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Understanding the Dominance Hierarchy
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Understanding the Dominance Hierarchy

Understanding Horses in the Herd:

Ever wonder why two horses just never seem to get along? Sometimes there are horses who butt heads no matter how long you give them to work it out. On the flip side, there's that one horse that everyone loves to pick on. Why is that? Understanding the social pecking order and the role of horses within a herd can be beneficial to horse owners when it comes to grouping horses together for turn out.

Horses left on their own with no human interference revert to their natural instincts. The best example of this is obviously the mustang. By studying these feral horses we can learn their behavior patterns and how they establish themselves in the herd whilst in their most natural state.

A harem consists of a stallion and his mares and their foals. At times, a harem may actually have two stallions, in which case one stallion is submissive to the other. The stallion's main purpose is to breed and protect his mares. When crossing paths with other harems and bachelor bands, the dominate stallion will be the one to do the interacting. A herd can be made up of harems, bachelor bands, and mare and foal bands. The herd system allows different groups to share the same territory without much conflict. There will be more dominate harems within the herd which allows them to negotiate the same grazing ground with little fighting. 

When a stallion is too old to remain with his native harem, he will either leave in search of his own mares or be driven off to join a bachelor band until he is able to acquire his own mares. Likewise, if a stallion loses his harem he may opt to join a bachelor band until he is able to rebuild his harem or claim another. 

Stallions form bachelor bands when they have no harem to call their own. They will join together seeking safety in numbers and establish their own pecking order with a dominate stallion at the head and those below him. A stallion may choose to challenge another to steal his harem or he may find a mare and foal band to claim as his own.

In a harem or mare and foal band, you will find an alpha mare. She is the one who leads the herd and calls the shots because she has proven that she is the most capable. Often, she will have a second in command who acts as her enforcer. There may be a mare at the very bottom of the chain who is not dominate over any other horse. This can be an older mare who has fallen from a higher position she once held or simply a mare with no desire to climb the ranks. Depending on the size of the harem or band, there may be middle mares, and often their position will change as they challenge one another to assert their authority. The mare is driven by her hormones to reproduce and care for her foals.

Geldings do not occur in the wild and can fall into a few different categories. Some geldings will adopt the role that of a stallion when turned out with mares and other geldings. They will try and collect mares and fight off any gelding that tries to challenge him. There are also geldings who become hormoneless horses who will land somewhere in the middle or at bottom of the ladder and don't look to create their own harem.

If you have a timid, submissive mare or gelding it may be best to keep them with only one or two other submissive horses so they do not become abused by the other horses in the pasture, especially if they are older horses who have lost their place in the hierarchy and are unable to reclaim it. Otherwise, they will be picked on and and may miss out on meals due to their low social standing.

Observe your gelding and determine whether he is trying to act as the stallion or is establishing himself somewhere in the middle. If there are two geldings who consider themselves the stallion of the herd, there will be conflict and it would be wise to separate the two if they cannot decide who is the dominant one. Or you may try forming a bachelor band by removing any mares from the pasture in order for them to live together more peacefully.

Alpha mares and their second in command are usually not an issue once they have taken their place at the top. However, in domesticated horses there sometimes is an alpha mare who is excessively aggressive and does not know how to be a good leader. She may have been forced into the role because no other horses were willing to take the position. If this is how your horse behaves, it may be better for the other horses if she was separated and kept by herself to prevent injury or with match her with a more dominate horse than herself.

Observation is key. Now that you understand how the dominance hierarchy works, you can better place horses together in groups!


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  1. DENA1958
    Really great article! Well written and very informative.

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