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Over recent years our understanding of how and why animals play has improved massively. I was watching a documentary recently about animal play. It showed how many animals have their favourite play mates and that their age and sex could determine what games they played. This got me thinking about how and why do horses play.
Why do horses play?
Scientists understand that play is vital to all young animals. The games young animals play is teaching them skills they may need later in life. When the animals play these games, it releases chemicals in their brain, so as they play the same games over and over again, they are hardwiring these behaviours. This is no different in horses.
Horses are prey animals and their main defence is to run away. We see them practicing this behaviour from a young age you see horses running around, playing chase with their friends, moving away from a more dominant display and often moving as a herd, which makes them harder to pick off by a predator. All these things help keep them safe.
When they can’t run, or in the case of challenges for dominance, horses fight. This is where you see the rough and tumble horseplay. This can be anything from a threat, to a rear, to a bite and a kick. When horses play fight, the whole aim of the game is to get the other one to move. This play fighting also helps them learn vital social cues from other members of the herd.
It’s also not unusual to see young male horses starting to experiment with sexual behaviours such as mounting other horses. When this first starts happening, they aren’t driven by hormones the same way a stallion is. But when they do mount another horse, they will get a rush of chemicals in the brain which will encourage them to do it again.
Up until very recently, we didn’t believe that any animals played just for fun. However, in more recent years we have started to realise that more and more animals do play just for the fun of it. In horses I often wonder if object play in particular is just for fun. For example, I struggle to think of a survival reason why a horse would enjoy playing with a ball. So maybe where they have been domesticated with less things to worry about, they have turned some of this mental energy into playing with objects by themselves.
Do different horses play differently?
Research with apes has found that if you give them human toys, the females are more likely to play with dolls and the males are more likely to play with the toys aimed at boys. This suggests that there is a maternal drive in females which impacts their choices in play. This can also be seen in some level in horses.
Research has found that male and female horses play the same games. But that males play more than females. As they get older, most females stop playing, or play much less. Whereas males continue to play, just less often. This makes sense as in a herd, males will have to fight for dominance and see off rival stallions. So the more the play these behaviours, the more practice they have.
If you follow us on social media then you might have seen us sharing a survey about your horse’s behaviours. This was so we could do some of our own research into play and any differences we could see.
Being a small sample size, none of it is statistically significant. But I did see some interesting trends. Such as, geldings/stallions showed more play fighting and aggressive type behaviours than mares. I also saw a trend that hot bloods, ie: thoroughbreds and arabians, were slightly more social than other breed types, showing more social grooming and play.
Overall it seems that the main reason horses play is to help them understand herd life. Whether it be learning the signs to live alongside other horses in the herd or play fighting to learn how to defend your herd against another stallion. It also seems that males are more likely to show play fighting behaviours than females.