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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *

Introduction to Behavior of Horses

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Research Associate, Psychiatry Department, Center for Neurobiology & Behavior, University of Pennsylvania

Behavioral medicine is the scientific study of everything animals do, whether the animals are insects, birds, mammals, fish, or humans. The field of animal behavior is concerned with understanding the causes, functions, development, and evolution of behavior. Behavior refers to the actions or reactions of an animal. Behavior is controlled by the endocrine and nervous systems. The complexity of an animal’s behavior is related to the complexity of its nervous system. Generally, animals with complex nervous systems have a greater capacity to learn new responses and thus adjust their behavior.

An animal’s behavior is influenced by many factors. Some of these factors include genetic predisposition, experience and learning, environment, and physiology. The amount and type of human handling (especially during the first days and months of life) and exposure to novel stimuli can influence a horse’s behavior and character. The brain and its associated neurotransmitters also play a fundamental role in temperament and behavior. Abnormal levels of various hormones may play a role in aggression and fear. Regulatory functions of the brain decrease with age, which results in an increase in fears and anxieties.

Understanding the nature of behavior problems is essential to developing a rational basis for their treatment. While this section focuses primarily on the abnormal behavior of horses, the extent to which a horse’s behavior is abnormal is defined by its deviation from “normal” or by the problem that this behavior poses to its owner.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *