What can we learn from horse herds?
Horses evolved as a herd animals, and even the most domesticated individuals still have a deep-rooted need for companionship. Helen Whitelegg, Senior Campaigns Officer at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, explains how our understanding of herds has changed in recent years, and why a shift in thinking about horse management can reap rewards for the equestrian world.
Written by Helen Whitelegg
To understand horses, we need some insight into the way they think. And they think socially. As a prey species, horses live according to the maxim ‘safety in numbers’, and it has served them well. Wild predators may no longer be a threat, but horses’ brains still operate as if they were. So, while horses can adapt to a role in human hands, their fundamental instincts remain the same. We must respect and work with horses’ innate needs if they are to lead fulfilling lives and have more to offer us in return.
How do herds work?
The traditional perception of horse herds was of a rigid dominance hierarchy, with a stallion and dominant mare at the top and all other group members being assigned a place within a linear pecking order below. However, this view has been disproved by many studies and it is clear that herds are far more complex and flexible than received wisdom suggested.
We now know that horses have multiple individual relationships within a group, rather than any sense of an overarching pecking order. While dominance and submission is seen in the interactions of individuals, relationships can be circular rather than just linear. For example, horse A moves away from horse B, and horse B moves away from horse C, but horse C moves away from horse A, meaning no one horse has overall dominance.
It also appears that different herd members can initiate group activity, rather than it always falling to the same individual(s). More experienced mares are likely to know when and where to seek fresh grazing, water or shelter, and use this knowledge to move the group, but it is unlikely to be just one that makes every decision. Other factors can be at work rather than simple dominance. It is often a lactating mare who initiates the move to water, for example, as she will simply become thirsty more quickly!
Researchers also found that different horses can be more protective, or assertive, around particular resources. Food may trigger aggressive behaviour in one horse, but another may be more concerned about access to shelter, or proximity to a close friend. Horses may also be affected by their environment, the weather, stress, fatigue or other factors. All horses are individuals, meaning no two herds will be the same, though equine social behaviour acts as their starting point.
In natural herds, most colts and some fillies will leave their herd when they are two to three years old. Females will either seek a new group or be poached by a stallion for his own herd. Males often form small bachelor bands who will aim to recruit mares and form their own herds in time.
This means that while established herds are largely stable, change is a natural part of equine social life and this has helped to maintain healthy gene pools. It also enables horses to be adaptable and resourceful, a trait that is also essential when faced with challenges such as harsh weather conditions or a scarcity of resources. Or adjusting to life as a domesticated horse.
Keeping the peace
Many of us will have seen a herd of semi-feral ponies in a natural environment at some point, perhaps on a nature reserve or national park. These encounters are invariably a reminder of how peaceful horses are, how quiet and relaxed their social groups are when given autonomy to live the life they want.
Horses have a strong urge to avoid conflict. It is a risky, energy-depleting and disruptive activity that compromises the stability, and therefore the safety, of the whole group. They are flight, not fight animals, after all. When we see body language that looks aggressive, more often than not, these behaviours are in fact mechanisms designed to avoid conflict. By posturing and using threats to diffuse a disagreement, the need to engage in a risky physical altercation is avoided.
A herd is most stable when relationships have been established and can be maintained with subtle cues. Just a flick of the head or tail can be enough to tell a companion to move further away, the horse responds, and the herd continues undisturbed.
However, most horses will fight if they feel they have no choice. A mare will defend her foal, a stallion will defend his mares, individuals can compete over access to scarce resources. These are external threats to the harmony and safety of the group that are dealt with through necessity, not choice.
Horse herds are not territorial. A group will move across a wide area to access resources such as food, water and shelter, returning to places where they know they will find what they need. In times of plenty, the group is likely to cover a smaller area than when resources are scarce, and more than one herd may be found using the same land, though not usually at the same time.
If a vital resource such as water is in short supply, different herds may come into contact as they search for what they need to survive, increasing the risk of conflict. But as a species that prefers harmony and stability, putting themselves in such a position is invariably a response to pressure or a threat, and undertaken as a last resort.
Family and friends
Group living is not only essential to the sense of safety a horse feels, it provides companionship that is essential to the mental wellbeing of each individual. Horses in semi-feral herds can form life-long bonds with other group members and they will be seen grazing in close proximity, using each other’s tails to deter insects on a hot day, standing close together for warmth in winter or reinforcing bonds through mutual grooming. As with humans, family and friends make a huge contribution to horses’ quality of life and psychological health.
Young horses derive multiple benefits from growing up as part of a group. Exercise and play with their peers are not just enjoyable, the interaction supports the development of social skills, motor skills and gastrointestinal health. Youngsters also learn other social skills from older herds members and are guided on how to respond in uncertain situations, helping to reduce anxiety and build confidence.
The importance of the herd to its members is clear in the way almost any group of horses react to a perceived threat. Individuals may be grazing over a wide area, but once they are alerted to potential danger, they very quickly come together and stay together. A horse that becomes separated from its herd when frightened will put itself at huge risk to return to the safety of the group, as far as the horse is concerned, his very survival depends on it.
Horses in our hands
Understanding the social needs that underpin every domesticated horse’s psyche is a starting point from which we can build better lives for our own equines. This is not only an ethical consideration, it serves owners well too. As we will see, meeting our horses’ fundamental needs is associated with improvements in their health, behaviour and performance. We often hear about the Three Fs; those Fs being Friends, Forage and Freedom. Yet so many horses’ lives are still centred on isolation and confinement.
So, is it possible and practical to bring an element of herd living into how we manage horses in a domestic setting? The simple answer is yes, and we need to make it not only possible but normal. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be a whole herd! One good friend can be all that is needed to provide a sense of togetherness and offer opportunities for social interaction.
