Horses are by their nature are social animals. They look for companionship with other horses. But sometimes they can’t all get along. Horses that are lower in the pecking order are often pushed away from food, water and access to shelter. The more dominant horses keep them at the fringes of the herd. Horses that are lower on the social hierarchy aren’t just pushed away from resources, sometimes they become the target of aggressive horses, which can put them at risk for injury.
Herd dynamics can be complex. There’s not a straightforward linear connection between which horse is the most dominant, and that role can be fluid depending on the resources available. What is clear is that it’s the stable manager’s responsibility to observe the herd and make sure all horses—especially those lowest in the pecking order—are able to access food, water and shelter.
Carissa Wickens, PhD, an assistant professor and state extension horse specialist at the University of Florida, offers these tips for dealing with horses that are low in the pecking order.
- Put out more piles of hay than there are horses. This gives every horse a chance at hay and room for moving between piles.
- Bring the subordinate horses in for feeding time to ensure they are receiving enough nutrients to maintain their weight.
- Introduce a buddy horse that intervenes and acts as the neutralizer.
- Provide enough pasture or paddock space where horses can get away from one another. There’s no hard data on how much space is enough, but make sure there’s enough room so that one horse isn’t trapped by another.
- Regroup horses that simply can’t get along.
“Hind shoes increase the risk of injury in group housing,” she cautioned. “This can put subordinate horses at a disadvantage when turned out with a dominant horse that has been shod with hind shoes.”