Monday, November 23, 2015

Herd dynamics pt 1: The boss horses

One of the coolest things about keeping your horses at home is that you get to see them interact, and you get a much more intimate sense of their personalities and herd dynamics. Sure, you see a little bit of it if you board (or you hear it from the staff), but it's different when you can see them right out your back window. I thought I knew our horses well - after all, I'd had Cash for 13 years before we brought him home - but seeing them 24/7 brings it to a whole new level.

In our little herd, there are two distinct types of horses - leaders and followers - but there are different types of each.

The benevolent dictator - Red and Brego. It's surprising how similar these  two are, despite their obvious physical differences. Neither of them have ever had to try to be the boss, they just are, and they know it. They don't lord it over anyone either - a simple glare or pin of the ears, and everyone else falls in line. I've never seen either of them kick or bite anyone. It's like they're so alpha that they don't even have to mete out discipline. As long as everyone does what they say, there is peace in the world - and nobody ever doesn't do what they say. But here's where the benevolent part comes in - both of them will share. Not grain, but they'll both allow others to share hay if they're in the mood - Red would share with Cash and nobody else.

Sharing is caring (the black blob on the left is Brego, I promise)

Being alpha comes with its own set of problems, though. You rarely get to lay down to nap, because you have to stand guard all the time. You have to be a true leader at all times, which means keep everyone else on a schedule, because they are looking to you to tell them what to do and when. There are times to eat, times to nap, times to go get water - you've gotta keep track of those things because everyone else is depending on you to make those decisions (Cash and Saga literally did not know what to do if Red was not around to tell them. They almost couldn't function without him). It also means you have to be a bit of a loner, because doing something as simple as grooming with another horse might be seen as a weakness. I've actually never seen Red groom with another horse, and Brego I've only seen doing it once or twice with Paddy - whereas the others I will see grooming a few times a week.

A rare napping moment.

One thing we were very careful about when we had Red and Brego at Wyvern Oaks at the same time, was never to turn them out together. Red's now 23, and we simply didn't want him and Brego to get into a fight trying to out-boss each other. Fortunately, Red and Cash are now together in their own little herd at the retirement barn, and Brego's got his little group here. Everyone gets to be alpha and nobody gets hurt.

The bachelor alpha - Oberon. He was actually boss over Red but he never led the herd. He was pretty much a loner - always off by himself. It was almost like he didn't know how to interact with the others, but he was also a PMU baby so maybe that had something to do with it? Red ended up continuing to be herd boss and stayed out of Bo's way (as did most of the others), and Oberon just sort of did his own thing - he was alpha but not at all a leader. It was the oddest relationship I've ever seen.

I don't have many pics of Bo, and none out in the pasture, so this will have to do.

The bully - Taran. He wants to be leader so badly but he just doesn't know how it's done. Unlike the benevolent dictator type, he will go out of his way to pick on any horse lower than him (Cash, Saga, Paddy). If anyone comes in with bite marks, it's Taran's doing. Many times, I've watched him pin a horse against a fence and bite or kick them, apparently just for fun. He herds the others and will chase them too, because he can. It's like he's trying to demand their respect, but doesn't understand that respect is earned. He simply doesn't seem to have what it takes to be a true leader like Red or Brego, and the other horses know it. Interestingly, he's never disciplined for his actions by the alphas - I've wondered if we had mares, would they keep him in line more?

A rare moment of peace.

Is your horse a boss horse, and if so, does he or she fit into one of these categories? Do mares have entirely different categories? Share your stories!

38 comments:

  1. So interesting! Dino was mostly a "Benevolent Dictator" at our last barn, where he was turned out with a small herd of 4-6 horses. Once he established that he was in charge, everyone else scattered at just a "look" from his Stink Eye. Now that he is in a smaller herd of 3 (including him) he falls somewhere in the middle of the pecking order. He pushes Windows around like a jerk, but will submit to Sully and the two of them will groom each other and share their food. Often Sully and Windows will pair up, and Dino will spend time with the donkeys. He is also very protective of his donks, and will chase the other horses off of them if he thinks they're playing too rough.

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    1. Awww, that's cute that he protects his donkeys!

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  2. baha. My herd structure is all too similar this time of year (the only time we feed hay). There aren't a lot of struggles with herd dynamic during grazing months since all they're doing is stuffing their faces. Robin is the benevolent dictator for sure and will generally share with Copper or Kricket, but no one else. Those two are bullies because they think so highly of themselves as well. Paige and Blondie are easily the weak links.