There is a wealth of research that supports the value of providing suitable companionship for any equine, with clear benefits for both horses and humans. Did you know that young horses who grow up in an appropriate social environment have a far better start in life? They are likely to have:
- lower aggression levels
- better responses to training
- fewer unwanted behaviours
- reduced risk of developing stereotypical behaviours
- reduced risk of suffering from separation anxiety
- less aggression later in life
- better social skills
Studies have also shown that older horses used to living in groups also have better social skills, leading to reduced conflict with companions. They are also easier to handle and the importance of social contact for the prevention and treatment of behavioural issues is a central message that is supported consistently by research. A good equine behaviourist will not only think about direct triggers associated with an unwanted behaviour, they also take a wider view of how the horse is managed. Being deprived of basic needs such as companionship and turnout can be a root cause of stress and anxiety that are known to increase the risk of behavioural issues.
Measuring physiological indicators of stress has also shown that horses living with suitable companions have lower stress levels than those in isolation.
What about injury?
If companionship is important, why do so many horses live solitary lives? One factor seems to be that some owners worry about an increased risk of injury in cohabiting horses. Although any physical interaction between large animals involves some risk, particularly when first introduced, studies suggest the likelihood of a serious injury is very low and should not be a barrier to companionship. One study assessed 233 horses living in 61 newly created groups over a four-week period. Just two received a wound that warranted the attention of a vet, and none sustained an injury with the potential to compromise function[i].
How we select and introduce new horses to each other can also significantly reduce the risk of conflict and injury. Redwings has a systematic method of introducing new horses to our herds which includes:
- Taking time to plan introductions, thinking about the where, the when, the how.
- Turning horses out in adjacent fields at first, ideally with plenty of space and a solid boundary between them rather than electric tape. This allows them to meet, interact and move away from each other as they choose.
- Ensuring there is no sense of competition over resources. Horses on restricted grazing for example, may be less accepting of another horse than when there is plenty of grazing.
- Providing water away from the dividing fence
- Looking for signs of acceptance and bonding such as standing, lying or grazing close to each other by the dividing fence, or even mutual grooming across the fence, before turning horses out in the same paddock.
- Removing hind shoes before turning horses out for the first time and ensuring there is space to keep away from each other if they prefer.
- If a single horse is being introduced into a group of multiple equines, bringing a calm member of the existing herd off the field to befriend the new horse first, then integrating the pair into the group together (allow around two – four weeks). This process is also used to return horses to their group after a long period of box rest.
Once new companions are turned out together, monitor their behaviour closely for the first few weeks. Even if all seems well initially, be prepared for some posturing and negotiations as they work out the exact dynamics of their relationship. This is to be expected, but be alert to bullying whereby threats become persistent aggression. It is unusual, but more possible when not all domesticated horses have been well socialised. But by making the integration process as gradual as possible, the better the chance of creating a rewarding social environment for the horses involved.
Although there is always an additional risk when horses live alongside each other, we can manage and minimise the risks significantly. We also need to weigh the risks of companionship against the mental and physical risks associated with lack of companionship, which, as we have seen, can be profound.
Some horses do adjust to a solitary life, but it is hard to know whether it can ever be a truly fulfilling, stable life. Horse ethology suggests not. In some cases, horses who have spent a lot of time on their own then struggle to socialise if they are introduced to horses. They may be aggressive, anxious, avoidant, or simply disinterested. It is important to recognise that this is more likely to be a lack of social skills or loss of confidence due to long periods without company, rather than a personality trait.
Although other species such as goats or cows may provide some companionship, they can never be a substitute for another horse. And much as we as owners can and should work to build a wonderful bond with our horses, humans cannot fully meet the need of equine company, horses do not see us as one of their herd.
Horses are innately social creatures and the fact that some horses have learnt to cope without equine companionship should not be a reason to make that choice for any horse without being fully aware of the implications.
Thinking outside the box – literally
As a sector, we are only just beginning to recognise that many of our horse management practices do not allow us to meet our horses most basic psychological needs. Changing long-standing assumptions and facilities is not an overnight process, but we can all take steps to contribute to the improvements that our horses need from us.
More turnout with field mates, taking on non-ridden companions, group housing, travelling buddies and keeping friends together for stressful events such as veterinary treatment are all starting to be seen more commonly, as are horse-centred approaches to weaning, managing youngsters and dealing with behavioural issues.
The huge growth of interest in horse behaviour and ethology in recent years has revealed fascinating insights into the equine psyche, and more research is being carried out continuously. It has become apparent that by looking back at where horses come from, we have a much better idea of where we need to go next.
Case study: March and Herman
Dressage horse Herman lived on his own for six months after sadly losing his companion. Owner Gillian noticed a gradual change in him as the weeks passed. “Herman lost the spring in his step” she explains. “He seemed to slow down and wasn’t as interested in things around him.” Gillian made the decision to find a new companion for Herman, and the result was March, an Arab-cross Redwings rescue pony. The pair quickly bonded, and Gillian was delighted when Herman was soon back to his old self. She said, “I’d spent a lot of time with Herman, but cuddles with me weren’t what he really wanted. Now he has March, he’s so much happier and that’s better for my relationship with him too.”
Redwings has specialised in the rescue and care of semi-feral ponies for almost 20 years. Working with these undomesticated equines has provided a unique opportunity to observe natural horse herds in action and appreciate how horses choose to live when given the freedom to follow their instincts.
The charity manages all its 1,500 Sanctuary residents in groups, only using stabling for veterinary reasons if necessary. Redwings also has more than 700 equines in long-term loan homes through its Guardianship rehoming scheme. Horses are never loaned to homes where they would live alone.
 Keeling et al. (2016) Injury, reactivity and ease of handling of horses kept in groups: A matched case control study in four Nordic countries. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 185, 59-65
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