Ethology is the study of the function and evolution of an animal’s behaviour in its natural environment. Why should ethology be an important consideration for veterinarians? Being familiar with the norm allows the veterinarian to know when they have been presented with the abnormal
– this is the case whether we are considering physiological or behavioural parameters. Understanding not only what is the normal behaviour, but why a certain species of animal has developed its repertoire of behavioural responses can often be invaluable in determining the root cause of many problems, or even preventing them from arising. The modern horse fulfils a variety of roles in today’s society and few, if any, truly reflect its natural state. Our current methods of equine management mean that many of our horses are being kept in more alien environments than, for example, many ruminants. Ruminants tend to be kept for most of their lives in herds and often out at pasture, which may be considered similar to their natural environment. Unlike the dog, another social domesticate, the horse does not live with us as part of our group, and while many horses have the opportunity to socialise to some extent with their own species, many are not kept in their natural state as part of a herd or constantly out at pasture.
This paper gives a short review of the role of the horse in its natural environment and community, and its adaptations for survival in that role; it will include feeding behaviour; social behaviour and communication; as well as reproduction and developmental behaviour. The implications of modern equine management practices will be discussed within each section.
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