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Social structure in horses

  • The horse is a herd animal with a clearly defined hierarchy.
  • Some may roam on their own but horses in the wild are found in “bands” ranging from 4 to 10.
  • Bigger groups of up to 20 may occur.
  • Usually a group is based on a family with one or two mares and their offspring from the last 2-3 years - and maybe an extra young male hanger-on.
  • The females in the group are the decision makers and the male or males that accompany them act as a guardian rather than a leader.
  • There seems to be a shifting, changing system of dominance relationships among members of the band. At different times, the dominance order will be different depending on the circumstances. It is not a rigid and formal dominance.
  • Horses develop tight relationships with other individuals, especially close relatives and these can complicate the overall social order.
  • This special relationship between individuals can be seen horses kept in housed groups or in small paddocks. You’ll see all sorts of idiosyncratic preferences for particular companions and dislike of others.
  • Bachelor males form small groups of 4 to 8. They stay alone until mating time when some start to try and get into an established harem for an odd mating when the stallion is otherwise engaged.
  • You can find solitary males and solitary females, and bands of non-breeding juveniles.
  • A stallion as the alpha male may appear to be the herd leader at mating time when they form a harem of mares, but the mares are still important decision makers as to where the herd grazes.
  • A stallion may gather some new mares to his harem, depending on his dominance in the territory.
  • An alpha female shows her real power in doling out discipline to the adolescent males.
  • Subordinate males may also act as security guards in the harem.
  • As survival is based on flight rather then fight, vigilance by all animals in the group is important.
  • The social order is sorted out by gestures - ears laid back and teeth bared, and they may resort to nipping with teeth. This is a common response to handlers.
  • Severe biting and kicking with hind legs in unison is used for more serious sorting out of social problems.
  • Stallions fight by rising up, using front feet to paw the opponent, using the neck to knock opponent down and severe biting. They also use their back feet for kicking.
  • Mutual nibbling or grooming is the way horses reinforce social ranking.
  • Juvenile horses move out of (or are kicked out) the main band and disperse. Females may return to join their old band when they are mature. The chances are by then that the alpha male (their father) has changed, so inbreeding is kept to a minimum. The herd leader may still be one of their relatives however.
  • Stallions tend to ignore their own fillies when in heat and concentrate on the mares, this being nature’s way to reduce inbreeding.
  • A male may join a solitary female and start a new band, so there will be no genetic association between them.
Female discipline of teenagers
  • Studies by Monty Roberts (the horse whisperer) showed the way mares discipline young males.
  • They chase them out of the band and won’t let them back in until the females think they are ready.
  • This signaling is done by an alpha mare who goes out to the edge of the band and turns her hindquarters to the males who are looking for a signal to re-enter.
  • When the mare decides the young male has done his penance, she goes to meet him nose to nose and he follows her back into the band.

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