Horse Play

I have a report to do for science class on animal behavior (middle school, fifth grade). My teacher, Mr. Brennan, said to pick a favorite animal species and a favorite type of behavior. My favorite animals are wild horses, and my favorite behavior is play. But do horses ever get to play? My mom and dad said you might know. Can you send me an answer right away? I have to do my report next month.


Sounds like Mr. Brennan is a great science teacher. Mom and Dad were right, I can answer your question. But as you know already, the magazine answer would not have been published in time for your report deadline. So I know you already got my e-mail answer and the photos in time for your report. Glad you got it done and in on time. Thank you for letting me share the answer with The Horse magazine readers.

All of the horse family (equids)--including horses, zebras, Przewalski horses, donkeys, and their relatives--play. At least it sure looks like play to everyone who observes it. The play is more common in young foals than in adult mares or stallions, just as it is more common in kids than in grown-ups. Adults seem to be busy doing other things most of the time, but the bachelor stallions play wrestle, with a rough-and-tumble sparring. They also chase each other in a playful, rather than serious, manner. The harem stallion, or "dad" in a breeding family group, often plays with the foals, yearlings, and two-year-olds of his group. The moms seem busy eating grass and making milk for the foal. They rarely are seen doing anything that looks like play.

Behavioral scientists have classified play behavior into two main types:

1) Solitary play (one animal playing alone, like running, jumping, exploring, frolicking, or playing with objects);

2) Social or group play (with one or more companions of the same species).

Young, healthy, normal horses, like the other mammals, all do solitary and social play from as early as the first day of life. Foal play can get pretty funny to watch. Each animal seems to have a personality that is evident in its play. It's not difficult to imagine some youngsters "teasing" others.

Another fun aspect of animal play in all species is that anything new in the environment often sets off play just like it does in people. This is very true with horses. Just take something new into a field, like a paper bag or a block of wood, and watch the youngsters all mob in to investigate it and "see what they can do with it." Or when the weather changes, say the first snow, all the foals start frolicking in the snow. On hot summer days the foals and youngsters in our herd here at the University often can be found playing in the water in the pond or the stream. They splash with their hooves, roll around, and chase each other in the water. They dig muddy holes on the edge and get covered in black mud.

In our studies, play is one of the main activities of young foals which have companions in the herd. If they are alone, they play with natural objects like tall grass or blowing leaves. We have seen them chasing butterflies and wild Canadian gosslings. Man-made items are particularly attractive play objects--like a stray piece of baling twine or a soft drink can tossed over the fence. They play with anything we take with us to the field, like the camera bag, camping chair, or cooler. They mostly paw and chew.

For your report, you can read a lot of good material about animal play in general, and find examples of horses. One of the first animal behavior books I ever read was one called Animal Play Behavior, by Robert Fagan. It was published in 1981 by Oxford University Press in New York. On the cover, it has a picture of an old silk handscroll depicting cats playing. Horses are one of the featured species to describe play in mammals in that book, and there are many good pictures and descriptions of horse play.

There is another great little book called Animal Play by Marc Bekoff and John Byers that was published in 1998 by Cambridge University Press in New York. On the cover, it has a photograph of a baby African elephant trying to initiate play with an older juvenile who's napping. Those books can tell you quite a bit about the science of play, including the various types of play, why play is important, age differences in play, and the effects of nutrition and environment on play. You can read about why animals, just like kids, don't play when they are sick.

Also, your library might have some videotapes of television documentaries about horses. In the part where they show the foals and juveniles, you usually can see examples of play behavior.

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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