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Horse Play: An indicator of positive emotional experience and relevance to training

By Professor Nat Waran

For years, researchers have grappled with the interesting question of why animals play. In humans, play is something that may be seen more in children, but is ritualized in sport and can take place even from the comforts of an armchair when playing games on electronic devices. Interestingly there appears to be no universally agreed function or standardized way to define play, but it is apparent that play in humans and animals has survived the pressures of natural selection and is an almost universal trait in mammals. There are a number of proposed functions which include; development of; social skills, motor strength and co-ordination, behavioural flexibility and cognitive development.

So, it seems that it is not enough to just say that playing is fun and that engaging in play makes you happy – rather that for play to be maintained through the evolutionary history of a species there needs to be a definite function for this apparently frivolous behaviour. What is clear from all of the research, is that most young animals play and many continue to play right the way through to adulthood despite the pressures they experience with finding food, reproducing and surviving.

The majority of published studies on animal play have concentrated on carnivores, such as cats, where play is considered to be a functional process for acquiring and refining predatory (hunting) skills. Early researchers documented activities such as pouncing, chasing and stalking in kitten play and described these play behaviours as being essential for practicing the motor skills as well as mental abilities needed for hunting real prey later in life. The question is if play behaviour has evolved to enable certain species to develop their hunting skills, why do herbivores such as horses play, and do the various forms of playing we see in our domestic horses have a role in developing more than just important social and survival skills. Is play behaviour a sign of positive emotions such as happiness and pleasure and do horses view any of their training/handling interactions with humans as a form of play?

Play behaviours are performed right from the early stages in the horse’s life. Early development is a serious business for a foal, they stand up, find the dam’s teats and colostrum/milk and start to follow all within the first few hours, at which time there is no scope for playing, with all of the energy being needed for early survival. During the first week of life the mare and foal spend approximately 90% of their time within 5 metres of each other with the mare repeatedly leaving the foal and moving short distances away, and the foal following, however over the next few weeks, we can see the mare and foal spend more time apart, and the foal spending more time with other young foals in the group, until by the age of one year the youngster may be grazing for approximately 44 minutes per hour alongside the rest of the herd. One of the main pressures for survival is the need to feed. Feeding on low quality forage in the natural environment takes up a large chunk of the day, and horses can spend up to 16 hours moving along with the head and neck lowered whilst foraging (grazing). The time spent on this activity will vary depending on the animal’s physiological and reproductive state, the time of year, available forage and weather conditions. In some environments, horses have been found to travel up to 80 km looking for food and water, and even when kept on restricted pastures, horses are estimated to move around 20 km each day. Even though there doesn’t appear to be a lot of time left for playing which uses up energy at a time when the young horse needs to grow, studies have shown that play is an essential component of the healthy development of the foal and play behaviours have been recorded in foals as young as only a few days old. Play whether alone or with others is something that is important enough for a horse’s well-being to have evolved and be maintained even in the most difficult of natural circumstances.

What we do know from studies of equids living in more natural environments, is that in horses, play occurs most frequently in younger animals, with colts performing more than fillies. At first young foals play by themselves and with things they encounter as they follow the dam, but they soon start to play with other foals – running, frolicking and chasing each other and play fighting. A horse wanting to play may invite another horse to join in by nudging, nipping and pawing at them and tossing their head. This sort of signaling is seen in other species, just think of the play-bow used by dogs who want to invite other dogs and indeed humans to play. So important is play that some young plains zebra stallions have been reported to leave their birth herd earlier than would be normally be expected if they have no playmates, and will look for playmates in another band of horses. Although there have been relatively few studies of play in non-domestic equids and where recorded this has generally been anecdotal, social and solitary-locomotor play have been recorded in Hartmann’s zebra foals and also in captive juvenile Przewalski horses as well as in free-ranging and feral horse populations in the UK and USA. In these groups, most was recorded as social play behaviour with activity patterns including; play fighting, neck wrestling and chasing and with solitary-locomotor play including gambolling, high speed turns and sudden stops. In the new Forest in the UK, free-ranging ponies have been seen playing with sticks and worryingly at litter left by picnickers.

For domestic horses kept more intensively, various studies have shown that a pasture based management systems for foals is superior to more intensive restrictive management systems due not only to the recognised advantages of social interaction with other mares and young foals but also the physical gains due to increased and varied locomotion, especially play, in early development. One of the impacts of the pressures of producing horses as early in the season as possible, as is the case in the TB racing industry and many sports horse registration schemes, is that in some climates, it is difficult to persuade breeders of the social, mental, physical and thus welfare advantages of these pasture based rearing systems, where young horses can engage in activities such as play, which is so important for their development.

