Naughty Or Natural



Naughty Or Natural?

I have a little problem with my horse. My uncle is a veterinarian. He knows the behavior happens in other horses, too. He suggested that I tell you about the problem and see if you have ever seen such a rude habit and if you know whether it can be fixed.

This is the situation. My horse lives at a stable for old horses, not at our house. Our family has adopted him and pays for his care, and we go there to see him and groom him once or twice a week. I can ride him a little, but mostly I just visit him. It's really hard for me to explain, but this is what he does.

Whenever I take friends there to show him to them, he really tries to embarrass me and gross them out. What he does is trot right up to the fence as soon as we pull in (or to the front of the stall if he is in the barn) like he is really friendly and excited to see us. He loves carrots and kisses and pats on his nose. If you wiggle his whiskers, he does that laughing thing with his nose, like Mr. Ed. After a few minutes, he sorta gets bored and turns away a bit, always stands sideways to me and my friends, and does something really weird. First, he looks like he is going to go to the bathroom, but he doesn't really do that. He just "flashes" us. He waves his "thing" back and forth. It gets bigger and bigger, especially at the end. Then my friends say really wise comments about it and about him. Some people think it's really gross. Last Saturday, my older cousin said we should not look at it. She made everyone go over to the goats and chickens.

Why is he trying to do this to me? He doesn't do it when I go there alone, just every time he sees my friends. Once, when I rode him over to my one friend's house and stopped to talk to her brother and some other boys, my horse "flashed" them. The same thing happened. He was nice to them at first, then he stepped away and stood where they could see him. They laughed and started pushing each other around and scared him, and he stopped. My friend's parents came over to check it out. Next, my horse did it to them. My friend's mom asked me if that thing can be removed. To make it even worse, when he was starting up again, he popped them a woofy. Mom says I don't need to tell you or anyone else what my friend's father said that woofy meant.

Have you ever heard of this behavior problem? Can I stop it? I've yelled at him and he stops for a couple minutes, then starts again. The barn manager told me to get a big water gun and aim it right at it. She said the cold water would scare him more and work better than yelling.

To answer your first question, I have seen exactly the behavior you describe, including the whole deal of doing it "in front of company." I saw it the first time when I was about your age. My sister's old gelding Blackie did the same thing. We were similarly curious and embarrassed by people's interpretation that this was strange, rude, or kinky. Unlike you, we were afraid to ask any adults. Fate has been that in my professional career, this exact behavior has been part of my clinical and scientific research with horse behavior. So let me try to do as good a job of explaining as you have.

Everything your horse does might seem rude and deliberate, but this behavior is normal and natural. Male horses normally have what is called spontaneous extension and movement of their penis throughout the day and night. Each episode lasts a couple minutes or more. We're pretty sure it just happens automatically. They probably are not thinking about anything or trying to do anything. The behavior usually is naturally delayed or interrupted if the horse is excited, distracted, or busy. If the horse is busy for a long interval, when he returns to calm behavior, he might have several longer and/or more frequent episodes as if to "catch up." Related to this excitement-relaxation bit, no matter what a horse is doing whenever he experiences a burst of excitement or arousal to a more vigilant state, as soon the excitement subsides, this behavior almost always happens within a few minutes.

So for your horse and my sister's horse, that is exactly how things happen. When you visit with your friends, your horse trots up with excitement, gets his treats, things settle down, and there it goes. In fact, the same thing happens in a lot of usual horse situations, where we don't necessarily appreciate it, and it is easy to misinterpret it as rude or deliberate. Say in a show, where the horse is all excited, then stands quietly while you're waiting for the skinny judge in the navy blue suit to finally bring the ribbon. OOPS! Not again! Something extra for the photograph. Or when people come to visit a breeding stallion to size him up as a potential mate for their mare. The stallion is roused from his quiet stall, then has to stand quietly for the family history lesson. Oh no, not again! No matter how we or other observers feel about it, it is normal and natural and a rather good indication that the horse can relax around people and do natural stuff.

Now--your question about stopping it. In these situations, simply keeping the horse alert or distracted with a quiet little tickle under the foreleg or on the lip will usually delay the behavior. So, you could easily do that while your friends are there. But should the behavior happen, I would advise you to just take a very academic view of all of this. You might even calmly head off any embarrassing comments by explaining the biology. Explain that it happens in horses, bears, dolphins, and almost every other mammalian species that has been studied. It's just as normal as other body functions.

Again, thanks for bringing up this question. You sound like a very good observer of animal behavior. You are welcome to visit our vet school anytime. We see this and other interesting horse behaviors. If your cousin comes along, we can look at some scientific reports on equally similar and equally cool behavior in goats and chickens.