Equine behavior, hierarchy, and social dynamics
Have you ever stopped to wonder how we got so lucky to interact with – not to mention ride – these incredible creatures? They’re physically far more powerful than us, and yet they’re also gentle and quite willing to figure out what we want them to do.
The reason horses fit so well in our lives is because they are very social creatures. They need to interact with others in order to fulfill needs like safety, affection, and play. To better understand your horse, you can learn how horses communicate with each other, why they live in groups, and what their daily life is like in the wild.
For example, foals (baby horses) have to immediately interpret other horses’ body language for their own survival. If mom says run, they need to run – now. Growing foals also go through a crash-course in learning about cause and effect. They learn that certain actions lead to nips and bites. They learn how to dish out those nips and bites for rude behavior, too. It’s this expert ability to quickly learn the consequences of an action – and how to influence others – that makes horses so trainable.
Let’s define some basic terms before we get started.
What is a group of horses called?
A group of horses is called a herd.
What is the leader of a horse herd called?
Each herd has one stallion (male horse) to protect it and one or two lead mares (female horses) to move the group toward food and water and defend it as needed. Because some younger stallions may stay with the herd, the stallion-in-charge is also called the alpha stallion to differentiate him as the leader.
What is a boss mare?
Boss mare is another word for lead mare or alpha mare. It’s the mare in charge of making most of the daily herd decisions. Where this mare goes, the others follow.
A herd of horses establishes a hierarchy or a “pecking order.” A horse at the top of the hierarchy is said to be dominant, whereas a horse at the bottom of the hierarchy is submissive. The dominant horses can push the others around and, as a result, get to access valuable resources (like water and food) first, while others have to wait their turn.
Most horses fall somewhere in the middle: they can push a few horses around, but they’ll act submissive toward the herd’s more dominant members.
What are the ranks in a horse herd?
It’s easiest to define the top and bottom of the hierarchy. Rankings get a little muddy in the middle.
At the top is the alpha stallion, followed closely by the lead mare.(Video) Herd of Two: What horses teach about power and communication
On the bottom rung are foals, and the steps above them are filled by weanlings and yearlings. The remaining mares and young stallions define their own pecking order based on their personality traits, especially aggression and persistence.
What is typical dominant horse body language?
A dominant horse stands its ground. It moves toward, not away, from other horses. It expects those horses to get out of its way. If they don’t, a dominant horse will display aggressive body language by pinning its ears, swinging its head, biting, swinging its hips toward the other horse, and kicking out.
What are some signs of submission in horses?
A submissive horse will move away from a dominant horse at the first sign of trouble. A very submissive horse has to only receive a “mean look” from a dominant horse in order to move. Submissive horses do not display any aggressive behavior, as they know the dominant horse will retaliate.
5 Interesting Horse Hierarchy Facts
- Horse hierarchy can change, especially as horses age.
- Horses immediately try to figure out where a new member fits into the herd hierarchy. This usually happens through displays of dominance and/or play fighting.
- Researchers have recently suggested that all mares, rather than a lead mare, may share decision-making.
- When horses travel, the stallion’s job is to stay behind the herd and make sure everyone keeps up and stays safe.
- If food is severely limited, only the dominant horses may end up getting anything to eat.
Horses are expert communicators. They are highly observant and capable of interpreting even subtle gestures. What’s your horse trying to say?
Why is it important to know how horses communicate?
Because it’s fun! But, perhaps more importantly, it also keeps us safe. Horses are big animals, and if they start to act aggressive, we could get seriously hurt if we don’t recognize the signals they’re giving us.
But knowing how horses communicate also helps us understand what our horses are saying when they’re stressed, nervous, relaxed, playful, or in pain. It enriches our experience with our equine friends and helps us give them a good quality of life.
How do horses communicate in a herd?
Horses primarily use body language to communicate in a herd. They also use their sense of touch to send messages, including mutual grooming, play-nipping, and physical aggression.
Horses also make a limited number of sounds to communicate.
How do horses communicate with their ears?
One of the first things an unhappy horse does is lay its ears completely flat against the back of its head. But when a horse is relaxed, the ears will lazily flop out to the side or toward the back.
