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Understanding natural behaviour

The wild ancestors of dogs were natural predators, and horses were prey animals. Therefore, chasing is instinctive to dogs, just like flight is instinctive to horses, and both horses and dogs can show aggression if they feel scared.

  • Last reviewed: 14th July 2022
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These predatory and prey instincts, that historically helped our much-loved pets to survive, can sometimes take over, which unfortunately can lead to distressing and dangerous situations for both animals and handlers. 

Understanding why dogs chase

While our pet dogs are not direct descendants of the modern-day wolf, both the dog and the modern wolf descended from a common ancestor. It's from this wild ancestor that dogs have inherited a chain of seven predatory behaviours, including the behaviour to chase: 

Orient – Eye – Stalk – Chase – Bite kill – Bite dissect – Eat 

Some of these behaviours have also been honed (hypertrophied) by humans through selective breeding. Over time this has allowed different breeds to perform certain roles better and meet specific human needs.  

Most dogs today are not kept as working dogs but as pets. However, being aware of your dog's natural instincts and the role that the breed was originally bred for will help you understand and train them.  

While today's domesticated dogs may not chase with aggression or biting in mind, a horse doesn't know this and their reaction will be the same. 

Why horses run

Horses have evolved to have natural flight and defensive behaviours because, historically, they were prey that needed to survive being hunted by other animals.  

If the horse can't escape a threat, they'll attempt to defend themselves with their hooves. A dog could be seriously injured or killed if one of these flying hooves catches them. 

For horses, the instinct to flee or defend themselves from any threat is ingrained and difficult for a rider to influence. However, with time and patience, you can train your horse to accept dogs. 

Socialisation

By training dogs and horses to accept each other, you can minimise any issues that might stem from their natural instincts. Socialising dogs and horses can help both species become more comfortable around each other.

Socialising dogs with horses

When introducing your dog or puppy to horses or other new things, it's important not to force a situation on them that causes fear and other unwanted reactions: 

  • Remember to give them time to come around to being near horses 
  • Consider how to prevent unwanted behaviours, such as chasing 

Socialising puppies with horses

Socialisation can be most effective when a dog is young. However, the socialisation period for puppies is complex, as they may respond differently to being introduced to a horse at different ages. 

  • From around 4 - 9 weeks, your puppy will easily develop long-term positive associations when exposed to pleasant new experiences. This is the perfect time to introduce them to horses, but puppies are usually still with the breeder at this age, so this may not be possible. 
  • From around 7 - 12 weeks, and 6 - 9 months, your puppy's 'fright, flight, fight' response will be dominant, meaning they could easily develop a fear association if they have a frightening experience with a horse. Therefore, while it's important to keep up socialisation activities with your puppy, be careful not to force them into a situation that could cause a fear reaction as they may express this fear as aggression later in life. 

Socialising horses with dogs

If you can allow calm dogs around the yard, this will help to socialise horses with dogs.  

However, keep in mind that dogs who are more lively around horses, or want to chase or 'play' with them, might create or reinforce a horse's fear of dogs. 

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Anyone can report their incidents or near misses to us; you don’t have to be a BHS member. Reporting your incidents helps us to better understand the rate of equine-related incidents and near misses across the UK.

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