Updated: Feb 10
Horses living in a group, whether in the wild or at a stable, tend to develop a hierarchy. Their relationships affect things like which animal gets first dibs on food and water. In this post, we dive into horses’ herd behaviour to help you understand why horses act the way they do.
Horse Herds in the Wild
A wild herd typically consists of a group of mares, their offspring, and one or more stallions. The herd provides a sense of security and opportunities for rest. It also makes it easier for the horses to reproduce and find food and water. When the colts (male foals) are old enough, they leave to form a bachelor herd.
A herd’s leader is typically an older mare, who is not necessarily stronger than the other horses but has extensive experience and knowledge about how to survive. She is responsible for the herd’s well-being.
There’s also a lead stallion who defends the herd and intervenes when any conflicts occur between horses. When the stallion becomes too old or weak, another stallion from a bachelor herd may challenge him.
Hierarchy and Dominance Within the Herd
Dominance within the herd determines the order for accessing resources like food, water, and shelter. Dominance could also take the form of controlling movement - either stopping another horse from moving or making it move when it does not want to.
The relationships within a herd are complex and change over time. Horses are not born dominant, and a horse may use dominant behaviour one time to gain access to food but not other times.
New horses tend to start at the bottom of the hierarchy. They can gradually work their way up the ranks by challenging other horses, gaining their respect, or taking the place of a colt that leaves the herd. Some horses are uninterested in moving up in the hierarchy. They’re willing to sacrifice luxuries like access to the best food to avoid having responsibility for the herd.
Horses communicate with other herd members using body language, vocal sounds, and scents. To establish dominance, they may use squeals, pinned ears, rolling eyes, or the threat of kicking or biting. To show submissiveness, they often lower their head, chew, and lick their lips like they’re eating or drinking - a vulnerable action.
Friendship Within the Herd
Horses are social animals with a natural desire for the company of other horses. They get stressed when they’re all alone. It is possible to use another animal, like a sheep or goat, as a companion, but the ideal scenario is having horses live together in a group.
Horses that are getting along well will stand close together peacefully and may do mutual grooming, where they nibble at each other’s withers, neck, and back. They may also stand nose-to-tail so they can swish flies away from each other.
Herds sometimes develop subgroups of horses with particularly close relationships. Horses may have a favourite companion for mutual grooming and general hanging out and may show signs of stress or grief upon separation. It’s hard to know why horses prefer certain horses over others, although it could relate to personality or coat colour.
What role do you think you would take in a horse herd? Let us know in the comments!