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How Horses Play
 By Winniefield Park   •   14th Mar 2017   •   2,326 views   •   0 comments


Horses spend most of their time eating. In fact, about two-thirds of their day is spent searching for and ingesting food. Their sleep time is very short compared to ours. While most of us function well on about eight hours of sleep, most horses will sleep for only about three hours of the day. Some horses seem to sleep only about two hours out of 24. And, that sleep may be done in short segments and rarely at night unless they feel very safe and secure. The rest of their time may be spent traveling, especially if they are feral or wild and just hanging out socializing. While most horses spend most of their time attending to the business of living, many will take some time out for play.

Play behavior is most often seen in young horses. Foals will often gallop, kick out and rear up with and at each other. Foals are curious about their environment and their explorations of new objects they encounter can look like play. Foals will also Ďplayí with their mothers. They may look like they are being sassy as they nip kick out or shadow box at mom, and even rear up against her. While itís fun for us to watch these antics, for the foal, play isnít just a way to pass the time. Some important things are being learned along the way. They are learning body awareness, the boundaries of their environment, and in interactions with other horses, what is and is not acceptable horse behavior.

As they get older, horses usually become less playful. In older horses what looks like play can be blowing off energy. When you let them loose itís not unusual to wake up and stretch their muscles with some galloping and rough housing. This is what youíll see when you turn horses out in a pasture after a night of being stabled. And itís what you like to see them do before you saddle up and get on.

Older horses do indulge in play other than galloping and bucking off pent up energy. Many of us have experienced the frustration of broken halters and ripped turnout blankets that can happen when horses play tag over the fence. Two or more horses might play by kicking at each other, nipping and rearing, play acting the moves of two stallions sparring. These bouts of play fighting donít get serious, and it will usually be the same pair or group joining in the shenanigans, while their more sedate herd mates look on.

There are horses that stay playful throughout their lives. These horses will play with objects they find in the pasture. They love to splash in ponds or even the water trough. These are often the culprits when it comes to the halter and blanket destroying games. Any item that isnít firmly secured can be used as a toy. Buckets and feed tubs can become projectiles. And, they may love to pick up and carry anything they can get their teeth on. Donít leave manure forks, saddle pads, brushes or anything else within reach because they will collect them and trample them into the mud. Brooms, whips and other items will be brandished and dragged, sometimes terrifying their herd mates. These are the horses for whom things like playballs, tug toys and creative salt and treat dispensers were made for.

There has been a small amount of research into horse play and explored something called neonatancy in horses. Neonatancy is the carrying through of juvenile characteristics and behaviors into adulthood. We often find Ďbaby-facedí horses appealing, and it might explain why the Arabianís profile is so attractive to many of us. The tendency of some horses to be playful might be a sign of neonatancy too. And, this youthful curiosity and playfulness might be useful to us, or we can learn to work with a lack of playfulness in the horses we care for or train. Either way, acknowledging and perhaps encouraging or accommodating horse play helps us provide healthier environments for our horses, and certainly provides us with great entertainment.
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