How to deal with pecking order – horses

Running horses in herds can lead to aggression and life-threatening injuries, cautions Dr Mac.

Injuries to a vaulable showhorse that was kicked by an 'alpha mare'. This horse could not be ridden or shown for six weeks & was in danger of becoming permanently unsound.
Photo: Dr Mac

In the wild, horses congregate in herds with a breeding stallion, mares, weaned youngsters and foals. There are thus many articles and opinions on ‘wild herd behaviour’ and ‘pecking order’. Behaviourists and ‘horse whisperers’ frequently speak of ‘alpha mares’. It has been noted that, among wild horses, the actual leader of the herd is a mare who is more adventurous and competitive than the rest.

Within a breeding herd, this mare displays aggression to other mares and may even dominate the stallion. But ‘natural’ isn’t always safe, and inexperienced horse owners often believe that it’s more ‘natural’ to run all their horses in a herd. Wild herds, however, evolve a pecking order over time and there are wide open spaces so that a horse being bullied can escape.

At a riding school or stud, by contrast, a horse can be chased by an ‘alpha mare’ or a dominant gelding until it panics and tries to jump the fence. With no way of escaping, it can be cornered and kicked repeatedly. A foal can also be run to death. In discussion groups online, this problem is often raised under the heading ‘horse aggression’ and handled as though it’s something abnormal.

In practice, vets are probably well aware of the problem as they have to treat the injured animals, but their advice on a better management structure is often not heeded because many horse owners still believe in the ‘natural’ approach.

Horse-wise people realise that ‘pecking order’ fights can be highly dangerous. A top South African showjumper once said that she never kept her valuable competition horses in a group. Instead, she placed them in small paddocks or stalls, where they could communicate without getting close enough to kick or bite each other.

Remudas – no stallions
On US cattle ranches, horses are typically kept in ‘remudas’, or herds of working horses that do not contain a stallion. These remudas are often large bachelor herd of geldings. At riding schools, it’s convenient and makes sense to keep horses in groups. Horses are social animals and will usually ‘buddy up’ with others. Observing which horses get along and which fight each other is the key to successful grouping. As a guideline, mares and geldings should be kept in separate remudas, while horses of equal size should be together.

Foals and older mares
Mares with foals should run with older mares that have already had a number of foals. Alternatively, they should be kept on their own in a small paddock next to the main herd until the foal is weaned. After weaning, foals should be run with other foals of the same age and size. Valuable showhorses should always be kept in single paddocks alongside the other horses to prevent life-threatening injuries from fighting.