Horses are herbivores and as such are innately reactive to anything and everything in the environment. Why is that? Why are horses so predictable in their unpredictability? It all boils down to the fact that, in evolutionary terms, they are food for carnivores and as such, are at the bottom of the food chain. Horses are part of the herbivore family; they only eat plant material. Its all in the teeth!
Despite it being the year 2019, horses are still genetically made up to survive from being killed and eaten through their hard driven flight response. As such they are scanning their immediate environment for anything threatening most of the time. Confidence training diminishes captive bred horses to reduce their reactions to scary stimuli.
Why teeth? When you look at a skull you can tell what it is designed to eat. Carnivore, Omnivore and Herbivore.
The carnivorous mammals have eyes in the front of their skulls and big canines for gripping and tearing flesh, sharp, razor-like molars for slicing through flesh and small but sharp-edged incisors for nipping and stripping flesh from a carcass. Tigers, Lions, your pet pussy cat, are but a few in the list. Their nature is to hunt via silent, careful, stealth behaviours to get as close to their prey as possible followed by a fast sprint to surprise their victim. If they can clamp those big teeth on and fix in with their huge claws, they then stand a chance of bringing supper to the table. There are birds of prey like owls and raptors who have evolved to be purely carnivorous as are some species of fish. Silent approach in all carnivorous species is the key to their success.
The omnivore found its niche half way between carnivore and herbivore. They have adapted to eat plants and flesh. This is where humans sit in the evolutionary scale alongside pigs, Bears, hedgehogs and chimpanzees, to name but a few. Yet again the teeth tell the tale! Sharp incisors for nipping and clipping, Large canines for gripping and tearing at flesh but the molars are large and flat in comparison. Their job is to squash and break down fibres into digestible form. The jaw line tends to be slightly longer than that of a carnivore to encompass the mastication job of the molars though there are huge variances species specific of cause. Most omnivores display the same stealth behaviours to silently hunt live prey but can also forage, dig, browse and clip away at edible plant material too. Some have sharp strong claws for multi- purpose use where as humans and apes developed fingers and thumbs.
The herbivore has evolved a totally different jawline because they eat purely raw plant material. The fibres are hard to break down into a digestible state so chewing comes in the form of grinding and this takes a long time. Their canines are virtually redundant but still present. Horses (hoof stock) incisors are big and flat for grazing, nipping, cutting and holding on while they pull back at hedgerows and young branch tips. Sheep, goats and cattle have only lower incisors and bite grass against the front of their pallet. Rabbits and mice have developed 2 long, extremely sharp incisors on top and below. It’s amazing how varied the world of animals is when it comes to survival adaptions!
All wild herbivores are nervously quick, alert and run very fast because that is their foremost way to survive. Their eyes are set on the sides of their skull so that by turning their heads one way or another, they get a full 360-degree view. They have huge nostrils to scan for long distance warnings. Domesticated herbivores (farmed animals) tend to be quite placid in nature having been selectively bred to be fairly docile.
Our captive bred horses are exposed to many different environments with Humans. They have been selectively bred to run races on race tracks, pull heavy loads on roads or in fields, jump high and fast for show-jumping and eventing, and move like ballerinas for Dressage. Some have been bred for their meat- the list goes on and on of cause. The heavier breeds tend to be more docile than the fast breeds. A lot of modern day competition relies on and actively encourages the sharp flight response. Our roads are a living night mare for riders as well their horses. Please do take great care when approaching and passing horses on the highways- they fear a tiger behind every hedge or a lion up every driveway and will always shy into the road in avoidance of something they perceive as scary.