For decades horse owners have been taught that pecking order was a strict social hierarchy. That a bossy horse would always bully more timid horses. New research shows this isn’t the case—the social standing of horses living in a herd changes based on resource availability, such as access to food or shelter, according to Carissa Wickens, PhD, an Assistant Professor and State Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Florida. She said that recognizing change in the dynamics in a herd is as important as watching horses that appear to be chronically subordinate.
“If a horse is dropping weight or looks stressed, it may be a sign that the horse might be subordinate,” she said.
Wickens offers advice for making sure all horses in the group have access to food, water and shelter.
- Separate the horses at feeding time. When possible bring them inside, or at least separate the subordinate horse in order to defuse the aggressive situation.
- Spread hay into multiple piles to give horses equal access. If there are three horses in a paddock, put out four piles so that they can rotate through the piles as a dominate horse pushes another horse off a pile in a domino effect.
- Provide more than one run-in shed or shaded area so that the horses that group well together can gather in one area and the others in a second location.
Dominant horses exert their status in a variety of ways, including mild posturing or using gestures such as showing teeth and pinning ears. More aggressive horses bite or kick at others to keep herd mates away from food or shelter. In extreme cases, they might run a subordinate horse into pasture corners.
“Hind shoes increase the risk of injury in group housing,” she cautioned. “Regrouping may be necessary in severe cases of aggression.”