Horseplay! Dangerous rough and tumble behaviour that is against every health and safety rule in the book. Aren’t we all forbidden to engage in horseplay?
Do the horse and human senses of horseplay even match each other? I don’t think so, I bet no horses ever said, “NO Horseplay!”. But horses do give plenty of signs that say, “no horseplay right now”. I love watching horseplay and here’s my low down on the ebb and flow of horse play:
Horses build life long relationships with each other, they can be incredibly attentive to each other, even towards a play buddy they only meet up with occasionally. To have a good game, horses are communicative and responsive towards their play partners – games are no fun when they are not truly with someone. When a playmate feels the game is just a bit too wild he may pause, distracted by something (a passing photographer perhaps), or he may present his rump to his buddy. His buddy will most likely respond by taking a little pause himself. Confidence in the other regained, one tentatively nudges the other, or otherwise invites the game to begin again. In this way the energy of play can flow to full throttle, and gently ebb back down to gentle simmer. This way horses can truly get to know each other. For all their teeth and hooves, horses are really quite gentle in play when they grow up in the herd.
There are a certain three Welsh Section C geldings, two of whom are the same age and have lived together their whole lives. The third is a little younger and he lives with female company. This equals boring play, so a little rough and tumble is required from time to time.
I and the participants in the 2015 Autumn Watch holiday group caught up with them when the two groups met up for a herd ‘mash up’. The Bay Boys were on the other side of the hill when they must have heard the Chestnut Band rock up because they took off at a canter to investigate.
When we caught up with them we found one of the Bay Boys playing with our Chestnut boy, then he stopped and the second Bay Boy stepped in, and this is where the slideshow below catches up with the action:
Of course there are other playful ponies abroad on the commons, who use play to smooth out their differences. Another pair of boys get together to play, and argue about girls. This pair are grey Welsh Mountain ponies who are in rival Car Park Gangs (ok, herds).
Number One earned the nickname of Pixel during the Autumn Watch in 2015. He is a cheeky looking chap who is quite sure of himself even though he’s not yet three years old, and has a cute little black spot on his muzzle. He lives with his large extended family who, en masse, see off the smaller second Car Park group whenever passers by deliver food goodies of bread, carrots and windfall apples (the ponies love this but it does bring them perilously close to the road!) .
Number Two is a little older I think. He lives with two mares, one of whom has the cutest filly foal at foot. And they are followed by a ‘teenage’ filly and her mum, Femme Boss. Number Two is certain ‘his’ filly must not flirt with Pixel – so she sneaks off behind parked cars and waits for Pixel to catch up with her…
Their jealousies make their interactions interesting. I haven’t seen them fighting over mares, but there is clearly friction. It appears that playing is useful to each of them in dealing with the friction. Watch how their interactions stop and start, and how poo smelling is important. Also, in the last video Number Two has to rush to roll on the same spot as one of his wives (who photo bombs the first film).
Read more about play from Deborah Goodwin and Carys Hughes in The Domestic Horse (Cambridge University Press), edited by Daniel Mills and Sue McDonnell.