In the wild, animals generally fall into one of two categories: predators or prey. Predators (those who hunt or “prey” on other animals) will often fight when threatened, whereas prey animals (those who are hunted) usually resort to flight (running) in similar situations.
Horses are prey animals who travel in herds for safety, listening and watching each other for cues about outside threats. Much of their behavior boils down to their instinct to protect themselves in situations they feel are threatening.
What do horses consider a threat? To even a domesticated equine, anything from a human making a sudden move around them to other horses galloping to a piece of litter fluttering in the wind can seem suspicious. When in doubt, their instinct tells them to flee or, at the least, lash out.
That’s why it’s important to watch a horse’s body language for cues. Some horses—especially hot-blooded breeds like Thoroughbreds and Arabians—might be more skittish or easily “spooked” than cold-blooded types, such as draft horses. But there are certain behaviors to look for in all equines.
First and foremost, be aware of a horse’s blind spots. Always approach them in a way that allows them to see you, speaking softly to them as you do so. To approach from behind is to risk getting kicked, as this could easily startle a horse who can’t see you very well at that angle. So as a rule of thumb, never do this! Even when bandaging a horse’s tail or brushing a back leg, it’s best to stand off to the side (as far out of “kicking range” as possible) and keep talking, so the horse knows you’re there.
Speaking of kicks: Squealing, kicking with their back feet and striking out with their front feet—often with ears pinned back against the neck—are typical social behaviors among horses when they are first introduced. However, they are not acceptable behaviors around humans! If you see a horse pin its ears around you, it usually means the horse is grumpy or unhappy about something (such as having his girth tightened). He could even lunge and bite if you’re within reach, so pay attention!
Be aware, too, that horses are gregarious by nature. This means that they prefer to be near other horses (in the safety of a herd) rather than be alone. If you’ve ever had a horse try to gallop back with you to the barn after a trail ride, that is likely the reason: He wants to return to his buddies. Instinct again! For this reason, horses should generally be turned out within sight of other horses, even if they’re divided by a fence line.