Natural Behaviour

Section 9 of The Animal Welfare Act 2006 for England and Wales states that an animal needs to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

To meet a horse’s emotional and physical needs the management system must encourage natural behaviour and any training must be done without inducing pain or distress.  


Horses are social animals that, given the opportunity, graze for 16-18 hours a day and roam over a large home-range. As such the ideal management system is for horses to be turned out 24/7 in a suitable environment, which includes adequate shelter, appropriate ground (e.g. hard-standing available), appropriate acreage for the number of horses kept, additional care of horses where required (e.g. rugs, supplementary feeding of hard feed and/or additional forage) and so on. In cases where groups of horses are kept, appropriate protocols for introducing horses should be followed and sufficient resources for all animals provided.  Where such management systems are not available, owners should explore how they can encourage natural behaviour given practical constraints. For example:

Stabling: Where stabling is used to manage horses we promote enrichment (for lots of ideas see this article)  and ideally social housing (see below). Also thought can be given to other aspects of the stable environment – for example ensuring that the stable is an appropriate size for the animal, that there is adequate ventilation, appropriate bedding material, and a comfortable temperature.

Behaviour doc[“Normal” facilities can be adapted in order to increase welfare.]
Social housing: The ideal social housing is a barn management system in which a well-socialised group of loose horses share a large covered area ideally with freedom to come and go. However, where this is not possible then social interaction can be encouraged by modifying a stable block so that there are ‘windows’ in the sides of individual stables allowing social interaction or simply allowing horses that are turned out together to also be stabled next to each other.

Diet: The diet must meet not only the nutritional needs of the horse but also the behavioural needs. Therefore high-fibre diets with ideally ad lib access to grazing, hay or haylage is recommended (with due consideration to any veterinary constraints such as management of animals prone to laminitis). The way the food is presented can also be taken into account – for some horses hay nets cause frustration for example.

Preventative veterinary treatment: Part of good horse management is ensuring that the animal is up to date with vaccinations, appropriate measures are taken to avoid a high worm burden, the teeth are checked regularly etc. Behaviour problems are often rooted in pain and so it is vital that owners are vigilant and observant of the animals in their care so that appropriate action can be taken quickly.  Handling and day-to-day interaction: Finally, to best ensure that a horse has a good quality of life the day-to-day interactions with human carers must be based in compassion and consideration. If a horse is fearful of people and not fully habituated to aspects of management then his/her welfare is compromised as they struggle to cope with day to day life. As such when going about daily care, the horse’s perspective should be taken into account. For example, is the horse comfortable with having his/her legs hosed down or is some time required to gradually introduce the procedure? Is the horse anxious of building work on the yard and what could be done to help them cope with it?


Section 4 of The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal.

How horses learn and respond to training is a field gaining increasing investigation and is leading to a better understanding of the effects of different training methods. Owners are encouraged to learn about different ways of handling horses and avoid methods that work due to inducing pain or fear. Good horsemanship involves breaking down tasks into small steps and taking one step at a time. If the horse shows any signs of fear, confusion, or frustration the cause should be sought before resuming or changing the training programme.


Horses should be handled quietly, with care and patience to avoid injury, pain or distress. Handling and restraining devices must be used humanely and with regard to the horse’s natural movement, behaviour, temperament and physical capabilities. They should only be used by sensible, competent persons.

All tack and handling equipment should be maintained in a good, clean, functional condition. Expert advice should be sought regarding the fitting of new saddles or harness considering that a high percentage of behavioural problems are rooted in discomfort or pain, often caused by ill-fitting tack.

All horse clothing should be fitted correctly, to avoid slipping or rubbing and causing discomfort by any means and to avoid the risk of entanglement.


Restraint should only be applied for the period when it is actually required. The restraint should be the least severe, yet most effective method available, appropriate to the need.

If chemical restraint (i.e. sedative drugs) is needed it must only be prescribed and administered either by a veterinary surgeon or on their specific instruction for that particular animal and the particular circumstances. Sedatives should not be used as a substitute for good horse management and it should be noted that horses are unlikely to learn from a situation if sedated for it.

Behaviour Problems

Sometimes horses develop unwanted or abnormal behaviours and when this is the case it is important that advice is taken from an appropriately qualified professional.