Paddock Politics


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Observe any group of horses and you’ll discover there’s a couple of bossy boots among them! Horses have their own way of establishing pecking order...we humans kind of know how and why but there’s probably a lot more to it than we realise!

A lot of horses get away with bad behaviour because their baffled owners don’t understand how horse pecking order works. Good horse trainers try to comprehend what makes horses tick and train them accordingly, which is a far cry from the bad old days of literally ‘breaking in’ a horse!

If you have a horse that seems bossy or domineering, then he’ll probably be in the top half of the pecking order in any horse group. In the wild there’s a stallion and his mares, but sharing leadership is the top, or ‘Alpha’ mare. She’s the boss of all the horses and helps the stallion control and protect the herd. What she says goes! Beneath her is the second-in-command mare, who is also dominant and has her herd duties to perform. From there it goes all the way down through the pecking order to the horse that gets picked on by EVERYONE!

Horse fights look worse than they are! Horse fights look worse than they are!

A horse’s place within the herd is determined by his or her dam...the Alpha mare’s foals are also likely to go on to be Alphas etc. Research has shown that dominant horses in a group are smarter, so it’s probably a combination of hereditary influence and learned behaviour.

Being animals that traditionally live on the wide open spaces of grasslands, horses tend to rely more on visual communication rather than vocal....there’s no mistaking the aggression of flattened ears, bared teeth and rear hooves ready to lash out. While it seems a bit barbaric to us, aggression among horses is really their way of avoiding violence! A new horse introduced to an established group will need to find his place in the hierarchy, even if it means fighting it out, but this is usually established within a couple of days. Horses at the lower end of the pecking order make an effort to avoid higher-ranking horses, thus peace is maintained. Studies have shown that 80% of aggressive encounters among horses comprised threats with the head...extending the neck, flattening the ears...but it’s mostly bluff!

It’s been suggested that man’s dominance over horses is explained because our ears are apparently pinned back in permanent aggression! (Whatever…how does one explain Prince Charles then?)

An Alpha mare on the prowl. An Alpha mare on the prowl.

Sometimes though, you can introduce a horse to a group and...nothing happens. He seems to be accepted almost straight away. How come? It’s partly the bluff thing at work; also some horses subtly present a ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ vibe that is picked up on and understood.

Those fighting wild stallion scenes in old Westerns are a bit of a con really as when stallions generally meet, they mostly avoid fighting, preferring a squealing contest instead. The squeal of a dominant stallion lasts approximately 20 seconds longer, which seems to settle the matter...and the confrontation is over.

A horse’s personal space is approximately 1.5 metres around him and they’ll usually start to threaten lower ranking horses that move into that space, like the horse is doing in the photo above.

Mutual grooming helps establish bonds. Mutual grooming helps establish bonds.

One way horses establish bonds within a herd is through mutual grooming. Most horses will spend lots of time nibbling the withers and backs of their friends (horses that are the same age and herd status as them) but they also spend some time grooming almost every other horse within their group. Grooming also takes places after an aggressive encounter as a sign of appeasement...the equine version of “chill, dude”.

A paddocked horse requiring extra hard feed or hay presents a problem. If he’s low down in the pecking order then hungry as he is, more dominant horses are going to chase him away from his feed. Yes, it’s not fair...but that’s how it works in the horse world! In this case you’ll either need to remove your horse from the paddock and put him into a yard during feed time, or stand outside the paddock holding him until he’s finished eating (doing this on cold wet Winter nights is NOT fun!)

So next time you see your horse threatening another horse, don’t think he’s ‘being mean’...try to understand why he’s doing it and maybe you can figure out where YOUR horse is in the pecking order!

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