General Horse Information
"Horse, you are truly a creature without equal, for you fly without wings & conquer without sword."
The Koran

General Horse Information

Behavior & Communication
Colors & Markings

The Senses

The horse personality is made up of a number of deeply ingrained instincts that were acquired in the process of evolution. The horse, like humans, possesses the five senses: taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. However, in the horse, these five senses are far more developed. Furthermore, the horse has a sixth sense, a heightened perception, which is apparent in their species but rare in ours.

Little is known about the horse's sense of taste, although we know that it is associated with touch and that it plays an important role in mutual grooming. We presume that horses like sweet things, and feed manufacturers add sweeteners to their products to make them more palatable, but there is no proof to support this assumption.

The sense touch is more relevant to our understanding of the horse. It is used as a means of communication between horses, and between humans and horses. The act of grooming is one example, and in riding the horse, much of the language of the aids is concerned with touch. The leg, for instance, exerts small pressures on the receptor cells on the horse's sides and the hand communicates by touching the mouth through the rein and the bit. The whiskers on the muzzle evaluate by touching objects that the horse cannot see, such as the contents of a feed bucket. Inexplicably, it is the practice to trim off these whiskers for fashion's sake, thus depriving the animal of a natural faculty.

A horse's hearing is far more sensitive than our own. Indeed, its head may be likened to a receiver served by the large, enormously mobile ears that can be rotated to pick up sounds from any direction. The horse is particularly responsive to the human voice, probably the most valuable training aid. Combined with a firm, soothing hand, the voice is effective in reassuring and calming the horse.

Smell is similarly acute and, like hearing, plays an obvious part in the defense system, enabling horses to recognize each other and probably their home surroundings too. It is suggested that the sense of smell may be related to the horse's pronounced homing instinct, its ability to find its way home. Horses can smell human odor and by this detect any nervousness in the handler. They are particularly sensitive to the smell of blood. Smell also plays a large part in their sexual behavior.

Equine sight is unusual in many ways. The horse's eye is large in comparison with that of other animals, such as pigs and elephants, suggesting a heavy reliance upon sight. Unlike humans and other animals, the horse focuses on objects by raising and lowering its head, rather than altering the shape of the eye's lens. Much of its ability to focus on objects in front depends upon the position of the eyes. Placed on the side of the head, as in many heavy breeds, there is wide lateral vision but much poorer frontal vision. In the riding horse such a conformation would be an obvious disadvantage. All horses, as part of the defensive mechanism, have a degree of lateral vision, and are able to move the eyes independently. Indeed, when grazing, the horse has all-around vision without needing to raise or turn its head, and it is quite possible that it can see something of its rider. Although not nocturnal, the horse can see quite well in the dark due to the size of their eyes.

There are numerous examples of horses demonstrating an almost inexplicable perception. The reluctance of horses to pass reputedly haunted places is well-documented. They also have an uncanny ability to sense impending danger and they can be hyper-sensitive in detecting the moods of their handlers and riders.

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Behavior & Communication

Horses have a sophisticated language of communication, which involves physical and tactile signals, or body language, such as the laying back of their ears and mutual grooming. Smell is also an important form of communication: the animals produce and receive pheromones, smell messages, which are produced by the skin glands.

Foals instinctively recognize the smell of their dams. Members of a group are identified by what may be a corporate odor. Smell also plays a significant part in sexual behavior. The pheromone sent by a mare in estrus (season) is a clear message to the stallion that she is ready to mate. She also sends physical messages, the flashing of the vulva, for example, and the adoption of the mating posture when she holds the tail to one side. She communicates just as clearly if she is not ready to accept the stallion's attentions, by baring her teeth and attempting to bite or kick him. She may further indicate her displeasure vocally by squealing. Though horses are not as territorial as other animals, stallions do scent-mark their territory with urine over the urine or feces of mares within his group, sending a clear message to outsiders that the mares are part of his harem.

Stallions check the reproduction cycle of mares by sniffing their vulva and urine. As the mare approaches estrus, the stallion becomes excited and indulges in a form of foreplay. He licks the mare and engages in tactile stimulation, which may be accompanied by flehmen, the curling back of the lip. Flehmen is not always associated with sexual excitement. It can be provoked in both sexes by strong and unusual smells and tastes, such as garlic, lemon or vinegar.

