Equine Behaviour

An excellent course that will provide you with a sound understanding of equine behaviour.

Course Code: BAG216
Fee Code: S3
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Understand how horses think

 ..... and apply this to better manage horse behaviour

When dealing with certain aspects of equine behaviour that we consider to be difficult or problematic, we need to determine where this behaviour has come from.

We know that horses all have the same behavioural patterns, inbuilt from their wild ancestors. There may also be characteristics that horses can display that we perceive to be dysfunctional or expressions of the horses personality. We can try to identify these by asking questions such as:

  • How does a horse learn or develop certain patterns of behaviour?
  • How much of it is innate and how much is environmental?
  • What are the causes for the development of vices?
  • How do these horse-specific patterns of learning impact on my role as the owner/trainer?

Understanding the flexibility and limits of behaviour is essential to improving both the horse's welfare and its performance.

Student Comment: "[The course] was more in-depth than I thought it would be and it was information that I could apply with my own horses. The feedback was very helpful and it was information that could only have been gained from experience with horses. My tutor would always answer any questions that I have and always had something positive and helpful to say!" Paula Grima, Australia - Equine BehaviourWhy study Equine Behaviour?

Lesson Structure

There are 7 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction: Influences and motivation
    • What is an equine?
    • Why study equine behaviouir?
    • Scope of equine behaviour
    • What motivates behaviour?
    • Categories of behaviour - reactive, active, cognitive
    • Species behavioural differences
    • Learned behaviour and learning ability
    • Other influences on behaviour
    • Behavioural differences between breeds
    • Related terminology
  2. Genetics and behaviour
    • Inborn, innate or inherited?
    • Understanding the basics of genetics
    • Effects of the environment
    • Heritability, epigenesis, interaction between species, survival
    • The importance of inborn behaviours
  3. Perception and behaviour
    • How do animals perceive things?
    • Imprinting
    • Types of stimuli
    • Stimulus filtering
    • Equine perception and behaviour
    • Sensory perception - horse verses human
    • Sight, taste, smell, touch, sound
    • The body language of horses
    • Fight or flight
    • Terminology
  4. Communication and social behaviour
    • Animal societies
    • Social constraints and herd membership
    • Signals of communication - chemical, tactile, visual signals
    • Social organisation - home range
    • Maintenance behaviour
    • Play behaviour
    • Lack of equine company
  5. Sexual and reproductive behaviour
    • Sexual strategies
    • Normal sexual behaviour - stallions, mares, mating, birthing
    • Foal imprinting
    • Normal maternal behaviour
    • Abnormal sexual behaviours - stallions, mares
  6. Learning and training
    • Conditioning and learning
    • Shaping, extinction, habituation, instrumental learning
    • Thorndyke's Law of Effect
    • Operant and respondent behaviour
    • More aspects of conditioning - pseudo-conditioning, interoceptive conditioning, temperol conditioning
    • Biological aspects of conditioning
    • Cognition and learning
    • Associative learning
    • Obedience, reinforcement, punishment
    • Reinforcement schedules
    • Flooding, Systematic desensitisation, exhaustion, punishment, habituation, counter conditioning, join-up/follow-up
  7. Behavioural Problems
    • Abnormal behaviour
    • Types of abnormal behaviour in horses
    • Diagnosing behavioural problems
    • Domestication
    • Stress
    • Stereotypes
    • Stable vices - crib biting, wind sucking, weaving etc
    • Prevention
    • Ridden vices - shying, tongue over bit, head tossing, rearing, bucking etc
    • Handling vices - leading, unwillingness to be caught, etc.
    • Transporting horses - problems during loading, horse trailer requirements

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Identify factors affecting equine behaviour.
  • Describe the influence of genes on equine behaviour.
  • Explain how horses perceive and how they respond to various stimuli
  • Explain how horses communicate and the nature of their social organisation.
  • Explain the sexual and reproductive behaviour of the horse.
  • Describe the different ways that horses learn and how this can be applied to the training environment
  • Explain how and why behavioural problems occur and how they can be prevented

How Do Horses Perceive their Surroundings?