When something in front of the horse has captured its attention, the ears point to the front. A horse’s ears will also swivel toward sounds that it’s listening to, and each ear can move independently.
What are common horse communication sounds?
Horses may make a comforting “nicker” sound to greet each other, squeal when meeting a new horse to say, “I’m big and scary!” or whinny in distress to locate lost members of the herd.
5 Interesting Horse Communication Facts
- Horses can recognize human facial expressions and moods.
- Horses can detect and react to human heartbeats.
- Horses can recognize people’s photographs.
- Horses will ask people for help.
- Horses have been taught to communicate with symbols.
Understanding normal horse behavior and the daily routine of a wild herd can help us be better caretakers for our domesticated equines. For example, when horses have to be stalled, it can be helpful to allow them to see and/or touch their neighbors to fulfill their need for socialization.
How do you interpret horse body language?
It’s important to take a “big picture” perspective when interpreting a horse’s body language. For example, a horse may swish its tail and stomp its hoof as an act of aggression. But there’s no reason to panic if you’re grooming your snoozing lesson horse on a hot summer day and it suddenly stomps its foot and swishes its tail – it’s probably just reacting to pesky flies!
In addition, sometimes horses will play-fight. They rear up, bite at each other’s faces, and nip each other’s knees. They’re usually having a great time. They’ll pause and take breaks and then start up again.
You’ll know there’s a problem when one horse won’t let the other take a break, and the more submissive horse repeatedly tries to turn and get away. Then, maybe it’s time to intervene. Someone’s being a bully.
To understand all these nuances, you have to spend a lot of time watching horses be horses.
And that can be tough for people who don’t live and work on a farm, because horses do a lot of eating and snoozing, with just a few moments of play and grooming and “get out of my way!” thrown in. One of the best times to witness horse behavior is when a new horse is introduced to the herd. Then you can really expect to see the personalities come out. Hang out with your trainer or other knowledgeable horse person and ask lots of questions. You’ll learn a ton.
How do horses protect themselves?
Horses have four hooves and a mouth full of teeth to help them fight. They defend themselves by biting or kicking.
How do horses keep watch?
Horses can hear really well. They also have almost 360-degree vision and notice anything that moves. They may also rely on their sense of smell to tell them something unusual is nearby, like a predator or a fire.
Horses also rely on the buddy system.
When one horse says, “I’m scared!” the others trust that they’re scared for a legitimate reason. Everyone skedaddles first, and asks questions later.
Are horses happier in a herd?
Yes. Horses do not feel safe without others to help keep watch. They also don’t get the benefit of playing and grooming other horses. Even stallions remain social in the wild, associating with other “bachelor” stallions for protection until they “win” mares.
How do horses show affection?
Horses show physical affection by nuzzling each other and by “mutually grooming.” The horses stand facing each other and rub each other’s withers (where the shoulders meet the spine) with their teeth. Studies have shown that this releases endorphins, which make the horses feel good.
Why do horses bite each other’s necks?
Although horses prefer to groom each other on the withers, they might groom each other on the neck instead. Horses also bite each other’s necks when they play. In addition, neck-biting is part of a horse’s mating ritual.
How do horses find a mate?
When stallions reach a certain age, they’re usually kicked out of their parent herd. They meet up with other stallions and form a “bachelor herd.” They roam around until they encounter full-fledged horse herds. Then, they try to woo that herd’s mares and convince them to leave the herd and join them instead.
Mares are very unimpressed by this invitation unless the stallion actually demonstrates his ability to defend the herd even better than the existing stallion.
So, a fight ensues. The stallions don’t intend to kill each other, but each tries to make the other back down and admit defeat. Sometimes, while the alpha stallion is battling it out with a bachelor, another bachelor introduces himself to the mares and herds one or two of the submissive ones away from the group. And just like that, he has both formed a herd and found mates.
As far as the fight, the winning stallion can lead the entire herd. The defeated stallion joins the bachelor stallions.
How do horses sleep?
