Herd Dynamics affecting your Horse's Behaviorby Lisa Grim, DVM on 08/03/15
We often hear that horses are herd animals and socialization is important to their well being. They are also prey animals, a fact which drives some of their behaviors as well. Some of my clients have property where their horses are out and living together, but many others do not have this opportunity yet have their horses housed closely together and/or turn them out in areas adjacent to other horses. We can learn from some of the behaviors of herd horses and use this information even on horses that do not live in a group to help alleviate problems and potentials injuries. And hopefully provide a more comfortable and safer environment for our horses.
One tid-bit from this article that I learned is that the most dominant horse in the heard may not be dominant in all activities or all of the time. There apparently is a variety of factors including social status that cause the other horses to follow a leader or allow the leader to push them in a particular direction. But there is always a top dominant horse and below there is a social hierarchy that sets up an order in which the horses get access to resources such as food, shelter and water. So this is why you will see one or two skinny horses in a group when you feel like there should be plenty of food for everyone. And this is why some of these less dominant horses may need to be fed separately. Also this top position may change over time, so know that herd hierarchy can change.
Horses use many signs to communicate with each other and the herd. The more closely horses know each other and have their hierarchy developed the more subtle the signs. This may be ear or tail movements to more obvious running after another, biting or kicking. They also use vocal sounds, snorts and blows. And they can use stomping or pawing with their hooves to communicate. Horses also get cues from smell which is why they often smell other's droppings.
We'd all like to think our horses are friends. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they may not be more than social companions. If a horse is housed near only one other horse this may be their only choice for socialization which appears to be so important for horses. So how do we know if horses are friends? Most researchers shy away from these terms as they are a bit anthropomorphic. But those of us who have spent years observing and interacting with horses would say that some horses truly are firends. Shear proximity (spending a lot of time close together) may be a sign as well as mutual grooming (chewing on each other's withers)
So how can we use this information for horses housed in close proximity? Many times when a new horse is moved into a new environment next to other horses there is a lot of commotion at first. There may be kicking, squealing and biting. It usually sounds pretty dangerous at times and when the horses make contact with the walls they can injure themselves. Since it is not always possible to introduce a new horse slowly into this "herd" it might be prudent to bandage the horses' legs who live nearby. Feeding the surrounding horses away from the new horses head so they are not so close while eating. If possible create a barrier so they cannot see each other eating. You can also try some natural quieting products such as Zylkene or Synchill. If you have not heard of these please call and I can provide more information. If after several days things have not calmed down, it is possible that this new horse would be better moved before somone gets injured. In the wild these horses would not choose to be next to each other and one of them would back down or leave. We have created a false environment that becomes challenging to their innate instincts and behavior.
Another important time when herd behavior should be monitored is when horses are ridden closely together either on a trail ride or cruising around a show. Being the rider you are in charge 100% and so watching your horse's behavior at all times is imperative for everyone's safety. I have heard many stories after the fact when two horses started fighting or running off and the riders admitted that they had ignored the early warning signs of a cocked hear or bared teeth. I even had a client get kicked in the leg while riding, fracturing her tibia. The kick of course was intended for her mare. So learn to watch your horse's sublte cues carefully. Take time to observe your horses regularly and you will become an expert in your horse's behavior in no time!