join in. There is no clear end to the play unless the horses sense danger.
  • Horses use sequences of behaviour when play and these patterns can be repeated many times.
  • They are careful not to injure each other, although their behaviour might seem rough to us, it rarely oversteps the mark in equine terms.
  • Play can be influenced by the weather; Horses are unlikely to play in hot temperatures as they feel lethargic, while the stimulus of lightening will encourage them to play. Very strong winds will suppress play because the horse’s perception of danger is reduced and the need for shelter is greater. 
Play objects
You’ve probably seen your horse playing with an inanimate object, brushes from the grooming kit, lead ropes and other stable toys, although these will keep him amused for a short time, they can not replace the hours he would spend playing with a close companion. A great solution to keeping your horses occupied (in addition to spending time with his companion) is to make him a toy box, fill it with toys that are safe for him to pick up; he won’t be able to resist investigating as long as the contents are regularly changed. Keep an eye on your horse as he unpacks the box and remember to make sure that all objects are safe and you supervise your horse while he plays.Groups of horses also have fun palying with objects, especially if they can pick them up. You may even see one horse imitating another, especially in pair bonds.

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