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 Is the "lead mare" a misleading myth?


 Time for a bombshell....


The idea that groups of horses have a “lead mare” who is responsible for leading and disciplining the members of the group has become very widespread, but newly published research by my friend and colleague, Professor Konstanze Krüger at the University of Nürtingen in Germany suggests this idea may be no more than a popular myth.


It has been generally believed that one "lead mare" is responsible for leading the group, if not all the time, then at least most of the time. However, this proved not to be the case among the feral Esperian horses pictured here.


A few years ago, Konstanze told me that after watching her own horses closely, she was not convinced that the highest ranking mare dictated the movement or action of the rest. She admitted she could be missing something and perhaps she just couldn't see it, so she put together a team of researchers to go to Italy and study the feral Esperia horses. This way the movement patterns could be observed objectively and scientifically analysed.  She and her assistants recorded the movements of 3 groups of horses, numbering 55 in total, during during two research periods one year apart. They also collected data on the social hierarchies and interactions within the groups. I confess, I was a little sceptical. I mean, EVERYONE knows there are lead mares, don't they?


When they returned, as Konstanze knows that horses' social organisation is a particular interest of mine, she asked me whether I would like to co-author the study with her and I was, of course, honoured and delighted to join the team. After all - a bit of healthy scepticism is never bad in a research project, is it?


The data the field team had collected covered two types of movement initiation: herding (i.e. driving other members of the group from behind) and departures (i.e. setting off in a particular direction, and other group members following), and showed which horses' actions initiated the movement of other group members. As the analysis began, I soon realized I would have to revise my position.


Astonishing results


What the analysis revealed was astonishing, and called into question a number of popular beliefs - including my own:


Firstly, while popular belief says that a mare holds the highest rank in the group, this was not the case. In one group it was a stallion, and in the other two groups stallions were in ranks 2 and 5.


Secondly, only the alpha stallion (the highest ranking stallion in the group), showed herding behaviour and on each occasion it resulted in movement of the whole group.


Thirdly, and perhaps most surprisingly, mares of all ranks initiated movement by departure, and it was definitely not the case that the highest ranking mare moved, and everyone followed.


Although high ranking mares were a little more likely to be followed than low ranking mares, there were plenty of occasions where low ranking mares were followed by several other group members. There was also a tendency for the followers to follow in rank order, but not on all occasions. There has been speculation that horses move in rank order, and this would seem to be the case sometimes, but by no means always.


Only alpha stallions showed herding, and when they did, the whole group moved. Surprisingly, one stallion was also the number 1 in his group hierarchy.  


"Lead" and "Top ranking" 


These findings call into question the whole concept of a “lead mare” as the "boss" who leads the group to safety, chooses grazing and watering sites and enforces discipline. 


The study showed that the hierarchy was stable over the one year period, so it does seem to be the case that being the highest ranking is a relatively fixed position in the group - but we may have misunderstood what this position means for the other horses. In the case of deciding movement, in certainly does not seem to be the case that the highest ranking mare sets off and everyone follows. In fact any member of the group can move off, and may be followed by some or all of the others. Whether other decisions are ruled by a particular indivudual who could be considered a "leader", and whether that individual is also the highest ranking as measured by a dominance index, is still open to question.


This has interesting implications as far as the human relationship with horses is concerned. While the hierarchy may be largely stable, the minute to minute decisions may be governed by other factors, and being a “boss” does not necessarily mean that you become a leader your horse would choose to follow in any particular situation.


Philosophically speaking 


I think perhaps the most important message from this study is that the horse's social structure and organisation is far more complex than we usually imagine, and we still know very little about exactly how it works.  We must also be very careful not to impose human models onto horses, but keep an open mind an observe what really happens, rather than make suppositions about what we think might happen. From a human point of view, the idea of a lead mare who is the "top horse" and leads and takes care of the group matches our own behaviour standards and expectations - but it might not make "horse sense".


It's also important to realize that this research does not mean there is no such thing as a "lead mare", just that the role of that "lead mare" may not be quite what we thought it was, and leading, in the physical sense, may or may not be a part of it. Additionally, the observations in this study were made while the horses were grazing, resting and going around their daily routine without any emergencies, conflicts or threats from predators. Perhaps different patterns would emerge under these circumstances.   


It was very interesting that a stallion held the highest rank in one group. Other studies, particularly by Katherine Albro Houpt at Cornell University in the USA, have shown that it is more usual for mares to have the highest rank in feral groups of horses, while geldings are more often the number 1 in domestic groups. It is still unclear what role gender plays in the hierarchy - but as with so many things, "always" and "never" are words that clearly don't belong in the discussion.   In any event, the significance and role of the highest ranking horse in the group still needs a lot more research and there will almost certainly be more surprises and re-thinks ahead.



Citation: Krueger, K., Flauger, B., Farmer, K., & Hemelrijk, C. (2014). Movement initiation in groups of feral horses. Behavioural Process., 103, 91–101. 



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