Why Ethology Should Be the Start of Every Rider's Horse Education

palomino and brown horses in a stall
Horses in stalls - a vastly different lifestyle from how the horse naturally lives outside of domestication.

I remember the exact moment that the idea to earn about horse behavior and psychology zinged into my mind. I was sitting in a cabana at beach resort 30 minutes from home in Florida, sipping a margarita. It must have been the deep relaxation, because it was the first time I had such a surprising epiphany. Why hadn't I thought of this before?

Well, I had started riding at the age of 9, had my own horse at the age of 14, worked as an assistant at a horse camp and thought I knew about horses. But I didn't, really.

What I knew was how to pick hooves, groom, tack up and get on a horse. I knew how to feed one, how to blanket one, how to make it go and stop. I knew how to swing a mallet next to its head while I rode it at a full gallop alongside and sometimes towards other horses and riders (never mind the fact that I usually missed). I knew mine (my first horse) liked to run for the trees, buck, spook and generally "misbehave". But sadly, the education that I really needed, and which was lacking, was a fundamental education in equine ethology.

Ethology, or the study of an animal's behavior in a natural (undomesticated) context, is sorely lacking in most horse riders' and owners' educations. And once I started learning, really learning about the horse, I became shocked that this knowledge has largely bypassed us. Let alone the learning theory and psychology bit, which are incredibly important for humane handling and training effectiveness. But most new riders and new horse owners aren't taught about how horses are supposed to graze 60% + of their day, that they need companionship of other horses, or that rolling is a necessary part of self-grooming (rather than an annoying habit that ruins the results of their recent bath). Even most experienced equestrians still think that keeping their horses stalled 24 hours per day is OK, because that's what's always been done. They were never taught that horses are meant to move and that free grazing is actually necessary for proper gut function, per their design.

Had I known about equine ethology, I would have understood that my first horse was massively stressed by his lack of equine companionship. I would have had a baseline to compare his domesticated existence to, in order to see that he was lacking in a major component of what ought to be a horse's life. Of course, I was 14. The internet was new to my household, and none of my instructors had taught me anything outside of how to saddle up and go.

But we're living in different times. There's been a huge rise in interest in natural horsemanship in the past (gulp) 2 decades and there's an opening up of knowledge thanks to the internet and the work of many popular trainers and scholars in the equine world.

If you want to know how to deal with something, you must first learn the nature of the thing. Ethology, in its most practical and everyday terms, provides us with foundational information on how horses live and act on their own without human interference, Having that as a baseline is essential to understanding why our horses colic (in some instances), seem nervous or stressed, or even develop behaviors like cribbing while in a domestic context. It helps us tailor our management practices to work with the nature of the horse, rather than try to force the horse into some arbitrary and inappropriate system we created.

Ethology should be part of the very first lesson that every rider receives before getting on a horse. It should be widely studied, not just by academics but by everyone who owns a horse, trains horses, runs a rescue or works with horses in some other capacity.

If we love the horse, we must be willing to truly get to know it.