How Herding Instincts Affect Horses’ Behavior

No matter how long you and your horse have worked together, his natural instincts will affect how he behaves. His instincts also will impact what training tactics are effective, as well as what reasonably can be expected from your horse.

One of the strongest of the horse's natural urges is the herding instinct. Before horses were domesticated, their survival depended to a large extent on herd grouping. A horse alone stood little chance of survival, yet a community of horses was much more likely to survive. Because of this, horses naturally want to live with other horses and will seek out friendships with others of their kind.

But whereas human friendships normally are formed between peers and equals, horses relate to each other in a hierarchy.

"There's an Alpha or first place horse in the herd that nobody else challenges to any extent, then a low man on the totem pole, and then all the other horses will be somewhere in between," says Dr. Dean Scoggins, Equine Extension Veterinarian at the University of Illinois.

The lowest ranking horse always will be the last to enter the stable, the last to drink from the water trough, and has the last choice of food and space for herself and for her young. Rather than feel oppressed or unhappy, the hierarchy gives the low-ranking horses a sense of security because they have a specific position in the herd, and know exactly what they may and may not do.

The hierarchy may change whenever you introduce a new horse into an established group. "If you introduce a new horse, there's going to be some scrapping and fighting until they re-establish the hierarchy." says Dr. Tom Phillips, an equine veterinarian in Naperville, Ill.

While horses naturally prefer each other's company, they can live happily without equine companionship if they are properly cared for by their human owners. "If you own one horse alone, your horse will feel that he is part of a two-member herd with you and him together," Phillips notes.

It's important that you take your horse's herd instincts into account in how you care for and train him, otherwise you will be setting yourself up for headache and heartache. Here are some suggestions for working with your horse's social structure and herd instincts.

Take Your Position as the Alpha

Your horse needs to see you, his trainer and caretaker, as the Alpha horse. "You accept the position of dominant member when you take on a horse that is to be your dependent, servant and companion," Scoggins says. "You are to provide his food, shelter, protection and leadership. You must project yourself as the leader, to take the place of the herd leader in the wild."

As the Alpha, it is important to be consistent. You can't allow your horse to think he's in charge one moment and the next minute expect him to pay attention to you. "When you are consistent, your horses rarely challenge your authority," Scoggins says. "But if you're inconsistent, the horse periodically will challenge that authority to see if you're still in charge or if you're willing to step aside and let him take over."

Introduce New Horses Gradually

You might want to put the new horse in a box stall so the horses can smell, examine and get acquainted with each other. After a few days you can turn them out in adjacent paddocks so they can check each other out across the fence. "It is always useful if neighbors grow to like one another, so that later, when one of the horses naturally takes the lead, the hierarchy battle is only symbolic," says Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the animal behavior clinic at Cornell University.

Another idea is to choose a trustworthy and gentle horse from your established group of horses, and put him and the new horse together into a well-fenced pasture near the other horses. Give the new and established horse a week or two to become friends. Then, add one or two more horses to the pasture, or move the two pals nearer the herd or even within the herd, but stay close and watch. "Once the horse has one friend, he will stick with it and not get cornered by the others. Gradually he will make friends with the rest," Houpt says.

Accept Hierarchies as a Fact of Life

Although the hierarchy may appear unfair from a human perspective, you shouldn't try to interfere. It is a mistake to be "extra nice" to a horse who may seem to be picked on by the higher-up horses. If for example, you give the first bite of food to the lowest horse, you may cause a permanent jealousy in the hierarchy. "A group of horses remain at peace only as long as the rank of each individual is clearly understood between them," Scoggins says.

Accept the hierarchy for what it is. For example, if the top horse is standing at the entrance of her favorite paddock, the other horses will not dare to pass her, even when they are being driven from behind with a whip. If you try to ignore this and make the horses pass, the high ranking horse may start kicking and hurt the other horses.

If you own several horses, watch them closely and try to get a good understanding of each horse's place in the herd. The equine social structure may not always make sense from a human perspective, but by taking the time to learn how your horse naturally thinks, you can pave the way for a more productive training program and a peaceful coexistence among horses.