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How one horse's complicated social life got me thinking! PDF Print E-mail


How one horse's complicated social life got me thinking!


I just can’t get enough of watching horses interacting, particularly when something different happens and I can see how they react to it. Last week one horse in particular got me thinking.


Meet the stars of the story:


Bigsy                  Sunny                Vali                Cesar                  Baron

Some of the horses that were here over the winter have now moved on, so we decided to put the remaining 5 horses together as one group. Over the winter Sunny (15hh bay mare) had been with Bigsy (17.2hh chestnut gelding) on one paddock, while Baron (12.2hh grey gelding), Vali (15.3 chestnut gelding) and Cesar (16.1hh dark bay gelding) were in a slightly larger group on the other. So, putting them together, we would now have a group of 5, comprising 4 geldings and 1 mare.


The grass is always greener....

First of all, as soon as we started to remove the central electric fence between the two paddocks, each group proved that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” by immediately swapping sides and exploring each other’s territory.


When the fence was completely removed and all the horses were now in one big paddock, the two geldings who seemed to consider themselves “group stallions” started to investigate each other, and it very quickly became clear that Bigsy was the higher ranking. There was the usual squealing and stamping, but at the first threat of a kick or bite, Cesar bowed out and conceded Bigsy’s higher ranking status. The other 3 had simply been looking on and watching the situation unfold, but as it became clear that Bigsy had won, they all wanted to be part of his group, and this is where it became really interesting.


One group or two?

Cesar had conceded that Bigsy could choose his territory, but Cesar was not willing to give up his whole “family group”, or his position as a “group stallion”. Instead of going with the flow and joining Bigsy’s group, he drove Vali away from the others, and insisted that he be Cesar’s “friend”. Vali was simply not allowed to approach the others. Cesar blocked him every time he tried. Cesar was not at all aggressive towards Vali, he never touched or threatened him, he just kept him isolated from the others, out-maneuvering him just like a western horse cutting a cow, and keeping himself between Vali and the rest at all times. Cesar then made a few rather half-hearted attempts to challenge Bigsy’s territory, but Bigsy had to do little more than lay his ears back and Cesar was on the retreat. Nevertheless, Cesar still kept Vali away from the rest and as a member of “Cesar’s group”.


This pattern was more or less repeated the next morning when the group was turned out into the paddock. Michi managed to film it as it happened:




Apart from the relationship between Cesar and Vali, it's also very interesting to watch how they both move around the space of the two higher ranking horses, Sunny and Bigsy, and how Sunny and Bigsy enforce their own personal space, often with quite subtle gestures. While Cesar is moving Vali around, both of them are careful not to invade the space of the other two. I've slowed the video down a little to make it easier to see.



A peaceful resolution...

A week later, Cesar and Bigsy are standing much closer to each other, but Bigsy can still move Cesar away with a flick of his ear. Cesar and Vali are best mates and standing or grazing next to each other, and while Cesar usually places himself between Vali and the rest, Vali isn’t showing any inclination to leave.


Cesar and Vali (on the right) are sticking together, as are Sunny and Bigsy (centre) while Baron "floats" between the two pairs.



Domestic life copying nature?

All this got me thinking about the way we often tend to assume that when we put a domestic group together that it will organise itself rather like a natural family group. There will be a hierarchy, and all the horses in the field will consider themselves to be part of the same group and fit into a single group structure.  But maybe that isn’t the case. In the wild situation, a herd is comprised of a number of family groups or harems, each of which has its own structure and hierarchy, and a territory within the larger herd territory. Each group is usually, but not always, comprised of one stallion and several mares, but groups have also been observed with 2 or 3 stallions and a few mares.


Perhaps what we see in domestic horses is a sort of microcosm of the herd structure, with small “family bands” forming within the larger group. I’d noticed before that there often seem to be sub-groups within the larger group, but it took Cesar to highlight to me just how complex the social structure can be, and how a horse might identify itself with a specific role and not just a position in the whole group.


Cesar didn't challenge Bigsy's or Sunny's authority, he just singled out the one horse he wants. This might be comparable to what is sometimes seen in the wild, when a stallion "steals" a mare from another stallion's group without having to fight the other stallion.


What's the message for us?

It also occurred to me that Cesar did with Vali exactly what I advocate people do to win their horse’s trust and confidence. He controlled the speed, direction and attitude of Vali’s movement – in other words, controlled his feet. Eventually, Vali found this reassuring and he accepted Cesar as his leader and best buddy, even though Bigsy is actually higher ranking than Cesar. Cesar and Vali are now their own a sub-group.  It reminded me of Richard Thompson’s words “You don’t need to be the number 1 in the field, you just need to be one higher than your horse win its trust and respect” – and just like Cesar, you don’t need or want to be aggressive about it, you just need to be absolutely consistent and clear.


Cesar and Vali - in perfect harmony



April 2011




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