Horses typically doze off while standing up, but they lay down for brief periods to enter an even deeper state of sleep. They take turns sleeping so that someone always keeps a watchful eye, but it’s not uncommon to see multiple horses laying down at once for a nap.
5 Interesting Horse Behavior Facts
- Horses raise their heads and curl their lips up when they smell something strong. This is called the Flehmen response.
- When flies become bothersome, horses stand head-to-tail with another horse so that their tails swish flies away from the other horse’s face, and vice versa.
- Horses do not lap water up like a dog or cat – instead, they slurp it.
- Horses are thought to roll on the ground as a way to dry a wet coat, protect themselves from heat and flies, and to mark territory.
- Stallions will defecate on top of other stallions’ excrement as a way of marking territory.
How do horses find their food?
Horses have amazing noses, and not just in terms of their sense of smell. Their noses also have an extraordinary sensitive sense of touch thanks to numerous hairs and whiskers. Their lips can wiggle around and grasp even tiny blades of grass.
In short, they put their nose to the ground and investigate until they find something tasty. They remember plants that taste unpalatable and avoid those in the future. It’s possible they also learn what’s right and wrong to eat from their mothers.
How do horses find water?
Water also has a smell that horses can sense. (In fact, they can smell the difference between clean water and dirty water and absolutely prefer to drink clean water. Scrub those buckets!) They can hear the sound of flowing water too. If a horse detects water, they can lower their head to investigate. Their whiskers will confirm whether they’ve found water.
In the wild, horses also use memory to find water and will travel between known watering holes on a regular basis.
5 Interesting Horse Survival Facts
- Most horses can reach speeds of about 27 miles per hour to outrun a predator.
- Horses have much better night vision than people.
- Horses can live to be more than 20 or even 30 years old, but the record is held by horse that lived to be about 62 years old.
- The Przewalski’s horse is the only truly wild horse in the world, descending from no domesticated stock whatsoever.
- Horses grow thick coats in winter that insulate them from cold keep
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a group of wild horses called?
A group of wild horses may be called a herd, band, harem, harras, or mob. You may also hear the terms rag or rake, which refer to a group of colts (young stallions). The phrase “string of horses” is usually used to refer to a group of riding horses, not wild horses.
What is a group of horses called in Australia?
Australians tend to use the words band or mob to refer to a group of horses.
What is a harras of horses?
A harras / haras is a group of stallions or studs.
What is a group of donkeys called?
A group of donkeys is also called a herd.
Why do horses neigh?
Horses are social animals, and neighing is one way they communicate with each other. A neigh can mean lots of different things.
It can be a greeting or can happen when a horse is experiencing separation anxiety. Horses also neigh to attract the attention of another horse or a person.
Neighing isn’t the only sound horses use to communicate. They will often nicker, which is much softer. It can be a greeting, but owners also might hear this when offering their horse a treat.
Horses will also squeal, usually when they feel threatened or are exhibiting defensive behaviors like rearing up or striking out at another horse.
Do horses recognize each other?
Of course! Horses can recognize each other even after years apart. They developed this ability in the wild when knowing the difference between a friend and a rival (particularly with stallions) meant the difference between life and death.
A horse uses multiple senses to create a memory of another horse, including hearing, sight, and smell. They can recognize postures and physical cues as easily as the sound of another horse’s whinny.
Being able to recognize familiar horses is often why the new horse in a herd is left out or picked on. The other horses don’t recognize him, and so he isn’t (yet) welcomed into the herd.
