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Submissive gestures

From: Nikki

I am currently studying the submissive gestures of equids, while on my professional training year at the Anthrozoology Institute at Southampton University, Southern England. This is during my third year of my zoology degree, and involves videoed observations of Chapman's zebra, Grevy's zebra, and Kulans in a zoo. I'm also studying New Forest ponies at a stud, and out on the forest. Shortly, I hope to start working with thoroughbred and warmblood horse.

I am particularly interested in the use and context of snapping (also known as champing, mouthing etc), 'licking and chewing' and head-lowering. Snapping is commonly believed to be a submissive gesture, but work by Crowell-Davis shows that foals and yearlings, snapping to older mares and stallions, often did not stop aggression, or sometimes provoked it.

I have also repeatedly observed a 7 year old Chapman's zebra stallion snapping back at his own 10 month old foal, when she came up and snapped at him. If this is a submissive gesture, why is a stallion using it to his own foal?

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has any views on submissive gestures in equids, particularly the above mentioned gestures. Also from anyone who has observed a stallion or gelding snapping, or any equid snapping in unusual circumstances.



Hi Nikki! 'Snapping' is the gesture that most horsemen would call "chewing" -- a term that is no more accurate, technically, than "snapping", but which does have fewer aggressive connotations.

This gesture, in which a foal extends its neck and opens and closes its mouth while pulling back the corners of the lips, is generally understood to mean one or more of the following: fear, nonagression, submission. It's seen more often in colts than in fillies, but it can be observed in almost any foal confronted with an unfamiliar or aggressive horse. By performing this behaviour, the foal is apparently saying "Don't hurt me, I am just small."

I've seen this in some older horses -- weanlings, yearlings, and even two-year-olds that have been placed in nervous-making situations, near horses that they do not know. Rarely, you will even see a young horse at the racetrack will be seen to make this gesture toward another horse in the paddock or in the post parade; if you Do see this, don't put any money on the horse making the gesture. He will NOT pass that other horse.

Some older horses will, on occasion, respond to a foal's 'snapping' by mirroring the gesture. I have never seen or heard of a mare doing this -- but it can be seen, occasionally, in stallions. Others, both stallions and mares, will sometimes chase away a foal that is 'snapping' at them, although it is never clear whether the older horse is reacting specifically to the 'snapping' or whether it simply doesn't want to be bothered with a foal in its face. I tend to believe the latter, especially since mild aggression -- chasing (for a few steps), biting (small nip) or (light) smacking behaviour -- can be observed in many older animals of many species in response to an importunate baby animal. With horses, the aggression is not usually very pronounced -- it's more "Go on, get out of here, shoo!", perhaps accompanied by a nip, than "Run for your life!", accompanied by overtly aggessive biting or chasing.

Of course, if the older horse was not properly socialized, and does not understand the foal's 'snapping', all bets are off.

Older horses don't generally offer this behaviour, although it can occasionally be observed in a horse that was raised separated from other horses, and never really learned about the equine social order or how to communicate within it.

Like other forms of language, gestures are subject to use and misuse. A horse or other equid that is raised in a herd consisting of male and female animals of varying ages, will easily learn how the social system works and precisely what his place is in the herd hierarchy. For a well-brought-up young equine, manners come easily -- its mother and aunties and uncles make the requirements of polite living VERY clear. Such a young horse will have a clear idea of what is acceptable what isn't, what is appropriate and what isn't, and which behaviour to bring out under a certain set of circumstances. This, incidentally, makes training such horses an easy and pleasant task! They understand the concept of a social order, they understand and accept discipline, and they have learned how to learn.

Horses that have been weaned early and then raised in peer groups don't have as clear an understanding of how they should behave and where they fit into the group -- but that isn't their fault, it's the wrong sort of group, and a group of yearling colts (especially colts that have been running together since they were weaned at three months) are uncannily reminiscent of a gang. ;-)

Horses that have been raised alone, perhaps bottle-fed and brought up by humans, are often pathetic in their inability to communicate adequately with other horses. These are the horses that are overjoyed at the sight of other horses anywhere, and these are typically the horses that will become injured, sometimes very badly, if they are turned out into a field with other horses. They are clumsy and inept in their attempts to make friends, and the other horses will often regard them either with the distaste that some humans reserve for people who "act crazy", or with outright aggression.

As for "licking and chewing" and "head lowering", these are almost always signs of relaxation. A tense horse will tighten his mouth rather than relaxing it. The same goes for head lowering -- a tense horse will tend to lift his head, so as to see better -- if and when he relaxes, the head will lower and the muzzle will relax (and the horse may initiate the licking and chewing behaviour as well).

I hope you'll keep in touch -- you're working in an area that interests me very much.


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