Hey all! I wanted to talk a bit about herd dominance today. Personal experience has brought me a slew of different horse personality types in a range of breeds and ages of horses. To understand how herd dynamics work you need to take a step back and look at how horses react to each other in the wild. In a wild herd or “band” of mustangs, a dominant or “lead” mare controls the majority of the herd, not the stallion as many people believe. This mare keeps all of the lesser-minded horses in line including all of the mares and young horses in the band. If a yearling strays too far from the band, a dangerous mistake in the wild, the lead mare will discipline it similar to a mother getting after an unruly child. We can all see the need for this in a wild band of horses where danger is prevalent at all times. However, when this dynamic crosses over into domesticism, innocent horses and bystanders (like you or me) can get hurt in the process.
I am blessed (or cursed) with three mares all of which hold a special place in my heart. Celadon is an 8 year old Thoroughbred, a large 16.2hh mare. The second, Serenity, is a four year old Quarter Horse filly. Lastly, Bunny, is a 17 year old Morgan, who even at only 14.2hh has some serious lead mare capabilities. Their herd dynamics continue to baffle me. Celadon, who can easily intimidate either of the others just by sheer size continues to be the submissive in every encounter. Serenity sits comfortably in the middle of the pecking order, beating up on Celadon while being terrified of Bunny’s aggression. Bunny continues to hold her dominant spot by routinely biting and kicking, getting a response from just ear pinning. Celadon on the other hand gets it from both sides.
This went on for awhile until Celadon started getting too many injuries to ignore. Daily, she would have a new scrape, bite or kick. I have since separated all three from each other at all times, not just feeding times. This drove me to come up with some ideas to prevent this problem from occurring within herds beyond my own.
Feeding time is the number one time when dominance and aggression between horses is heightened. In the wild, of course, horses graze nearly constantly. So this aggression at feeding time is brought out through domestication. Less food/space available=more competition. Other times dominance is brought out as a fight for attention. Horses learn to crave interaction with us on a daily basis and problems can arise when one horse feels another is getting more attention. Finally, boredom plays a definite role in our horses misbehaviors.
There are many ways to offset the aggression within your own herd. Obviously, there is always the choice to separate them from each other for their own good. However, I understand this is not always possible for people because of space or limited resources. As a horse owner it should be your number one goal to give each horse it’s own individual attention. This means whatever discipline you ride, work out each one of your horses on a daily basis. This could be as simple as grooming or a short trail ride. Keeping boredom at bay can ease the tensions between horses. Feed itself can also play an important role. Horses that are on certain diets may be more aggressive naturally. Show horses that are prone to ulcers (or have ulcers) can be extremely aggressive to others horses and their handlers. Pasture time has shown to improve moods in a variety of horses, if you have the access. If not, I find that feeding lower quality hay over a longer period of time will also help, mimicking the longer grazing hours. I say lower quality to specifically prevent colic or founder with large amounts of protein rich hay. Toys also can keep a horse occupied in the absent hours. Jolly balls and treat mechanisms that prompt a horse’s attention can work wonders for boredom.
Taking steps to make your horse feel like more of an individual and keeping his mind busy will help to keep those wild instincts at bay. Your horse will enjoy his days more and less time will be spent arguing with herd mates. A happy horse means less behavioral problems, less weight issues and a better training mindset. Cheers!
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