A Mare's Complicated Trick or Something Else?

A Mare's Complicated Trick or Something Else?

Horses are always learning (or unlearning) based on our responses to their behaviors.

Photo: iStock


 My 7-year-old Thoroughbred mare grits her teeth, turns her head sideways, and sticks out her tongue. She usually exhibits this behavior when waiting to come in or if I am standing by the fence. Is she looking for a treat, or is she just impatient?

Beth Fischer, via Facebook

A. It’s hard to know what initially prompted this particular set of behaviors in your mare, but my best guess is that she’s basically self-taught herself a rather involved “trick.” It sounds like some of the time when these behaviors have been performed, she has been taken into the barn or given a treat. Voilá! She has received positive reinforcement for said behaviors.

Many horse owners are fairly good at understanding their reinforcement schedule when it comes to teaching a horse what they want or expect (e.g., to accept clippers, to respond to halter pressure, etc.), but sometimes we forget that the horse is always learning (or unlearning) based on our responses to their behaviors. Here are three articles that explain how horses learn:

If you’ve ever watched a dog or horse (or other animal) who’s become keen for clicker training, sometimes it’s amazing the complex behaviors they will offer up in their attempt to get the click and receive a reward. And if the reward happens after gritting the teeth, turning the head sideways, and then sticking out one’s tongue, that horse might very well offer up that set of behaviors up again and again.

Since you mention the teeth grinding (gritting), there is another cause I suggest considering: Does your mare show any indications of having gastric ulcers? For example, is she sometimes a little slow to begin eating? Has she had off-and-on bouts of colic? Has her attitude recently changed? I’ve heard several veterinarians discuss that they sometimes see seemingly odd behaviors in horses, and it will turn out they’re working with a horse bothered by ulcers.

If there doesn’t seem to be a health-related cause to your mare’s behaviors then to be honest, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned about the behaviors. However, if you would really like this combined behavior set to go away, you will have to be sure she does not get brought in or given any snacks in close timing to her expressed behaviors. Most sequences that are not rewarded will eventually extinguish themselves.

One final thought: Depending upon the degree of repetition displayed, your mare might have also developed an “abnormal repetitive behavior” or “stereotypic behavior.” However, that was not the impression I had from your initial query.


About the Author

Camie Heleski, PhD, MS

Camie Heleski, PhD, MS, is an instructor and adviser in the University of Kentucky equine science and management program. Previously, she worked at Michigan State University, where she was the two-year horse management program coordinator for 25 years. Her applied research interests include equine behavior and welfare, horse-human interactions, and working equids in the world’s developing regions. She’s currently president of the International Society for Equitation Science and has served as scientific chair for the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Canadian equine welfare code committee. Her equine research and outreach efforts have taken her to Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Egypt, and Mali. She enjoys dressage with her Arabian gelding, MSU Ducati.

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