Horse Herd Dynamics

Mare and Foal Sanctuary: Icon (middle) with new herd mates (L2R) Ovie and Tinkerman
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Horse Herd Dynamics

Horse herd dynamics are complex, and behaviours of individual horses can be confusing or easily misinterpreted at a glance! We took a look at recognising social behaviours, behaviours signifying dominance, and how you should manage these behaviours within a horse herd.

Socialising

Whether your herd is ten horses or just two, socialisation essential for good horse herd dynamics. Horse’s use a variety of subtle cues to communicate with each other, as well as ourselves, conveyed most noticeably through body language and vocalisation but also scents and pheromones.

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Horse Body Language

The body language of a horse can display positive emotion as well as negative emotion. Looking at the ears, eyes, muzzle and head carriage are great ways of interpreting what our horse’s are thinking, but also their stance and tail will indicate positive or negative thoughts and feelings.

When our horses are engaging in positive social interaction, or feel comfortable within the herd dynamic, you may see the display of body language such as;

  • Relaxed ears
  • A drooping bottom lip
  • Lowered head carriage
  • Resting hindlegs

 

Your horse being comfortable enough to lay down within the herd is also a good sign that they are comfortable and benefiting from this environment. Periods of laying down will allow your horse to achieve quality sleep, which they will not engage in when they are unsure of their surroundings.

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Also keep an eye out for horse’s standing close to each other and mutual grooming as positive social interactions and signs members of the herd are working in harmony.

On the other hand, from time to time you may notice your horse presenting with more negative body language toward the herd. Look out for two or more of these signs to recognise whether your horse is fearful or acting aggressively within their herd;

  • Ears back or rapidly swivelling.
  • Very low head and some snaking head carriage (very elevated head positioning when anxious)
  • Striking out or kicking at other horses
  • Tight, pinched mouth/ muzzle.
  • Gaping mouth with visible teeth.
  • Whites of eyes showing.
  • Tension around eyes and jaw.
  • Raised or clamped tail carriage.
  • Whole body tension.

Negative body language could be a sign of fear with their ‘fight or flight’ instincts kicking in, or asserting dominance within the herd. Episodes of negative social interaction doesn’t necessarily mean horse’s in the herd are not getting along and is completely normal. Horse’s use negative social interactions to maintain natural hierarchies within the herd, which are essential for survival in the wild. However, keep an eye on negative body language, as engaging in this behaviour for long period can put significant stress on the body and could end dangerously for some members of the herd.

Vocalisation

The main vocalisations you will hear from your horse are a whinny, a nicker, a snort or a squeal. Among the herd, these vocalisations can mean very different things.

A whinny (loud, high-pitched neigh) is a social call, often used when horses are looking for each other. When horse’s whinny, they may be anxious or insecure in their environment and looking for herd protection.

A nicker (soft, low, whinny) is a greeting to other horses. It’s herd most commonly between a mare and foal but can also be heard when two familiar horses greet or sometime when owners arrive at the yard.

A snort (sharp breath of air) is a sign of alarm. This could be alarm to something in the horse’s surroundings or another horse. It usually means they are anxious and would be followed by flight behaviour.

A squeal (long, high pitched cry) is a threat. Squeals are a sign of aggression and can either diffuse an encounter or escalate it – when one horse squeals, the other will usually back down, otherwise it may result in more aggressive behaviour which may cause injury.

Managing Your Herd

Horses tend to thrive in the herd environment and may make ‘sub-groups’ within the herd, with member they feel most at ease with.

Keeping horse’s in large spaces is essential when grouping into herd though, as this allows members to escape from danger easily, preventing and diffusing aggressive encounters, and reducing the chance of injury in the field.

However, if your horse is acting very aggressively and is possibly endangering themselves or other horses with their action, removal from the herd is advise. An overtly aggressive horse could be placed in a nearby paddock, therefore still receiving the security blanket of herd protection.

Also keep an eye out for changes in horse’s normal behaviour. If tuned out within a herd and you notice signs of weight loss or distress, this could be a tell-tale sign that they are not coping within this environment.

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Abby Dickinson

Journalist and News Reporter, Everything Horse Reporting on equestrian news stories, Abby also produces a variety of engaging content for the magazine.

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