• Kathryn Hulland

Fight or Flight

Most of us have heard this used for animals and in particular the horse but did you know there are four F’s – Fight and Flight plus Freeze and Fidget about….

These are the four responses an animal may have when faced with a threat and are known as the Four Fs, often reduced down to “the Fight or Flight response”. Of course there’s so much more to it than that.

“Fidgeting about” is normally the first behaviour a horse will show, this splits into two further behaviours – appeasement or displacement. A horse may show these behaviours first but we may not notice them and so the horse then has to escalate its behaviour. Look out for signs of submission like mouthing, or the horse doing something out of context, weaving. I see videos of horses showing behaviours where they are obviously stressed and trying to show this and yet people have filmed laughing saying look at the horse “dancing” or look at the horse pulling that “funny face”. What they should be doing is thinking why is my horse doing that, it’s obviously stressed, in pain, unhappy…. something is wrong, what can I do to make my horse’s life better. It is not normal behaviour – I would be distraught if I saw my horse displaying some of the behaviours I see getting shared about on Facebook.

If the owner does not make things better they run the risk of escalating behaviour too which may be less manageable and more dangerous; the horse may resort to flight or fight to get out of a situation.

Fight is when the horse my kick, bite, rear – any kind of aggressive behaviour; then Flight when the horse may bolt, spook, be “on his toes” as he wants to run but is trying to listen to the human.

Finally we have Freezing which is as it says, you may see a horse turn to look at something and freeze, the whites of the eyes may show and they will be tense an on high alert with ears pricked.

When looking at how to make things better for the horse we should consider the horse’s individual Resource Holding Potential (RHP). The concept of RHP came from Geoff Parker a Professor of Biology, it is a description for the ability of an animal to win if an “all-out fight” took place to keep themselves in the best possible position for their needs. How much energy and “fight” goes in to this very much depends on the availability of resources. Horses that live in a stable herd work together and work out their RHP and this is then generally respected by the rest of the herd members, a twitch of the ear is enough for one horse to move on if another horse wishes to graze in a certain area and their RHP is higher and they know their position. Each individual’s RHP may be different, so one horse may value shelter over food and another food over water. This may result in one horse being the first to drink before the rest of the herd but not first to the food. If there are plenty of resources there is likely to be very little aggression within a herd. Just because a horse may have a high RHP for food does not mean he will always win, much depends on how strong they are and the strength of the others in the herd, a horse with a very strong RHP for food may lose if he is older and against say a 7 year old fit stallion for example. However if plenty of resources are available the herd will look after their members including the sick ensuring they get the resources they require – though if say there was a drought the resource is more important and so this may change which is why it is important for the horse to keep in the best physical and emotional condition. Additionally a horse with a high RHP for food may decide not to force the issue to an all-out fight aware that it is better to “live another day”.


To keep in good condition the horse needs to act out certain behaviours, if they are unable to this may affect their ability to fight for a resource that is important to them when needed; it may also affect their ability to deal with a threat. For example a horse without a pair bond may get less REM sleep and so not be at full peak when required.

Take what I have said about RHP into consideration and think about how we keep our horses. It is nothing to do with dominance, this is an old theory, it is to do with how the horse has evolved over 50 Million years to survive, how only for a small proportion of that 50 million years they have been domesticated, around 6000 years; and only very recently have they been kept and managed in the way we do now. It’s a lot for 50 million years of evolution to cope with.

When your horse has a problem try to put it in context with the above and understand its needs. Out in the wild the horse is normally able to live in a herd, have a pair bond, breed, play, eat and drink when they choose, regulate their own temperature and not have their valuable

senses and signalling behaviours taken away by rugs, muzzles, radios etc. They can act out all natural behaviours normally in a large range. The herd is the same and relationships are established and so there is an understanding of each of the herd members’ needs; as a result as mentioned above a twitch of an ear from one horse to another is enough for a horse to move away – because they know each other. Our domestic horses do not always have this luxury. Their needs are met by us and they will inevitably have history – a pony rescued from starvation is likely to have a much higher RHP for food and so be more aggressive to other horses to enable him to obtain the food first, especially when he does not know them or have consistency. We see more aggression in our domesticated herds because they rarely get the opportunity to just live out together, there is no continuity to keep a peaceful herd. There are many changes to the herd with horses leaving and new horses being introduced. We restrict their food – a haynet may last an hour, during a 12 hour period of stabling this is not enough as the horse should ideally be grazing for around 18 hours a day. A horse may not feel safe because they have not been able to find a pair bond or if they have formed such a relationship when stabled this horse is removed. I often come across horses who suffer from a lack of sleep as they do not feel safe enough to get the REM sleep required and lay flat out.

We take choice away from our horses it is therefore our responsibility to make their lives

the best we can by giving them as many options as we are able. This may mean we still have to stable them but when we do we ensure their pair bond is in sight and we make their stable a better environment with food hidden to seek out, enough hay to last the time they are in the stable etc. It is rare we can offer a horse the existence they would have in the wild – in fact this is probably impossible as we want to interact with them, but in understanding the four Fs and the RHP of our own horses we can make life so much better for them.

Most behavioural issues with horses, and many physical issues, are down to how we manage them and so taking the time to watch our horses, learn about them, find out what their RHP is will enable us to manage them better and make them happier.

Feeling safe is the highest priority for a horse and if they are unable to feel safe nothing else is likely to fall in to place – does your horse feel safe? It never ceases to amaze me just how much horses do for us even when in a high state of anxiety and so it can be overlooked.

Let’s try to listen and observe more then change things for the better – they deserve it!

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