I have a report to do
for science class on animal behavior (middle school, fifth grade). My
teacher, Mr. Brennan, said to pick a favorite animal species and a
favorite type of behavior. My favorite animals are wild horses, and my
favorite behavior is play. But do horses ever get to play? My mom and
dad said you might know. Can you send me an answer right away? I have to
do my report next month.
Sounds like Mr. Brennan is a great
science teacher. Mom and Dad were right, I can answer your question. But
as you know already, the magazine answer would not have been published
in time for your report deadline. So I know you already got my e-mail
answer and the photos in time for your report. Glad you got it done and
in on time. Thank you for letting me share the answer with The Horse
All of the horse family (equids)--including
horses, zebras, Przewalski horses, donkeys, and their relatives--play.
At least it sure looks like play to everyone who observes it. The play
is more common in young foals than in adult mares or stallions, just as
it is more common in kids than in grown-ups. Adults seem to be busy
doing other things most of the time, but the bachelor stallions play
wrestle, with a rough-and-tumble sparring. They also chase each other in
a playful, rather than serious, manner. The harem stallion, or
"dad" in a breeding family group, often plays with the foals,
yearlings, and two-year-olds of his group. The moms seem busy eating
grass and making milk for the foal. They rarely are seen doing anything
that looks like play.
Behavioral scientists have classified
play behavior into two main types:
1) Solitary play (one animal playing
alone, like running, jumping, exploring, frolicking, or playing with
2) Social or group play (with one or
more companions of the same species).
Young, healthy, normal horses, like the
other mammals, all do solitary and social play from as early as the
first day of life. Foal play can get pretty funny to watch. Each animal
seems to have a personality that is evident in its play. It's not
difficult to imagine some youngsters "teasing" others.
Another fun aspect of animal play in all
species is that anything new in the environment often sets off play just
like it does in people. This is very true with horses. Just take
something new into a field, like a paper bag or a block of wood, and
watch the youngsters all mob in to investigate it and "see what
they can do with it." Or when the weather changes, say the first
snow, all the foals start frolicking in the snow. On hot summer days the
foals and youngsters in our herd here at the University often can be
found playing in the water in the pond or the stream. They splash with
their hooves, roll around, and chase each other in the water. They dig
muddy holes on the edge and get covered in black mud.
In our studies, play is one of the main
activities of young foals which have companions in the herd. If they are
alone, they play with natural objects like tall grass or blowing leaves.
We have seen them chasing butterflies and wild Canadian gosslings.
Man-made items are particularly attractive play objects--like a stray
piece of baling twine or a soft drink can tossed over the fence. They
play with anything we take with us to the field, like the camera bag,
camping chair, or cooler. They mostly paw and chew.
For your report, you can read a lot of
good material about animal play in general, and find examples of horses.
One of the first animal behavior books I ever read was one called Animal
Play Behavior, by Robert Fagan. It was published in 1981 by Oxford
University Press in New York. On the cover, it has a picture of an old
silk handscroll depicting cats playing. Horses are one of the featured
species to describe play in mammals in that book, and there are many
good pictures and descriptions of horse play.
There is another great little book
called Animal Play by Marc Bekoff and John Byers that was
published in 1998 by Cambridge University Press in New York. On the
cover, it has a photograph of a baby African elephant trying to initiate
play with an older juvenile who's napping. Those books can tell you
quite a bit about the science of play, including the various types of
play, why play is important, age differences in play, and the effects of
nutrition and environment on play. You can read about why animals, just
like kids, don't play when they are sick.
Also, your library might have some
videotapes of television documentaries about horses. In the part where
they show the foals and juveniles, you usually can see examples of play