There’s a lot to learn about horse behavior, but one thing is certain: horses understand us more than we give them credit for. If your horse tries to communicate with you, stop and listen. You’ll be astounded by how “talkative” a horse can be once they realize you’re paying attention!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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Is a group of horses called a herd? ›
What is a group of horses called? A group of horses is called a herd.Who is the lead horse in a herd? ›
The leader of the herd is usually an older mare (the “alpha mare”), even though one stallion owns the herd. She maintains her dominant role even though she may be physically weaker than the others.What are groups of horses called? ›
What is a group of horses called? It is alternately called a team, a harras, a rag (for colts), a stud (a group kept primarily for breeding), or a string (a group belonging to or used by one individual).What do you call a group of horses in the wild? ›
Feral horses live in groups called a herd, band, harem, or mob. Feral horse herds, like those of wild horses, are usually made up of small harems led by a dominant mare, containing additional mares, their foals, and immature horses of both sexes.Do horses recognize each other? ›
There is no doubt that they remember each other and the bond they have. Not only do horses remember each other, but they also show affection to the horses they have close bonds with. Some of these are similar to the way horses show affection towards their owners.What is a group of three horses called? ›
The term "troika" is sometimes used to refer to any three-horse team harnessed abreast, regardless of harness style or what horse-drawn vehicle is used.What does it mean when a horse nudges you with his nose? ›
Horses can nudge you with their nose for a variety of reasons. The key reasons are likely to be: pushing you out of the way, encouraging you to give them treats, rudeness, itching, and affection. Sometimes it just genuinely means they want to play.What does it mean when a horse rests its head on you? ›
What is this? When a horse rests its head on you, it's a way for them to bond with you and show their affection. They are letting you know they enjoy being in your presence. It's like their way of giving a hug.Why does a horse rub its head on you? ›
This behavior is a way horses naturally groom each other. When your horse tries rubbing its head on your body, it may be attempting to “groom” you as a show of affection. Even though some horses rub their head on humans as a way to show affection, it's a behavior that should be discouraged due to the risk of injury.How do horses communicate in a herd? ›
Horses are prey animals with a strong fight-or-flight response and in their natural state, they live in herds for safety, breeding and companionship. While they can vocalise with a whinny, squeal, nicker or snort, they communicate mostly using body language.
What do you call a group of baby horses? ›
All baby horses are called foals, regardless of their gender, until they're one year old. Males foals are also called colts, and female foals are fillies. These terms are used until the horse turns four years old.How many horses make a herd? ›
Feral and wild horse "herds" are usually made up of several separate, small "bands" which share a territory. Size may range from two to 25 individuals, mostly mares and their offspring, with one to five stallions.How do horses greet each other? ›
Nickering is a soft sound made when horses greet one another. They make it by keeping their lips pressed together while simultaneously using their vocal chords. It's a sound that means, "Hello! I'm happy to see you!" When horses nicker with happiness, they have an alert expression on their faces.Why do horses rear at each other? ›
Horses may rear up as a way to express their dominance (particularly stallions) or to show that they are objecting to being restrained. Without management, the horse may use rearing as a way to avoid cooperating with the person riding or handling him.What do you call a group of Mustangs? ›
Mustang horses live in groups called herds. A herd consists of one stallion, and around eight females and their young, though separate herds have been known to mix when they are in danger, according to the Humane Society.Where should you not touch a horse? ›
If you pet a horse on the face, it's best to pet their muzzle. Most horses do not like to be petted near their eyes. Some horses love a good ear scratch as well and some like to be rubbed on their forehead.How long can a horse remember you? ›
Horses also understand words better than expected, according to the research, and possess "excellent memories," allowing horses to not only recall their human friends after periods of separation, but also to remember complex, problem-solving strategies for ten years or more.Do horses have a favorite person? ›
Horses exhibit higher heart rates when separated from a human, but don't show any preference for their owners over complete strangers, the team discovered.How many horses pull a troika? ›
The troika is a traditional Russian sleigh or carriage drawn by three horses harnessed abreast.Do horses have a pecking order? ›
The dominant horse controls what the herd values—food, water, shade, shelter, or even the best spot to roll. The herd relies on a linear hierarchy to establish leadership and order. One horse (the alpha) is at the top of the rankings, and all other horses fall into line behind him.
Is there only one stallion in a herd? ›
About the Herd
The herd is comprised of a dominant male stallion who is surrounded by females. This dominant male gets to mate with all of the females and his offspring will remain with the herd for only 1 or 2 years before they are cast out. This helps the herd to avoid inbreeding.
Never look a horse in the eye
You're only a predator if you intend to eat what you're looking at. Horses can easily tell the difference between a predator looking to eat and predator looking in curiosity and wonder. Horses do, however, struggle to understand the intention of a human who hides his eyes.