Horses can communicate vocally. Squeals and grunts are usually signs of aggression or excitement. Snorts are made when horses see or smell something that interests them or something that is potentially dangerous. Horses whinny for separated companions, and may whinny out of excitement. A mare will whicker softly to reassure her foal, and both sexes make the same noise in anticipation of being fed or receiving a snack. Some horses even learn to attact human attention by whinnying loudly if their feed is delayed.

It seems certain that humans do communicate unconsciously with horses by the smells they exude. Frightened people and even aggressive ones too, give off odors that reveal their state of mind to the hypersensitive equine, either causing it to become apprehensive or aggressive, depending on whether the animal is of a recessive or dominant nature. Old-time horsemen smeared their hands in aromatic fluid when dealing with young or difficult horses. The saying "a bold man makes a bold horse" is revealing of the horse's hypersensitivity and another example of communication between the species. Horses sense their rider's moods and react accordingly.

Horses also communicate through the closely related senses of taste and touch. They do so when they groom each other, thus creating a friendly relationship. Humans seek to communicate or introduce themselves by touching and patting horses. In fact, it might be more effective to do as horses do and blow into the nostrils. Grooming is another way to communicate with horses and it builds up a relationship between the two.

It is not difficult to understand that a horse standing with a hind hoof rested, head down, ears held slightly back, lower lip hanging and eyes partially closed, is in a relaxed state. The posture of tension is equally easy to interpret. Horses that turn their quarters to humans who enter their stalls are sending an unmistakable message. Stamping a hind leg, shaking the head and/or swishing the tail are signals of irritation.

Horses' ears give crystal clear messages. Enormously mobile, they can be rotated at will, controlled as they are by 13 pairs of muscles. Their positions reveal the horse's state of mind. Pricked firmly forward, they indicate a strong interest in some object and a corresponding lack of attention to the rider. When relaxed or dozing, the horse lowers the ears and allows them to become flaccid. When laid hard back, they indicate displeasure, temper or aggression. Twitching, mobile ears are comforting to a rider for they assure him that the horse is attentive.

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Colors & Markings

The coat colors originate in the genes of the breeding stock. A total of 39 genes can appear in many combinations, and these are responsible for the characteristics, including the coat color. In horses, gray dominates black, bay and chestnut; bay dominates black; and chestnut is recessive to all colors. If one parent is gray and the other is bay then the foal will be gray, since gray is dominant. A bay gene and a chestnut gene will result in a bay foal because the chestnut gene is recessive to bay. The foal of that union will produce sex cells, half of which contain bay genes and half chestnut. If two such animals were mated, it is possible that the two chestnut genes would be united and the progeny would be chestnut. Chestnut horses must have two chestnut genes in each cell, therefore, the mating of two chestnuts always produces a chestnut foal. The color of foals is not necessarily constant - Lipizzaners are born black and mature to white. Doubtful cases are decided by the color of the hair on the muzzle. Horses are described by their coat color, with further identification being made by the white markings on the body.

Gray: Black skin, with a mixture of white and black hairs.
Fleabitten: Brown specks of hair fleck an otherwise gray coat.
Dapple-gray: Dark gray hairs form distinct rings on a gray base.
Palomino: Gold coat, white mane and tail, with a minimum of black
Chestnut: Various shades of gold, from pale gold to a rich, red gold.
Liver-chestnut: This is the darkest of the permissible chestnut shades.
Bay: Reddish coat with black mane, tail and points.
Brown: Mixed black and brown in coat, black limbs, mane and tail.
Black: Black pigment throughout, with occasional white marks.
Strawberry-roan: Chestnut body color with white hairs interspersed.
Blue-roan: Black or brown body with a percentage of white hair.
Dun: Yellow, blue or mouse, depends on diffusion of pigment.
Spotted: This coat is often referred to as Appaloosa coloring.
Skewbald: Large patches of white on another base color.
Piebald: Usually irregular, large patches of white and black.

References: The Ultimate Horse Book, Elwyn Hartley Edwards; Horse Health Care, Cherry Hill


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