Herd Dynamics, Hierarchy and Behavior

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Our friends at The Pegasus Project Horse Rescue in East Texas recently took these photos. The horse on the right has never had an opportunity to interact with other horses. This series of photos show the gelding’s first ever face to face meeting with another horse. The horse on the left has lived in herds most of his life.


I have been fascinated with herd dynamics and behavior for as long as I can remember, and have been lucky enough over the years to have gotten a chance to work with and observe large numbers of horses, both feral and domestic. I must say, the amount of information that is often passed back and forth between horses at any given time, and the various levels of subtly (or lack thereof) with which they communicate can, even for the most experienced of horse folks, be a little mind boggling. It is not unusual to see horses communicating with one another by means so subtle that we humans can’t even pick up on what they’re doing, while at other times the communication seems to be so extremely explosive, violent, and unforgiving that one has to wonder why such a brutal exchange took place to begin with.

It is no wonder that for someone striving to understand what’s going on within a herd that seeing such a swing in the intensity of interactions might be a bit confusing. What can make things even more confusing is the amount of varying opinions on what certain horse behavior means or how that behavior might be associated with a certain horse’s status or position within the herd. On top of that, many trainers, clinicians and instructors have begun basing training techniques on the replication of certain actions or behaviors of horses that are (often perceived as) the “dominant”members of the herd. These actions and techniques are designed to ultimately have a horse see the handler as the dominant or “alpha” horse, and thus cause the horse to become submissive and easy to work with.

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Unfortunately, this “alpha theory,” as we might refer to it, has actually become quite prevalent in recent years and  has in many cases done more harm than good when it comes to the development of relationships with horses based on leadership and trust. But more about that later.

Before we can think about using ideas based on herd dynamics for the development of training concepts, I think it’s important to understand that those dynamics in and of themselves are often as simple as they are complicated. Not only that, but many folks have a tendency to get the dynamics of feral (natural) herds and the dynamics between domestic (unnatural) herds confused. So to help clarify a bit, let’s take a look at the difference between the two.

First, let’s look at the dynamics of a feral herd – that is, a free roaming herd that has developed naturally. Before going any further, though, we must understand that the main function of a feral band, besides basic daily survival, is procreation. As such, the herd itself is structured around the development of the strength of its members, and therefore the band itself, through what we might refer to as natural selective breeding. Put simply, natural selective breeding boils down to the strongest or most prominent mares in the band only breeding with the strongest, most prominent stallion. Much of what we would see as herd dynamics in a feral band is based on this one simple premise.

The second thing we want to understand is that the vast majority of the members of any feral band, including the stallion, are followers, and they generally have only one leader. That leader is always an older, established mare. You see, when a mare is born into a herd they will usually stay with that herd for life, while the males within the herd will generally come and go. So not only are the mares the ones that establish the herd’s stability (and therefore it’s general hierarchy) but it is also the lead mare that establishes where the herd goes, when it goes, and why it goes.

The third thing we need to understand is that (contrary to some popular belief) life in a feral band of horses is actually pretty quiet, particularly once the overall hierarchy has been established. There has been some discussion over the years that members of feral bands are constantly looking for ways to move up the “dominance” ladder, and so there is often a lot of jockeying for positions within the herd. That is generally not true. For the most part, hierarchy in feral bands is established at birth with the foal automatically taking on the same position in the herd as it’s mother. That position doesn’t vary a whole lot as the baby grows to adulthood.

Because of that, the most subordinate members of the band, those mares and their offspring that make up the very bottom of the pecking order, will usually willingly accept their positions and seldom, if ever, strive to move up the ladder. The same usually goes for those members of the herd that make up the top of the pecking order. Those mares and their offspring hold a permanent higher ranking within the herd, and so there is little or no need for jockeying of position by them, either.

But where jockeying does occur is within the middle ranks of the herd. Horses that hold neither a low or high ranking, or a horse recently absorbed into the herd are often the ones trying to move up in hierarchy. Daily scuffles can occur, usually ending with one horse or the other moving up only a space or two in dominance, only to lose those same spaces a few days later during another scuffle with the same horse. Even then, the arguments between those members are usually relatively mild and allowed by the stallion, whose job it is to keep order within the herd. However, if an argument gets heated to the point of potential injury to one of the members, or in a case where the argument could potentially jeopardize the stallion’s overall standing within the herd, he will normally step in and put a stop to the behavior.

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So now lets take a look at the dynamics in domestic herds.

First and foremost, it is important for us to understand that when it comes to domestic herds – regardless of the herd’s size and whether or not it is made up of horses of the same sex or horses of different sexes – the natural motivation for the band is considerably different than that of a feral band. Again, the motivation of a feral band and the design of it’s hierarchy is designed primarily for natural selective breeding and the development of a hearty lineage.

However, that motivation is virtually non-existent in domestic herds because very few horse owners these days run mares and stallions together on a full time basis. Because the natural motivation of procreation has been removed from domestic herds, other motivations have taken their place, such as food, self protection, dominance, and the development of or lack of self confidence.