Horses Trust You When They're At Ease Around You
Their bottom lip is tight. Their nostrils are tense. Their tail is moving quickly or not at all. Their ears are pinned back on their head, or alert and facing you.
Never stand directly in front of your horse when leading or backing. Horses cannot see directly in front of them or behind them. Stand to the “near side" (left side) of the horse, between the head and shoulder, ideally at the throat latch. Standing behind a horse is also unsafe, as they have a blind spot there as well.Can horses sense a good person? ›
The findings indicated that horses care capable of detecting when a human is expressing and projecting positive feelings towards them and is likely to reciprocate those positive feelings.How do horses show disrespect? ›
What is labelled disrespect usually involves things the horse does that the person does not like: crowding space, ignoring cues, barging over the person, standing too close, biting, kicking, pinning ears, rubbing his head on the person, not standing still, turning hindquarters towards the person, spooking and not ...Do horses like to be hugged? ›
As I say though, most horses prefer to be hugged around the neck, withers, and shoulders but some are also happy for small children to hug their front legs if they're unable to reach their necks. Some horses are also happy for you to cuddle their heads while others don't feel comfortable with people being that close.How can you tell if a horse is happy? ›
- Nostrils. Your horse's nostrils are soft, round, and relaxed and breathing is even on both sides.
- Tail. Your horse's tail will swing freely, evenly, and loosely when happy and relaxed.
- Lower Jaw. ...
- Rearing or Pawing. ...
- Licking and Chewing. ...
- Yawning. ...
- Snorting. ...
- Mutual Grooming.
You need to establish dominance over your horse by being assertive, self-assured, and confident and by rewarding good behaviors and correcting bad behaviors right away. You can also earn your horse's respect and trust through consistent and positive groundwork training.What does it mean when a horse puts its ears back? ›
Ears Back. Usually this means a horse is angry and is threatening another horse. When a horse is mad, the whites of its eyes may be visible and the teeth are usually showing. When a horse's ears are back, it can also mean that the horse is concentrating.
Are horses protective of their owners? ›
In many cases, the horse will come to see the human as the herd leader. The more attached a horse is to its owner, the more likely it is that they would protect them. Lastly, it is important to note that the horse will identify their owner with being fed, cared for, and exercised.What is a harras? ›
Definition of harras
: a herd of stud horses.
A foal is an equine up to one year old; this term is used mainly for horses, but can be used for donkeys. More specific terms are colt for a male foal and filly for a female foal, and are used until the horse is three or four. When the foal is nursing from its dam (mother), it may also be called a "suckling".What are female horses called? ›
…male horse is called a stallion, the female a mare. A stallion used for breeding is known as a stud. A castrated stallion is commonly called a gelding. Formerly, stallions were employed as riding horses, while mares were kept for breeding purposes only.Why do horses fall after mating? ›
The most likely reason that mares lie down after mating is because they are overwhelmed and need to rest to bring their heart rate back down to normal levels. Stallions can be aggressive and hyperactive when courting and mating, and horses are socially sensitive creatures.Do horses like being ridden? ›
Conclusion. There is no definitive answer to the question of whether horses like being ridden. While some horses seem to enjoy the companionship and the attention that they receive from their riders, others may find the experience to be uncomfortable or even stressful.Why does my gelding act like a stallion? ›
Stallion behavior is caused almost exclusively by the presence of testosterone. In most cases, the cause of stallion-like behavior actually DOES relate to the presence of testosterone in the circulation. A normal gelding should have a very low blood testosterone level.What does it mean when a horse nods his head up and down? ›
Horses nod their heads as a signal of energy, excitement, or irritation. They also nod when bothered by ear infections and insects. Horses that lower and raise their heads in a calm, controlled manner may be showing a sign of submission to convey a simple hello.How do you say hello to a horse? ›
1 Use a Knuckle Touch (your hand in a soft fist, knuckles up) to the horse's Greeting Button to say, “Hello,” followed by an obvious turn to one side. Do this to see if the horse will copy your movement (an offer to follow you).Where do horses like to be touched? ›
They are strong and would rub or pull on each other strongly. 4- Many horses like to be rubbed on the neck, shoulder, hip, or on the chest. Some horses enjoy having their heads and ears rubbed. Horses often groom each other on the whither, so this would be a good place to try too.
