Interpretation of behaviour

Today I visited a beautiful barn with some horses and a goat. I was invited into the stall where the goat lived. The handler had warned me that the goat sometimes headbutts.

It was a friendly goat and she came up to me to greet and was well mannered. She stood in front of me, sniffed me and waited. I thought it was very polite, especially for a goat. They are, after all famous for their love of food and I was carrying pellets in my pocket. Then she kind of put her head gently in my hand. I thought that was so sweet…

I am used to cats and horses, and I am not familiar with goats. Because she put her head in my hands I automatically assumed that she wanted to be scratched behind her ears. Of course I did what she asked. Let me rephrase that: of course I did what I thought she meant.

The goat re-positioned her head, so a few seconds later I was scratching in between her long, pointy horns. As soon as I touched those horns I remember thinking: “Oops, Goats don’t like to be touched on their horns”. Humans are slow and animals are fast, so before I knew it I had accepted the goats invitation to play. Goat play involves a lot of rearing and headbutts. So she ‘attacked’ me. Ouch!

Although she hurt my wrist, she didn’t use too much force. So I think it was just play. She only used a bit more force than I can handle or more than I like. I don’t like headbutts at all!

I realized quickly that I had misread her invite to play for an invite to scratch her ears. I didn’t know what to do or how I could get her stop so I basically jumped out of her stall and quickly closed the door. She headbutted the door quite hard and I was glad the door was between us now. I think she was disappointed that I had left the game so soon. After her headbutting the door I turned around, because I didn’t want to encourage her behaviour in any way by giving her attention. I just didn’t know what to do.


It did make me realize how easy it is to misread an animals’ behaviour if you have no experience with the species or have no knowledge about the natural behaviour of the animal. I thought about novice horse owners and how hard it must be to be around a large animal that you know nothing about and what you know is probably outdated. Sounds scary!

Back to the goat and her headbutting. I suggested we give the goat a playmate or  a punching bag to play with. If she had a playmate or thing to play with she wouldn’t have to use humans as playmates. I hope it will work and will let you know if it works.

Have you ever misinterpreted the behaviour of an animal and gotten into trouble? Share your story in the comments. Thanks!

UPDATE: this goat is adopted and lives now among a lot of other goats. 🙂

Sandra Poppema
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9 thoughts on “Interpretation of behaviour

  1. Thanks for sharing this story and remind me that it is important to study species specific behaviour.
    I always thought my bunny was itchy at her chin but in fact she was marking places with her own smell! I feel like bunnies communicate even more subtle than horses so there’s a lot to learn yet 🙂

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    • Yes, bunnies are lovely. I’ve had bunnies and I discovered that they are fast learners too. Have you seen the rabbit agility videos on YouTube? Bunnies are so smart.


  2. I have two pet goats. Brothers. Goats need other goats, so suggesting another one is good, although like horses, they won’t necessarily like the one that you think that they should be friends with. One thing to know about goats is that when there’s something new (a branch, a person, a toy) they rub their horns (or horn stubs) on it. They will do this particularly energetically if it is aromatic. They are also quite itchy behind the horns, so you weren’t wrong about them wanting a scratch – but few goats want to be pet on the ears – they need scratches at the base of the horns where they can’t reach. My goats head butt each other with glee, but know that is not acceptable with humans. It helps to have stumps in their paddock to send them to – standing on their stations is an incompatible behavior to butting your knees!


    • Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I thought indeed that this goat wanted a scratch behind her ears, near the base of her horns. I didn’t know they like to rub their horns on something aromatic. It makes sense now: I had put some essential oil on my wrist that morning, so bumping into my wrist wasn’t accidentally, like I thought. It still amazes me when I discover animals are always so very purposeful in their behaviours. It is us (me) that need to remember that.
      Working with a not so familiar species reminds me on this. That’s why I liked be near this goat.

      By the way it is living by herself in this stall due to medical reasons. I don’t know if she has other goats at home.


  3. Yes. I swam with dolphins once on holiday and found I was really bothered by being in close quarters with a large mammal that didn’t have body language I could read. Especially it seemed weird not being able to watch ears to see where their attention was. Then I realised that was a little odd coming from a human – our ears are pretty inexpressive too!

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    • Thank you for sharing your story. It is an awkward feeling to to be able to read the body language of an animal. It makes it really hard to predict their behaviour or ‘read’ their feelings about you/the situation.

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  4. Goats need a pasture mate, as was stated, though they may not like the mate you pick out for them. But a horse or a Llama can sometimes make a fine mate. My goats fight and play headbutting all the time, but never with me or any other humans, we are the vending machines. You might want to teach the owner protective contact and back up. Then if the goat gets too frisky, ask it to back up. Some people encourage butting when the goat is small, thinking it is cute to let the goat butt their hands, but as we know, you can never really unteach something, so it’s best never to encourage bad manners. Never push back when a goat wants to head butt, instead push the head to the side, deflecting it away from you.
    You said you had food in your pocket, if I really needed to get away my first thought might be to throw some food, BUT, goats unlike dogs don’t understand throwing food.
    Their food doesn’t move, by nature they don’t chase food, so a goat has to be taught to visually follow the food and then look for it on the ground, this is probably the same with horses. Instead, change the game, you can trying luring them as you move toward the gate, inviting them to play by your rules and then leave a big hand full on the ground as a parting gift while you make a hasty retreat. And one last note, even un-horned goats will still head butt, even with another goat with horns.


    • Just to add to what Jody said – some goats (mine in particular) refuse to eat anything that has touched the ground. And heaven forbid that parsley (usually their favorite) is wilted. They’ll also reject hay if it has even a tad of mold. (Which is very smart of them.) It’s a myth that goats eat anything.

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