Horses Afraid of Other Species

Horses Afraid of Other Species


Q. This might be a bit off the wall, but I hope you can help. We have had horses here at our farm off and on over the years. Since all of the kids moved out and took their horses a couple of years ago, our barn has been empty. Just recently we decided to offer stalls and pasture to boarders. When our first potential clients stopped by to check out the place, they noticed that we have a pot belly pig that more or less has the run of the barn. We were surprised how much these people were put off by the little pig. The lady told us that it's dangerous to have pigs with horses. When I replied "Oh, really?" she explained that horses naturally hate pigs--so they shy or panic, or refuse to go forward when they spot a pig.

Have you ever heard of this? When we had our own horses, we didn't have this pig. I can't remember ever running into pigs anywhere we rode, so we really have no clue whether this lady is right. We never even considered it. Thanks for any advice you can give us on this.

Marcee and Albert

A. Yes, more often than not, horses that haven't been raised around pigs or have not had a chance to get used to pigs might have a fairly strong reaction at first. They blow and shy; some even panic. Most experienced horse owners interpret the reaction as greater than the reaction a horse would normally have to an unfamiliar species. For example, you also hear about the rare horse which has grown up without seeing a dog, deer, or cow, and is initially wary or fearful of those species. But they usually don't seem quite so fearful as with pigs. Another species that seems especially scary to horses are llamas. From time to time you hear about ordinary sensible trail horses flipping out when they first encounter llamas.

On the other hand, horses which are raised around pigs or llamas generally get along fairly well with them, as well as they would with any other familiar species.

People wonder whether perhaps the unique odors of these species play a role in horses' reactions. One fall, here at the University of Pennsylvania's research farm, some pigs were kept for a couple of months in a barn near pastures we use for ponies. The next spring when ponies were first in those pastures, the pigs were no longer there, but a noticeable swine odor remained. For the first few days in the pasture, we noticed that whenever the ponies neared the area of the pasture adjacent to the swine pens, some would shy and snort as if fearful, gazing toward the source of the remaining pig odor. They tended to avoid the area for a couple of weeks. That made me think that there might be something unique about pig odor. (Now that would make for a good student experiment, wouldn't it?)

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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