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    1. It's interesting how the alpha is generally a benevolent ruler!

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  3. I think Ramone was leader back when he was a pasture pony only because he was out with Yearlings and 2yos and he was so much bigger. I will never know. I think Carlos was a Bachelor Leader, but we never put him out with anyone else because he was too crazy and violent! Stallion peeking through I guess.

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    1. Carlos sounds like he would definitely have been a Bachelor Leader!

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  4. Mares def. have different categories. I used to work at a camp that insisted mares and geldings be pastured separately. I actually stopped doing that after a few weeks as the mare pasture was so much more difficult to manage. It's a lot easier to keep them together as the geldings mellow the mares. And Shasta doesn't fit any of those categories above. Shasta is a bitch. In every sense of that word. It's kind of like "Bully," but she is also the top dog.

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    1. Hahaha, yeah, mares are special. ;)

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  5. Gina is totally a bully- when she was out with more than one other horse, it totally fried her brain trying to be the alpha! She would pin her ears and bite and kick at other horses and be IMPOSSIBLE to catch. Now that she's in with one other horse (another mare), she still pins her ears and lets the other mare know who's boss, but isn't nearly as insane.

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    1. So interesting! I'm glad you found a horse that she can go out with and nobody's killing anyone...

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  6. My two are the alphas in their field of four mares. Gracie my RMH is the alpha and Lily is her sidekick and second in command. Gracie bosses everyone around and Lily will only be allowed herself to be bossed by Gracie. They are both benevolent dictators though: all they have to do is wrinkle their noses or pin their ears and the other two move aside. They will share their hay with the others as well. Gracie will only bite if challenged, and will only kick in self-defense if another horse tries to outright bully her. Lily wouldn't hurt a fly: she's all bark and no bite.

    Mare dynamics are different though: I have photos of both of mine hogging the run-in shed, lying flat on their sides sleeping next to one another, with one of the more submissive mares (the third in the pecking order) standing guard over them. I often find my two covered in mud or shavings from the run-in shed, so they're totally getting their fair share of sleeping! I've observed the same thing when they've been with entirely different herds. They've been in groups where there was already an established alpha mare and both of them have respected the previously established order and become friends with the alpha without taking over. In mixed herds, my two have lorded over the geldings. Gracie especially!

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    1. So interesting! I wonder if all-gelding herds work more like bachelor stallion herds?

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  7. Bobby is the saddest loser in any herd. He has no idea what being bossy or making mean faces is, and unfortunately he doesn't really know what mean faces mean either. He'll get the death glare and just stand there until someone runs him off which is why he now gets turned out in the barn's biggest pasture with a single ancient, crippled gelding that might not even be capable of cantering anymore.

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    1. Hahaha Bobby sounds like Cash, my paint horse. Poor clueless creatures.

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  8. Rico is definitely the benevolent leader type. He tends to really piss other alpha type horses off just by existing. Because he just walks around like he owns the place. I never understood why one of my friends horses suddenly went to attack him, but then we put Rico in with another horse and it was SO obvious. He just exudes dominance without ever having to do anything about it.

    TC is a follower, he gives in to peer pressure. If the other horses are beating up on a horse, he's right along with them, but the second anyone bosses him around, he is completely submissive. I think that's why he appreciates his paddock so much!

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    1. I can totally picture Rico being like "yes, this land and all I see is mine. Now GIVE ME COOKIES!"

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  9. Harley is the alpha. He is only turned out with one other horse, but if I let him roam the property to graze, he gets a lot of attention from the other horses. It is sort of like he is a celebrity and doesn't have the time of day to sniff noses. Occasionally he will, but he is never the one to squeal and make a big deal. He will blatantly turn his back on other herd leaders or flat out ignore them (grazing just beyond their reach). It is pretty hilarious.

    He will share hay with his herd mate, but there are definitely sharing boundaries. One time a horse visiting the farm was loose in the riding ring while Harley casually walked by grazing outside the fence. Apparently, this horse said the wrong thing in silent horse language, because without a missing beat or even removing his face the grass, Harley struck out with a single hind leg and kicked the top fence plank free right in front of the offensive horse's face. His aim and nonchalance were impressive.