Studying equine behaviour begins with looking at the way a horse behaves instinctively in the wild. Instinct is an inborn and natural automatic reaction to stimuli. These instincts are so strong that they survive to this day in our domesticated horse.

Wild horses evolved over millions of years from an ancestor (eohippus) about the size of a dog that browsed on leaves to the modern horse (equus caballu) that grazed, roamed and lived as a very gregarious animal.

Very few truly wild horses exist today. Most “wild” horses are actually feral and are descendants of domesticated horses that have been allowed to revert back to living wild. These feral horses such as those in the Camargue or the Brumbies in Australia have provided many insights into the instincts of our domesticated horse.

The main instincts of the horse are geared towards survival and survival in the wild depends on an efficient early warning system provided by the sensory systems.

Horses are Not Human
If you are to manage horses well, it is important to recognise that they are not human. They perceive things differently to us.
No matter how much affinity develops between a horse and it's owner, horses remain animals and their behaviour patterns are not human.
Horses are motivated differently, think differently, and act differently.
It is important to recognise the differences that exist between man and animal.


  • Total field of vision is larger than in humans.
  • The field of three-dimensional vision is smaller than humans
  • Three-dimensional and accurate distance vision are less developed than in humans
  • Close-up adaptation is less developed than in humans
  • Vision in dim light is significantly better than in humans
  • Horses adapt more slowly to rapid changes in brightness
  • Colour vision in horses is similar to vision in red-green colour blind people


  • Horses have a greater reception capacity of sound waves than humans
  • Horses hear high frequency sounds better but are worse at hearing low frequency sounds


  • Horses sense of smell is much more developed than that of humans


Why study Equine behaviour?

The study of equine behaviour provides a foundation for more sensitive and informed care and training of horses

  • Studying equine behaviour can help you understand your horse's behaviour, and work more effectively with its inherent nature. 
  • It is assumed that all equine behaviour is an adaptation designed to support survival, either directly or indirectly. However, this is not always the case. Horses can behave self-destructively, out of habit, or out of boredom, just as humans can.
  • To better understand equine behaviour, we need to consider what motivates it.
  • Studying equine behaviour will also give you scope if you are working in this industry or hope to - many people study the basics of horse care but not as many understand equine behaviour to an in depth level. This course will place you ahead of many others in this field.

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Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.
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ACS is an organisational member of the Future Farmers Network.
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UK Register of Learning Providers, UK PRN10000112

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Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Jade Sciascia

Biologist, Business Coordinator, Government Environmental Dept, Secondary School teacher (Biology); Recruitment Consultant, Senior Supervisor in Youth Welfare, Horse Riding Instructor (part-completed) and Boarding Kennel Manager.
Jade has a B.Sc.Biol, Dip.Professional Education, Cert IV TESOL, Cert Food Hygiene.

Dr. Gareth Pearce

Veterinary scientist and surgeon with expertise in agriculture and environmental science, with over 25 years of experience in teaching and research in agriculture, veterinary medicine, wildlife ecology and conservation in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Post-graduate qualifications in Education, Wildlife Conservation Medicine, Aquatic Veterinary Studies and Wildlife Biology & Conservation.
Gareth has a B.Sc.(Hons), B.V.Sc., M.A., M.Vet.S,. PhD, Grad. Cert. Ed.(HE), Post-Grad.Cert. Aq.Vet.Sc., Post-Grad. Cert. WLBio&Cons., Dipl. ECPHM, MRCVS.

Lyn Quirk

M.Prof.Ed.; Adv.Dip.Compl.Med (Naturopathy); Adv.Dip.Sports Therapy
Over 30 years as Health Club Manager, Fitness Professional, Teacher, Coach and Business manager in health, fitness and leisure industries. As business owner and former department head for TAFE, she brings a wealth of skills and experience to her role as a tutor for ACS.

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