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Play Behavior in Horses

From the My Horse University Horse Behavior and Welfare Course

The primary categories of horse behavior are:

  • Ingestive (eating)

  • Eliminative

  • Investigative

  • Social Facilitation (Allelomimetic)

  • Vigilance

  • Care-Giving (Epimeletic)

  • Care-Seeking (Et-Epimeletic)

  • Sexual

  • Agonistic (Aggressive)

  • Contactual

Understanding the “normal” behavior of a horse will help you to know whether your horse is behaving normally or not. This knowledge will help you determine the appropriate management plan for your horse. While behaviorists will discuss equine behaviors using similar terms, there may be some variation in the categories used. Some behaviorists may place more emphasis on certain behaviors due to how important they judge their significance to the makeup of the horse or management strategies for the horse. Play behavior can be included as a primary behavior, based on its importance and variety in young horses.

Types of Play Behavior There are several types of play behavior—object play, play fighting, locomotor play and sexual play. Play is considered important for the good welfare of a horse, especially in juveniles. It serves several functions such as enhanced fitness, practicing survival skills and building social relationships.

Object play involves playing with something, e.g., a young colt who enjoys playing with a ball when stalled. Play fighting is often done by young horses, particularly colts. Sexual play often starts at a very young age; even suckling colts may be observed engaging in mounting behavior with their dams. Locomotor play is simply the exuberant release of energy that can be seen when horses take off running across a field for no apparent reason, or when a fresh horse bucks a few times on the longe line.

Here is a young colt engaging in sexual play with his dam. The skills learned during these early play encounters may be important for later life.

This video shows mares and foals playing in a pasture. Play is generally characterized as activities with no obvious purpose, but which seem to bring pleasure to the animal.

Conclusion While play behavior is observed more in foals, it can also be seen in juvenile and adult horses. Initially, colts and fillies may spend similar time at play. As the horse ages, the males demonstrate more play behavior than the females. Environment may play a role in horses exhibiting play behavior. The chance to socialize in a herd and the ability to run at will all provide more opportunities for horses to initiate play behavior. Providing play objects for stalled horses or horses housed alone may help enrich their environment. Additional Resources

Goodwin, D. and C. Hughes. Horse Play. 2002

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