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Something else that happens in domestic herds more often than in feral bands is that members of the herd have a tendency to change much more frequently, which often causes stress on the herd’s (tentative at best) hierarchy. Those changes can occur when a newly purchased horse is introduced into the herd, or when an established member or members of the herd are sold or otherwise taken from the herd, or when new horses are placed in a pasture or pen immediately adjacent to the herd, or any number of other scenarios that wouldn’t normally occur in the wild. Even taking a horse from the herd to go on an hour trail ride can often shake up the stability of the herd hierarchy.

Because the motivations of domestic herds are markedly different (and one might say, less natural) from those in feral bands, we will often get a slightly “skewed” version of herd dynamics by watching the domestic herd interact. There will generally be considerably more pushing and jockeying, particularly around feeding time, in a domestic band than in a feral band, and the addition of unwarranted, often fairly intense scuffles will have a tendency to break out more frequently as well.

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It is usually these types of interactions that people see in their own herds, or that some professionals have witnessed (and then designed training regimens around) that give us the impression that horses are “naturally” prone to pushing on one another as a way to establish dominance. And while that is certainly true to a degree, it is more often than not, not a horse’s first choice. Remember, in the wild, a horse’s position in the herd is inherited at birth and seldom is that position challenged. So most wild horses generally don’t have to worry about being ousted from their position and therefore won’t feel the need to defend or try to establish or reestablish that position. Therefore, the types, severity and frequency of interactions that we see in domestic herds don’t necessarily give us a true picture of how the same horses might act if they were in a more natural setting.

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Not only that, but quite often the behaviors we see within domestic herds are misunderstood or misinterpreted by us in such a way as to bolster our perception of who is in charge within the herd, or which horse is the “alpha.” Here’s what I mean by that. Let’s say that horse “A” is munching on a pile of hay, and horse “B” begins to approach. We watch as horse “A” turns and chases horse “B” from the vicinity of the pile, and we automatically assume horse “A” is the more dominant horse.

However, in many instances, if we watch closely, and perhaps for a bit longer, what we might actually see is something like this: Horse “A” munching on the pile of hay and horse “B” approaching. We watch as horse “A” turns and chases horse “B” from the vicinity of the pile. Horse “B” runs away and horse “A” chases. Horse “A” becomes distracted by horse “C” who is munching on a pile of his own hay, and turns toward him, chasing horse “C” from his pile. In the meantime, horse “B” has circled back to horse “A’s” original pile and is now eating from it.

So while at first glance it might appear as though horse “A” is the “alpha” because he seemed to have chased horse “B” from the hay, in reality what we may have just witnessed was horse “B’s” ability to remove horse “A” from the pile without having to use force. Some folks might refer to that as an “approach and retreat” technique. Interestingly enough, this type of scenario actually plays out more times than not (in various incarnations) within domestic herds without us ever so much as noticing. So while it is in fact true that domestic horses will push each other around, it is also true that there are often more subtle interactions occurring that we are completely overlooking or misinterpreting. As a result, we end up making the assumption that all interactions between horses are based on one horse “dominating” the other, which is ultimately how the “alpha” training methods have come to be.

Yet in the wild, there is naturally much more of an effort for the herd to get along than there is for them to work against one another. Of course, again, the one major advantage that members of a wild herd have is that each horse knows, from birth, where they fit within the herd, and each individual herd member also knows from birth, where all of the other horses fit within the herd. This one aspect, in and of itself, helps to create the kind of stability that wild horses ultimately rely on for comfort.

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However, often in a domestic herd just the opposite can be true. Many domestic horses are unclear not only of what their position in any given herd is, but they can also be quite unclear as to what position all the other horses occupy within the herd as well. It is often this confusion that causes the types of altercations we see on such a regular basis within domestic herds, and what gives us the impression that one horse is, or is trying to be, the herd “alpha.”

Of course, regardless of whether we are watching horses in a domestic herd or we are watching those in a feral band, there are some behavioral responses that do remain constant. On one side of the coin, all horses seem to resent needless (what we might refer to as) “bullying,”  by others, and that resentment often shows up in the bullied horse by means of pinned ears, swishing tails, kicking out in self defense, etc.  And bullied horses will also have a tendency to want to stay away from those individuals that rely on such behavior.

On the other side of the coin, the vast majority of horses do, and will, adhere to clear boundaries, appreciate emotional stability, and they will almost always willingly follow a proven and established leader.

For the most part, I have found that trying to understand and adhere to these few simple pieces of information can allow for quiet success during training and handling of most horses. You see, instead of trying to establish a training regimen based on inaccurate or misunderstood herd dynamics, stepping back and looking at these particular qualities, all of which are inherent to most any horses’ understanding during interactions (and then using those principles to our advantage during training) can easily create the type of trust-based relationship most folks are looking to build with their horse.

Like so many things in horsemanship, the more complicated we try to make things, however well meaning, the more convoluted and difficult things are likely to become – for both horse and handler. It is the art of simplicity that almost always allows for a clearer communication between species, and in the end, perhaps endeavoring to understand that simplicity is what will ultimately allow us to one day bridge that gap.

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In the face of what we might see as aggressive behavior by this inexperienced horse, something that we might feel the need to react to with equally aggressive “alpha” behavior, our experienced gelding instead chose to project clear boundaries, emotional stability, and offer the traits of a proven and established leader. 

Thank you to Allyson DeCanio for the great photos.