Why do horses kick their front legs? ›
Horses typically paw the ground when they want attention, are mad, frustrated, or bored. They stomp their feet when their lower legs are irritated. Common stimulants are wraps, horseflies, or an infestation of mites or other insects.Does a tie down stop a horse from rearing? ›
Tie downs are useful in postponing going from popping up the head to flipping over. They certainly do not relieve the frustration that cause the behavior. But when that critical moment occurs, there won't be much rearing.How do you stop a horse from bolting? ›
HOW DO I STOP MY HORSE FROM BOLTING? - YouTubeWhat is the leader of a horse herd called? ›
The leader of the herd is usually an older mare (the “alpha mare”), even though one stallion owns the herd. She maintains her dominant role even though she may be physically weaker than the others.Do horses recognize each other? ›
There is no doubt that they remember each other and the bond they have. Not only do horses remember each other, but they also show affection to the horses they have close bonds with. Some of these are similar to the way horses show affection towards their owners.How do horses show submission? ›
3. Your horse is complying with your request but is showing other signs of discomfort or tension such as: rapid breathing, wide eyes, whites of eyes showing, tightness in jaw, tightness around pole and ears, stiff and/or jerky movements, or head held very high with a tight neck.How many horses are in a herd? ›
Feral and wild horse "herds" are usually made up of several separate, small "bands" which share a territory. Size may range from two to 25 individuals, mostly mares and their offspring, with one to five stallions.What is a group of zebras called? ›
A dazzle of zebras is the most common collective noun, named for the motion dazzle effect created by a group of running zebras. A group of zebras can also be called a herd of zebras or a zeal of zebras, but those aren't quite as much fun. A dazzle of zebras.What is a group of foxes called? ›
A group of foxes is called a skulk. A group of foxes is called a skulk. The word skulk comes from a Scandinavian word, and generally means to wait, lurk or move stealthily. Foxes have a bit of a reputation for being sneaky so this word seems to work quite well!What is a group of humans called? ›
There is no specific word to describe a group of humans. When we dig up the English language, we find several words that could represent a community of humans, but none that exactly match what we are looking for.
What does it mean when a horse nudges you with his nose? ›
Horses can nudge you with their nose for a variety of reasons. The key reasons are likely to be: pushing you out of the way, encouraging you to give them treats, rudeness, itching, and affection. Sometimes it just genuinely means they want to play.What does it mean when a horse rests its head on you? ›
What is this? When a horse rests its head on you, it's a way for them to bond with you and show their affection. They are letting you know they enjoy being in your presence. It's like their way of giving a hug.Why do horses fall after mating? ›
The most likely reason that mares lie down after mating is because they are overwhelmed and need to rest to bring their heart rate back down to normal levels. Stallions can be aggressive and hyperactive when courting and mating, and horses are socially sensitive creatures.What is a group of elephants? ›
A group of elephants is called a 'herd' – a herd of elephants.What is a group of hippos? ›
Why a group of hippos is called a bloat - BBC Travel.What is a group of octopus called? › What is a group of giraffes? ›
Take giraffe for example: “a tower” is their collective noun, and we can't think of a better way to describe a group of these gangly giants, towering as they do above all but the tallest trees around them. A group of giraffe are called a 'tower', which is a great example of collective nouns at their descriptive best.What is a group of koalas called? ›
They are fairly solitary creatures, although they do like to be living in overlapping home ranges in bushland with other Koalas. We usually call these groups 'Koala populations' or 'Koala colonies'.What is a group of monkeys called? ›
• Monkeys: a barrel or a troop.What is a group of girls called? ›
Clue. Answer. GROUP OF GIRLS (4) BEVY.
What is a group of woman called? ›
Clue. Answer. Group of females (4) BEVY.What is a bunch of snakes called? ›
A group is called a snake den or pit. When someone refers to a snake den, the word den is being used as a collective noun. The collective noun highlights the fact that there's more than one snake in the group.