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10 Things We Do That Puzzle and Scare Horses

10 Things We Do That Puzzle and Scare Horses

By Paul McGreevy

Horses, like our dogs and cats, are familiar to many of us, be they racehorses, police horses, or much-loved pony club mounts. So it might surprise you that horses, in Australia, are more deadly than snakes, and indeed all venomous animals combined.

An equine veterinarian is more at risk of workplace injury than a firefighter. Does horses' apparent familiarity lead us to misinterpret or misunderstand their behavior?

Some of our interactions with horses correspond to interactions between horses themselves. Giving our horse a scratch on an itchy spot or allowing them to rub their head against us, while frowned on by some trainers, mimics how horses behave together.

But there are many other interactions which, from the horse's perspective, are unusual or downright rude.

The culture clash between horses and humans can trigger defense or flight responses that can leave us badly injured. Here are ten common challenges we present to horses:

1. Invasive veterinary care

There are many veterinary practices we impose on horses to keep them healthy. Some of them, such as injecting or suturing, are invasive or painful. Horses' natural reaction to pain is to flee. If they can't, they may resort to aggression, such as biting or kicking.

Horses don't know veterinary treatments are meant to help them, and hence vets who treat horses are at more risk of injury than those treating other species. Equine vets sustain more workplace injuries than construction workers or firefighters.

2. Patting them

Many horse people routinely pat their horses as a reward for a job well done. But horses have not evolved to find this rewarding. They don't pat each other—instead, they scratch or gently nibble each other as a form of bonding.

A recent study showed patting increased horses' heart rates, whereas scratching lowered them and was associated with behavioral signs of relaxation and enjoyment.

3. Picking up feet, hoof trimming and shoeing

An important task in horse-keeping is hoof care through regular cleaning, trimming or shoeing. This requires us to pick up a horse's foot and hold it aloft for several minutes. This practice of immobilizing the hoof restricts the horse's ability to flee if it perceives a threat, which may be why many horses find hoof-handling stressful. Training a horse to accept having its feet and legs held requires patience to prevent injury to both the horse and the handler.

4. Grooming sensitive areas

Horses in groups regularly groom each other, favoring areas that aren't sensitive or ticklish. We like to groom our horses all over. Grooming the sensitive groin, inguinal and perineal regions is likely to be unpleasant for horses. This may account for the tail-swishing, agitation and even biting of the handler often seen when people groom these taboo areas.

5. Pulling or clipping hairs and whiskers

Many horse owners like to impose strict order on their horses' body hair, including pulling out "excess" hair from the mane and tail, and trimming or removing body hair, facial whiskers and the protective hair inside the ears. These activities are frequently resented by horses. Some European countries have banned whisker trimming altogether because of the importance of whiskers to horses in detecting the proximity of surfaces and foraging outside their field of view.

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