Pecking Order: Horse Herd Hierarchy

Who's the boss in your little herd? Here are some clues to understanding where a horse stands in the pecking order.

Appearances are deceiving in the horse world and determining a herd’s hierarchy can be as tricky as threading a needle with barbed wire. Full of illusions, the complexities of the pecking order can often throw the casual observer for a loop. So how can you tell if Ol’ Dobbin is a social butterfly or merely an errand boy?

Gather a thick pad of paper, a handful of pencils and stake out an unobtrusive spot in the field. Write down every action, no matter how inconsequential it may seem. Was that Blaze chasing Storm away from the water trough? Was Snip the first horse to take off running as the rabbit hopped through the pasture? Don’t expect to discover the placement of each horse in the hierarchy in five minutes; it may take days or weeks of careful observation to reach a conclusion. Once all the data is in, closely analyze your findings, charting who did what to whom.

If your horse is kept in a stall, it may be harder to determine his stance in a make-believe herd, but not altogether impossible. For instance:

  • How does he act around others when being ridden – does he insist on being the leader on trail rides or is he content bringing up the rear? Does he pin his ears when another horse approaches? Is he the first to start carrying on when you enter the feed room? On the other hand, is he basically a happy-go-lucky guy, who does not worry about anything? (Keep in mind that often a rider’s attitude and personality play a role in a horse’s behavior around others. Some horsemen can make even the most herdbound horses happy to lead by transferring their own confidence and aggressiveness to their horses.)
  • When you enter his stall, does he immediately turn tail and threaten you, or does he greet you with a nicker? While it may not show where your horse stands with others, this test is a sure bet on how he stands with you. A horse who welcomes you with tense hindquarters has undoubtedly placed you below him on the totem pole and may need a lot of convincing to change his mind. At the other extreme, submissive horses will also turn tail when approached, but their body language won’t include threatening gestures.
  • When faced with a new obstacle, does he seem to welcome the challenge or resent the imposition?
  • How adaptable is your horse to his environment? Boss horses have a knack for taking care of themselves, while those lower in rank may need a helping hand to provide them with their needs.
  • If you know your horse’s breeding, was his dam the leader of her pack and was his sire known for his “toughness”? Herd hierarchy is a combination of genetic and environmental factors – aggression can be bred into an animal and the offspring of a “first” mare quickly learns how to boss others.

In addition to these rating methods, the old tactic of pushing a horse’s nose may have some validity. If your horse refuses to budge or pushes back as you press on his muzzle, he may be dominant; one who backs up or gives and flexes at the poll is often more submissive.

While you may be surprised or even disappointed at the outcome of these tests, remember there is no absolute way of determining where your horse stands. The best we can do is make educated guesses. And, in a number of cases, patience and proper training can compensate for what your horse may lack.

Condensed from the EQUUS Reference Guide, Understanding Equine Behavior.

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