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    1. Ha, I never would have pictured Harley as boss! He seems like such a *nice* guy... ;)

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    2. It comes in handy. He is always first at the gate and keeps the other horse out of my way. ;) I guess he is the benevolent type. I rarely see him lying down snooze.

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    3. It comes in handy. He is always first at the gate and keeps the other horse out of my way. ;) I guess he is the benevolent type. I rarely see him lying down snooze.

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  10. We had an alpha mare when I worked as a groom who went out as a 2 yo with the main herd and was in charge by the end of the day. You'd rarely see her groom anyone but she'd pin ears and glare and the others would just yield. If they didn't she'd lead with her teeth and chase them into submission.

    After she put a mare through the fence (this after a period of behavior escalating) a work up was done and a tumor found on one ovary. I forget the type but it made her behavior more studdy than typical. The whole ovary was removed and she became more of the benevolent dictator type but the lessons were already well taught.

    There was another mare in the group who was close to the top of the pecking order. She was tall, sticked at 17.1. That mare only buddied up with this barely 15hh morgan cross. Was hysterical to watch the 2 of them social grooming.

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    1. I hear there's nothing like a bossy mare in with the babies to keep them in line. Sounds like she's one of those!

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  11. Is there an option for "socially inappropriate low-function idiot"? That would be Courage. He gets SO EXCITED about having FRIENDS that he pesters them all land drives them crazy and plays like a lunatic.

    Oh and then he runs them over when to try to take them away, which is hazardous for everyone.

    And that's why he's banned from group turnout again.

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    1. Poor Courage. He might need herd therapy.

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  12. Herd dynamics are interesting to say the least. Suzie is very mellow and quiet - she doesn't get very excited over much although she's been known to give the "mare face" on occassion. Spud thinks he can boss her around, but it's usually very short lived. lol

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    1. In the mixed herds I've seen, mares are ALWAYS the boss!

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  13. Pig is 100% the Benevolent Leader or Trusty Second in Command. He never fights to be leader. Just one day he's introduced. The next he is in charge. He's not rude. He shares. In fact, the three geldings out there right now all huddle together around the hay. No problems. But, he'll push others out of their grain if he finishes first (rare). He's honestly a little bit of a loner, too. I love that. He typically gives zero shits about other horses. Pig does Pig, and that's all that matters. <3 him

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    1. Good observation about the leaders not caring about the others. Red and Brego are like that too!

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  14. This is part of why I love working at farms rather than just showing up to ride. And at my farm we have four herds with a good bit of movement between them. Always interesting to watch!

    As for my mare, well, she's a bully haha. She's definitely not very nice at all to any I the other horses below her... But I don't think she actually wants to be in charge. She just doesn't want to be pushed off her beloved hay haha

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  15. this is great! Hampton is a benevolent dictator without a doubt. :)

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    1. Hahaha, I can totally picture him doing that!

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  16. Ries is the bachelor. He always flirts with the ladies but he isn't the dictator.

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  17. Kacey falls somewhere in between. When he was on my property with other geldings, he was the gentle dictator. But now that he's in a herd of 30+, he's the mid-level leader. He commands a group of 5 or so, and he doesn't put up with crap from the other "leaders", towards him or his crew. But he doesn't go out of his way to pick on others. There are one or two that he'll follow, and they seem to be the gentle dictator type.

    There are a few that are definitely bullies. But Kacey doesn't let them get away with much around he and his geldings.

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    1. Red has always been boss. At one barn he was out with 10+ other horses, and the big Shires would part like the Red Sea when Reddums waded in and pinned his ears. It was kind of hilarious to watch.

      The bullies are also an interesting bunch... they definitely don't like having to play second fiddle!

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  18. You mentioned something here that I find really interesting, and that I think people sometimes miss. There are horses that are more dominant than the leaders, but they don't *lead*. I always find that type of dynamic really interesting, because those individuals could be the boss in all situations if they wanted to, but they CHOOSE not to. Lots of people assume that animals take roles of dominance because they are automatically better, but there's a lot more personal preference than the non-animal-behavior-initiated see!

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    1. Interesting... I've actually never seen a "boss-but-not-leader" horse other than Oberon, but it sounds like you have? I wonder if they are mostly geldings or mares, and what their backgrounds are. Horses in the wild wouldn't NOT be with a herd, so I wonder if it's a domesticated thing.

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