Chances are that if your horse is turned out with other horses, you’ve observed some interesting interactions between them. Establishing an understanding of the basics of herd dynamics can help to clear up what you’re seeing, and it can make you aware of potential safety issues involved when working with a herd of horses.
The herd is the most natural form of living for horses. There is safety in numbers, and in the wild a horse living alone would be less likely to escape from predators than he would if he lived with a herd. Wild horses travel together in herds to find food, water, and shelter. They also provide each other with companionship and predator lookouts: when horses lie down to sleep, at least one member of the herd stands guard.
Every herd member has an established place in the herd’s pecking order, or the order of dominance. The pecking order is established based on age and fitness, and horses may challenge each other to establish new roles in the pecking order.
Herds of wild horses typically consist of multiple mares and one stallion. The stallion owns all of the mares in the herd, but the herd is led by an alpha mare. The alpha mare makes the decisions of where the herd will travel and graze, while the stallion’s job is to protect the herd from intruders, usually following the rear of the herd, and to mate with the mares.
Domesticated herds show the influence of humans. Usually we separate the herds by gender into groups of mares and separate groups of geldings, while stallions are typically kept entirely alone to avoid the fighting and battle wounds that would naturally come with life in a natural herd setting.
Herds in domesticity have adapted new herd dynamics as a result. Instead of a lead mare, a gelding may take up the position in a herd. The leader of the herd typically assumes both the roles of the lead mare and the stallion, so a domestic herd leader decides the movement of the group and also acts as its protector against outside threats.
So what does this mean for your horse’s situation? If your horse is turned out in a group, that group functions as a mini herd. One of the horses is established as the herd leader, and through observation you can identify which horse that is. The herd leader is typically the first to the food, and can easily drive away the other members with a visual signal such as pinned ears or a few steps in their direction. The herd members who are submissive to the leader will give way and allow themselves to be driven away as a group.
There is still a hierarchy within the lower-ranking members of a group; they will rank in descending order of dominance, with the lowest-ranking member of the herd being the most submissive horse. With time and observation you can often distinguish the hierarchies of each herd, and it’s important to determine which is the lowest-ranking horse, since that horse may be prevented access to adequate food or shelter. Not all domestic herds are good fits; if you notice the most submissive horse is losing weight or is sustaining serious physical injury, it may be time to reexamine the herds you’ve established.
In taking horses out of their natural environments we’ve changed the way that they establish herds. Many horses can live peacefully together, but some horses clash: the lead horse may be too strong a personality for the most submissive horse. Keep a careful eye on herd dynamics in your pasture to ensure the safety of all the horses involved.
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