If you’ve spent any time with horses, you’ve probably been nudged – possibly quite hard! Sometimes its obvious why, but a lot of the time there seems to be little or no reason. This can be a confusing, frustrating or even painful behaviour – so we asked equine vet Avice to investigate…

What do we mean by nudging?

For the purposes of this article, we refer to nudging as the behaviour where horses will use their nose and head to push us. This can range from gentle nuzzling to a forceful push. Or in other words, a mild, playful behaviour which can escalate to something that can be extremely dangerous. Horses will investigate objects by nudging, but we will not cover this here. 

Why do they do this?

There are a number of possibilities, depending on the situation.

They want us to do something for them:

The most common reasons for nudging to be directed towards humans are usually to gain attention or seek a benefit. This could be anything from an itch that needs to be scratched, to a desire to search our pocket for food.

Clever Hans, the counting horse

Possibly the most famous example of a horse’s ability to interpret and respond to subtle cues from humans was Clever Hans, the counting horse. The public believed that Hans was able to do basic arithmetic, or even general knowledge questions; while in reality he was following cues from his owner. Interestingly, mares have been shown to be better at interpreting body language in humans to ascertain if they are attentive or not. This possibly stems from the fact that older mares tend to be the members responsible for promoting social adhesion in their herd. This innate ability to read visual cues starts at an early age as it may be inherited or learned early in life. 

As already mentioned, horses tend to use tactile gestures such as nudging to get a response from us. Convincing evidence exists to show that horses can modify their mode of communication based on the attentiveness of their human; and will increase their behaviours based on the response given. One particular experiment demonstrated that horses are extremely capable of determining whether or not their owner is paying attention to them or not, based on cues such as eye position or body language. 

Another small study even found that horses are more likely to use visual attention seeking cues when their owner’s eyes were open and more tactile efforts such as nudging or pawing when the owner’s eyes were shut or the horse felt that the owner was not looking at them. This is why ignoring a horse to reduce attention seeking behaviour doesn’t always work immediately because the behaviour is already ingrained by operant conditioning where, in the past, the horse has learned that nudging leads to a reward. 

They may be in pain:

A small study that induced mild pain and discomfort on a horse to measure behavioural response, showed an increase in attention seeking behaviours, such as nudging, pushing or mouthing in horses experiencing mild pain. This is a difficult area to study, as it is hard to study pain without causing it; which is something we try to avoid doing. But, in general, the most usual response to pain is to withdraw and avoid attention. Anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that some individual horses with medical conditions such as mild colic or lameness may become more clingy towards their owners, but this would be unusual. If a horse is experiencing dental discomfort, they may be nudging us to try to alleviate that pain. 

They might be frustrated:

In some cases, horses will nudge us to get us out of the way so that they can get to where they want to be. It may also be in response to an upcoming unpleasant experience; such as a dewormer that they have spotted in our hands. 

 What can we do about it?

If this is a new behaviour, it is always worth speaking to your vet who can carry out a clinical examination of your horse; including a dental exam to rule out any physical reasons like pain or itching for a change in behaviour. Horses tend to be very honest in their actions, so any change in behaviour should be taken seriously. 

Providing alternative resources for horses 

This is always a helpful solution if we want to discourage them from a specific behaviour. If your horse constantly nudges to get a scratch and you would prefer them not to, you could invest in a scratching mat to meet their needs. (But please check with your vet if your horse seems excessively itchy). Similarly, if their main aim is to get food, avoid feeding from your hand or pocket. Instead offer a treat ball so that your hands or pockets are no longer the source. 

Experience shapes horses’ behaviour 

They will change according to the responses that they receive. However, bear in mind that they may not always interpret our responses in the way that we hope they will. Owners and carers have a huge influence, positive or negative, intentionally or accidentally. Undesirable behaviour like excessive nudging or biting is usually caused by unintentional reinforcement. So it is worth carefully considering how you plan to respond to the behaviour.

Punishment based training is no longer thought to be effective in these situations 

In fact, it may even make the matter worse as well as having a significantly negative impact upon the horse’s welfare. Punishing the horse directly for the behaviour can cause frustration and stress for the horse as they learn what NOT to do, but there is no offer of a solution or alternative for the unwanted behaviour. Positive reinforcement of the desired behaviour is usually more effective. Clicker training is an extremely useful way of training your horse to encourage the behaviours you want, for example, you could reward them for standing still instead of nudging. If you need help and advice on training your horse, your vet may be able to help or to direct you towards a veterinary behaviourist for tailored training.

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