Who’s the leader?

By Jessi Louw

Horses are social animals and the herd in which they stand not only influences the way they communicate with one another, but also dictates their daily processes. Feral herds and domesticated herds vary drastically from each other and it’s interesting to understand how each affects the daily life of these animals.

Horses as social animals

Horses are very social animals who thrive on routine as well as interaction with other horses. They are habitual in nature and typically have and rely on a leader. They have very strong bonds with one another, and this is particularly evident when they position themselves in one another’s ‘heart areas’. The heart area is the section of the horse’s body that runs from the head to just behind the shoulder.

Herd hierarchy

Food is one of the contested resources in domestic herds

To understand herd dynamics, it’s important to take a look at the dynamics of a feral herd. The dynamics of a feral herd differ to that of a domesticated herd. This is mainly due to the fact that hierarchy in a feral herd is established naturally and from birth whereas domesticated herds are controlled by man. Apart from protection, the main function of a herd is procreation. Because of this, the herd is structured in a way which allows for the strongest mares to breed with the strongest stallion.

A foal born into a feral herd will take on the same position as his mother. The majority of the horses in a herd, the strongest stallion included, are followers. Herds naturally have one leader, the older and more recognised mare. Any mare born into a herd will usually stay with that herd for life while the males tend to move from herd to herd. Not only is the lead mare responsible for where the herd goes but she also provides stability.

When looking at the dynamics of a domestic herd it’s important to bear in mind that the motivation for the ‘band’ is very different to that of a feral band. As the natural motivation of procreation has been removed in domestic herds, other motivations take its place. Motivations take the form of self-protection, food, the development of self-confidence, as well as dominance. The members within a domestic herd tend to change frequently, which can result in stress placed upon the dynamics of the herd. As a result of this, the dynamics of the herd are skewed and can result in much more jockeying for power than there would be in a feral herd.

Members of a feral herd

Health measures

Introducing a new horse to a herd can be tricky. Be prepared to take the necessary time to achieve a harmonious relationship. Competitive horses specifically are subject to frequent relocation. In our presently mobile society, we tend to move horses around with the expectation that they will adjust to their new environments. What we often fail to realise is that horses place significant trust in their herds as well as in their ‘home grounds’.

Before introducing the new horse, ensure that he is physically well and not carrying any contagious diseases or conditions that could affect the herd. A quarantine period can be necessary in extreme cases, and if so the period should be for at least three weeks. This time period will reveal if he is carrying any contagious diseases as he will present symptoms of same within this time. When putting a horse through quarantine, choose a place where there is no physical contact between the horses. The horses should have separate water troughs, feeders and turnout areas. Skin conditions such as lice and ringworm can be spread through shared contact of grooming items and tack and grooming kit. Ideally, a few weeks before the move happens, the transferring horse should go through a full health check with a qualified vet.


A horse and pony being introduced to each other for the first time

When the new horse has been given the go-ahead from a health perspective, begin introducing him to the resident horses. It is preferable to keep the horses separate at first in order for them to see and smell one another, but where there is no chance of physical contact occurring. Observe the interactions between the horses as this will be your guide and will indicate when it’s safe to move forward with the next step of the introduction. Look out for signs of dominance and aggression like tail swishing, turned backs, ears that are pinned back, arching of the neck and shaking of the mane. On the other hand, submissive signals include lowering of the head, teeth clapping and retreat. It is vital to pay close attention to the horses and their behaviour towards one another. Don’t allow physical contact if the newcomer doesn’t show signs of submission.

Watch out for signs of aggression

The next step is physical contact. Provide a space that is big enough for each horse to get away if necessary. Furthermore, neither should feel the need to protect his water and food. When it is feeding time, make sure that the newcomer has his food away from the others to be sure that he gets his share.

How is the leader established?

In a feral herd the leader is normally a female. The males tend to move from herd to herd while the females normally remain in the herd that they are born in. This being said, the leader of the herd is the dominant female. This mare will have the most desirable breeding characteristics and will thus be dubbed the leader. The foals born to this mare will then take on a role similar to hers within the herd.

Have domesticated horses lost their natural instincts?

Nowadays, domestic horses do not have a choice with regards to who is in their herd. As a mobile society, horses are moved from place to place and thus have to establish a new place within a herd more frequently than they would have to in a more natural environment. However, the horses in the herd may be chosen by man but the dynamics within the herd itself are determined by the horses themselves. The horse’s personality ultimately dictates where he fits in with the herd and within the horse society so to speak.

Can a horse’s role in the herd influence your schooling?

Understanding where your horse fits in with his herd will enable you to get insight into his personality. This will ultimately help you to understand what makes him nervous or anxious. Knowing this will help you identify areas where he needs help and you can then work on them from there. Your horse will display mannerisms similar to that which he displays within his herd and this will enable you to work closely with him and to understand him better.

Many horses derive self-confidence from their herd

Useful tips:

  1. When introducing a new horse, pull the hind shoes from aggressive horses and the new horse.
  2. Release the newcomer approximately 15 to 20 minutes after feeding time, so as to avoid food fights.
  3. Introduce a middle-ranking, non-aggressive horse to the newcomer in order for them to bond before the mass introduction.
  4. Make the big introduction during daylight.
  5. Separate pregnant mares from newcomers because if the mare catches something like rhinopneumonitis it may cause her to abort the foal.