Dealing with Alpha Horses

Horses have a natural tendency to alter the social hierarchy based on the herd’s needs and to encourage cohesion, but the human-horse interaction changes that dynamic.
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A sudden change in aggression in mares could indicate a hormone problem or even ovarian cysts.

The role of the alpha horse was once believed to be a permanent social standing as the leader in a herd. In pasture settings, it’s the alpha horse that claims the best spot in the shade or run-in shed. The dominant horse chases others away from food or water or pushes subordinates to the fringes of the group.

The 2017 research study "Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human–Horse Interactions?" suggested that aggressive alpha horses might be a product of domestication rather than natural instinct.

“Levels of aggression in group-kept horses under domestic conditions have been reported to be higher than in their feral counterparts but can often be attributed to suboptimal management,” according to the paper

The authors Elke Hartmann, Janne W. Christensen and Paul D. McGreevy noted that horses have a natural tendency to alter the social hierarchy based on the herd’s needs and to encourage cohesion. However, the human-horse interaction changes that dynamic and the scientists explore those implications.

“What we used to think about the social hierarchy staying the same with an alpha and subordinate horse may need to be rethought,” said Carissa Wickens, PhD. Wickens is an assistant professor and state extension horse specialist at the University of Florida.

A change in herd status might indicate a health issue, according to Wickens. For example, a sudden change in aggression in mares could indicate a hormone problem or even ovarian cysts.

“If the aggressive behavior wasn’t there before, investigate that individual,” she said. “If the horse was amiable and got aggressive work, with your veterinarian.”

Once physical problems have been ruled out, stable managers can try:

  • Introducing a “buddy” horse that intervenes between the alpha and subordinate horses
  • Providing multiple piles of hay and water tubs to give less-dominate horses access to both
  • Bringing subordinate horses in for feeding time.

“Sometimes the only option is to regroup horses into different paddocks,” Wickens said.

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