In fact when given the opportunity, horses engage in a range of play activities involving each other and a lot of movement (social-locomotory play) and/or solitary activities such as picking up and moving various items in the field or stable (object play). Social and object play has been recorded in both juvenile and adult domestic horses, although less frequently than in foals, who similar to other species, show the most play behaviours. Social play, as well as behaviours such as mutual grooming, are necessary for maintaining important bonds and ensuring cohesion amongst groups of horses. In other social animals, play has been described as a very effective method used for defusing situations that could lead to aggression, which could result in physical costs such as energy use and body damage as well as a break down in the social system.

One question, is if our horses view any of the training/handling we do with them as play and if making training more like playing will help rider and horse to establish a better relationship. There are certainly a large number of websites and training techniques claiming that play training is possible and that the word ‘work’ should be replaced by ‘play’ when we are considering what we do with horses. However is this really what is going on? It is really difficult to know what is going on in the horse’s mind. Do they see us as playmates – do horse’s enjoy their training interactions with us, or are we wishful thinking. We enjoy our time with them and so we want it to be the same for them.

Although there is much anecdotal evidence, there is very little scientific work to back up the notion that horse’s actually enjoy interacting with humans during training. What we do know is that in the wrong circumstances, horses can establish a problematic relationship with their human caretaker, especially when not provided with clear guidance with respect to appropriate behaviour. I have observed people ‘playing’ with their horses and ending up being injured due to the horse making the wrong associations and responding accordingly. One such example was of a lady who liked to play with her horse by feeding him a polo from her mouth, who ended up with a bitten nose! In the literature, there are reports of foals that have been hand-reared and who become too familiar with humans, and then are more difficult to handle and train later in development. Often they show play responses which may in a foal seem quite charming but not as they mature. For example, colt play can be quite rough – biting at knees, chasing and kicking out – none of which is safe or desirable when around us slower moving humans. Indeed there have been some studies that have described how these orphan foals can start to show sexual behaviour to their human carers – which suggests, that at least some of play behaviour is associated with learning about courtship signals and responses.

Then again there are most likely to be activities that the horse and its rider do enjoy better than others – and its not hard to think of these as involving times when the horse is able to behave more naturally – such as being ridden with other group-mates in an open environment perhaps whilst all cantering together. However there is no doubt in my mind that intensive training for performance where horses are regularly drilled and required to exert themselves beyond what they would choose, and situations where training and being handled/ridden is confusing, all make for a negative experience.

Certain well known trainers have proposed that we should consider how we can try to make play a part of what we want our horses to do. It is certainly an attractive aim, and one that requires careful and objective thought. Horses do play with objects, and so using targets, balls and other such items as part of training might be stimulating in the same way as solitary object play is for many free-living horses. In the same way, making use of the horse’s desire to chase, jump and show high arousal postures such as passage, when enjoying the company of other horses, might help shape training approaches that are more about seeking pleasure and bonding. Examples of the use of such techniques can be found in some in-hand training methods, such as found in ‘clicker’ training (where horses associate the sound of a metal clicker disk with a food reward) and target touching (often seen in the training of sea-mammals). Horses can be trained to follow a target and this can then can be used to introduce unfamiliar (potentially fearful) situations or to train them to do specific tasks like loading into a horse trailer. The problem is that much of the locomotory play responses such as leaping in the air, gamboling and chasing are usually suppressed as part of traditional training since they are considered to be unsafe and not under the rider’s control and it is doubtful that the horse views jumping with the rider on its back, or dressage as an outlet for this sort of play. Whether racing or cross-country might satisfy some of this sort of play response is difficult to decide given the various other stressful factors that might be involved such as being ridden to the finish and in the case of cross-country competitions, the fact that the horse is expected to go off alone.

Whether we can find effective ways of making play out of work is a hard one to answer, but if we are to place the horse’s welfare first and foremost then it is beholden upon us to ensure that horses have an outlet for play and that we try to ensure that our interactions with them are not just enjoyable from our viewpoint but also are in keeping with their natural behavioural needs. It is clear that an absence of play behaviour is a sign of a horse that is not in good shape and in humans, we would seriously consider if we had got our ‘work –life’ balance right.

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