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Horse behaviorist Sue McDonnell addresses common questions from horse owners

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

On a recent segment on addressing horse behavior, Sue McDonnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist with the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine, explained why horses display certain types of behavior. 

“It is really interesting when we have a close relationship with our horse and we notice that it does certain things,” McDonnell said. “When it comes to unwanted or undesirable behavior, it is important to understand what the different causes could be. Otherwise, it could be an animal welfare issue.”

Interactions with other horses

McConnell said one behavior some owners may notice is when their horse chews and pulls on another horse’s tail. 

“Some horses find it entertaining, but others may do it because they are lacking something in their diet,” she explained. “I would consult with a nutritionist to make certain there isn’t something minor missing in the horse’s diet.” 

If owners find the habit irritating, they can invest in a grazing muzzle and modify it with a slightly larger opening, so the horse can’t get a hold of the other horse’s tail.


The animal behaviorist also addressed dominance in horses. 

One caller said she had five horses in a field, and it made her feel bad that one particular horse was obviously the low man on the totem pole and was constantly picked on. 

“Any group will have a pecking order,” McConnell explained. “Some horses will bully others. What is important is how we manage horses.”

“We need to make sure they have enough room, so they can get away. That is how they signal submission,” she added. “It could also relate to the way the horses are fed. They could be guarding what they perceive as theirs. We don’t see this as much in their natural environment.”

McConnell said this is particularly important when introducing a new horse.

“Most horses can get along with one another, eventually,” she explained. “It is important that they have enough space to get away from one another.” 

McConnell also encourages owners to observe their horses and distinguish between playful behavior and genuine dislike.

Aggressive behaviors

One horse owner was concerned because her horse runs at her with its teeth bared and its ears pinned back. 

McConnell said the most common reasons a horse would do this is to guard other horses around it or because of a food-related aggression. 

Another caller said her horses try to kill other animals, like chickens and cats, when they enter its pasture. 

McConnell said most times the horse feels it is defending itself and not much can be done other than to keep other animals out of the area the horse is in. Some horses may get to the point where they are not very fearful of the animal, and it is a game to them just to kill it, she explained. 

“Sometimes, they will take a bite out of it or even eat the whole chicken,” she noted.

Feeding regimen

“Many of these behaviors are because we only feed our horses two to three times a day, rather than allowing them full access to forage 24/7,” she explained. “Horses are trickle feeders, which means they are meant to have something always moving through their digestive system. That is probably why we have so many problems with colic and other digestion problems.”

“Most horses that are only fed twice a day have some degree of gastric ulcers, which makes them uncomfortable. As they anticipate feeding, it makes the juices flow more, making them even more uncomfortable,” she continued. 

If they are pawing excessively, McConnell recommends having them checked by a veterinarian. 

“They could have gastric ulcers severe enough that they should be diagnosed and treated,” she said.

As a result, some horses will start pawing at mealtime, because they are impatient. 

“The horse is anticipating something, but it can’t make forward progress,” she said. “They have to wait for their owner to get there.” 

McConnell added that in their natural environment, pawing can be a good behavior because it allows the horse to unearth grass beneath the snow or break ice covering water. 


Many horses also receive an inadequate amount of exercise, which can lead to them making circles in their stall or paddock. 

“In their natural environment, horses walk a lot – up to 10 miles a day while they browse for grass. It is important for digestion,” she said. 

When a horse is restricted to a smaller area like a stall or small lot, they may walk in circles to simulate their natural environment. McConnell said the walking could also signal stress in the horse and a desire to be with other horses. 

“If they are a stall walker, I would recommend putting a flake of hay in each corner of the stall. That way, they can take a bite and walk. It is natural for them to eat and walk because it aids in the digestion process,” she explained. 

When dealing with horse behavior, McConnell said it is important to remember that horses can’t speak to their human owners to tell them what hurts or what is bothering them. 

“Many times it is something physical. That is why it is important to have a trusted veterinarian who is willing to look into it,” she explained. “There is nothing more satisfying than finding a physical problem the horse has and addressing it.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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