Horses Research

How Do Genetics Affect a Horses Behaviour?

Did you know some behaviours in horses are inherited rather than learned? What does it mean to you and your horse?

A large part of a horses behaviour is learned, but did you know there are some behaviours which are determined by genetics?

These include:


Horses’ eyes see independently to the front, side and rear at the same time. They have good sideways vision, which is why a horse may shy, when a rider least expects it, at something glimpsed from the corner of its eye.

Horses have blind spots both to the front and rear, making it difficult to focus on objects directly in front. To bring an object into focus, they must raise and lower their heads. They are believed to be colour-blind and to have difficulty distinguishing small objects such as rabbits or birds, but they are highly sensitive to sudden movements.

Hearing and Smell

Both of these senses are well developed in the horse. Horses can hear tones higher than humans can, and may be frightened by a noise that the rider does not notice. Sudden or loud noises are especially upsetting to horses, while calm gentle voice tones are pacifying and will generally elicit a good response.

On windy days, horses often become unsettled because they cannot hear or smell the usual sounds and scents. They can become unsettled by unfamiliar scents. When a colt is introduced to a saddle and blanket, it should be allowed to smell the new objects for the first few times it is saddled.

Skin Sensitivity

Horses’ skin is highly sensitive, especially at the mouth, feet, flanks, neck and shoulders. This makes these areas useful in training and handling. Some horses are more sensitive than others and extra care must be taken when grooming them.

Memory and Learning Ability

Horses’ brains are very small for their size and their behaviour is governed by instinct rather than reason. They are considered to have a very good memory which is why they can be trained and remember what they have learned. They learn through a system of repetition, rewards and correction (conditioning and shaping). To ensure successful conditioning, the rewards or corrections must be given immediately after the action because the horse will not connect the behaviour with the trainer’s response if there is a delay between them.

Herd Instinct

Horses in the wild band together and each horse has its’ place in the social hierarchy. A single leader exerts authority over the other members of the herd. This instinct to look for and defer to leadership allows trainers to exert control, providing that person gives clear, consistent and calm instructions and handling.

The herd instinct also means that when a new horse is introduced to other horses, it must be watched carefully because the horses may injure each other while they try to establish their place in the hierarchy.

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