Wild or feral horses, in nature, form social structures that are essential for their well-being and survival. Exploring the dynamics of these structures can provide valuable insights into our domestic horses’ behaviors and interactions. Let’s delve into the natural herd structure and hierarchy among horses:

The Herd Association: It takes a Village

  • A herd association comprises 100 to 250 horses, divided into usually 10-20 herds of various sizes (2 to 60 horses per herd).
  • Within the herds we can see ‘bands’ of horses – little family units within the herd, they roam and move together with their other herd members.
  • Each herd functions as an (extended) family, and it typically includes at least one adult herd stallion.
  • Horses live together continuously, and separation causes agitation within the group, the group will always look for a missing herd member.
  • Peaceful coexistence and stress avoidance are paramount for horses, providing them with protection and security.

Cooperative Leadership

  • Adult horses take on various tasks within the herd, and the older wiser animals can take the lead, however, if so, it’s more situational, whereas the herd stallion is the one who shapes the herd itself and organizes e.g. retreats or flights.
  • Distinguishing relationships within (and between) herds form the basis of their communication.
  • If we want to establish ourselves as a cooperative leader we need to prove that we can consistently make good decisions, and prioritize the well-being of the group.
  • Using force and pressure to establish leadership contradicts natural horse behavior.

Hierarchy Within Herds

  • Contrary to popular belief, there is no linear hierarchy within a single herd or band.
  • Only herd stallions of different herds within the herd association establish a hierarchy, which is only important in e.g. flight situations or when they want to manage e.g. access to water sources.
  • Water access is managed peacefully to avoid chaos, and herds wait for their turn based on the rank of their herd stallion. Once it’s their turn, they share the resource without competing for it within their own group.
  • In nature, even scarcity of specific plants rarely leads to conflicts within a herd.

Hierarchy Establishment Rituals

  • Herd stallions with the herd association establish a hierarchy through a ritual, showing shoulders and facing each other.
  • Rank rituals occur away from the herd and rarely involve physical contact.
  • When stallions rear, the lower-ranking horse rears higher than the higher-ranking one, as if he one higher in rank doesn’t ‘need’ to invest as much energy to confirm his rank. The lower-ranking stallion will move backwards at some point to show he accepts his lower rank.
  • In very rare cases, when a fight escalates, it can involve serious acts like biting in the throat or one horse falling over backwards. Very rarely these fights end deadly, but if so, it’s the lead stallion (from the herd association) who will kill his challenger.

Why Clear Hierarchies Exist Among Herds

  • The fixed hierarchy among bands aids in organizing tasks and structures during escape or attack scenarios.
  • In case of a threat (flight distance is 200-300 m), a clear pecking order helps horses coordinate tasks within seconds.

Understanding the nuances of natural herd structures helps us to understand and then to communicate effectively with our own horses. It encourages a more harmonious and respectful relationship, acknowledging the behaviors that shape their social dynamics.