Healthy horses enjoy time turned out, and many equine housing situations involve two or more horses turned out together. As herd animals, horses have a pecking order and social rules that govern their daily interactions. In this article, our experts explain some herd behavior and dynamic principles, and also talk about how to encourage healthy herd behavior.
The importance of social time
By nature, horses are social animals. We’ve all encountered images of bands of wild horses roaming the land. Unlike predator species, horses depend on their herd for safety. In the domesticated world, interactions between horses provide crucial mental stimulation and increase the animal’s sense of well-being.
Kylie Heath is the director of therapeutic riding for Paws for Reflection Ranch in Midlothian, Texas. The center provides therapeutic riding sessions and equine-assisted therapy, among other services. Located on a property containing 15 acres of turnout pasture, the center houses about 10 therapy horses that run in two separate turnout herds during the week. On the weekend, those horses are turned out together in one big pasture.
“Here at our ranch, our horses’ happiness and well-being is extremely vital to not only the program, but also the safety of the horses, our staff and our clients,” Heath said. “There’s a lot of social interaction when we put all of the horses together. It really affects how our clients are able to bond with the horses and how our staff is able to work with them.”
At Paws for Reflection, part of the client therapy includes observing herd dynamics. Brooke Knox, clinical director at Paws for Reflection, says the horse’s behavior is key for successful therapy in this area.
“It’s really interesting working with our veterans, because there are a lot of similarities between the horse herd and the military,” Knox said. “If we don’t have a healthy herd, our clients are not learning healthier behaviors to integrate into their lives. If we have a bunch of dysfunctional behaviors happening in the herd, it could be useless to us, and especially to our clients.”
Wide-open spaces help horse happiness
Our experts all cite adequate space as the key factor to managing equine herds successfully. Knox says lots of time in turnout with room for each horse to feel comfortable provides crucial enrichment for the center’s therapy horses.
“For a center like ours, we have more then the typical amount of turnout for our horses, and we keep ours turned out most of the time,” Knox said. “Our philosophy for doing enrichment is part of keeping the herd happy. The horses here are much happier, and we have less problem behaviors when it comes to them interacting with humans.”
Happy horses can translate to better interactions with riders, according to Heath.
“I am a firm believe that when you are able to keep a horse mentally healthy, it’s a huge factor into their behavior with people,” Heath said.
Heath says the center’s schedule of daily turnout and weekend turnout as a big group allows the horses to have a wider variety of socialization.
“These horses experience social interactions with more horses on a regular basis, and they have plenty of room to do so,” Heath said.
Bill Myers of Myers Ranch is a leading barrel racing breeder, standing the iconic performance stallion Frenchmans Guy in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He manages two operations—a smaller location of 250 acres for breeding and training, and a larger location with 2,500 acres for housing broodmares, weanlings and yearlings. His broodmare pastures range in size from 500 to 1,000 acres, and has smaller lots of 5 to 15 acres for the yearlings and weanlings.
Myers says this method of keeping horses is good for pasture management, and for the health of the horses.
“It’s way more healthy to have horses in bigger areas,” Myers said. “They don’t get infested with worms as much, and your horse’s overall health is way better. Also, for yearlings, it’s nice for them to be able to grow up out in the pasture, where they learn how to move by going up and down hills and traveling. I think it builds better bone development and better muscular development by allowing them to be in a bigger area to move around in as they grow.”
The mix of personalities within a herd
All horse herds can be broken into a pecking order. Whether that’s a rigid top-to-bottom hierarchy, a changing flow or simply a top horse and a bottom horse, the pecking order keeps interactions positive and reduces confusion.
According to Heath, dominant horses assume the job of managing the herd. Just like people can be leaders or followers, dominant horses contain personality traits that lend them to be natural leaders.
“Dominant horses are typically the ones that have the final say when it comes to moving the herd away from danger, for example,” Heath said. “So they are a little bit more aware of their surroundings and of where each member of the herd is located. Along with that responsibility comes some stress.”
Heath says a good indication of a dominant horse is one that makes the other horses move their feet, instead of themselves. And as with people, horses have different leadership styles.
“We have one leader that is a bit more high-pressure,” Heath said. “He doesn’t show a lot of signs before he wants the other horses to move their feet. The leader of our other group gives a lot of signs, a lot of subtle body language to get his herd members to more their feet.”
A dominant horse will direct other horses by beginning with a look to tell the other horse to move, followed by pinning its’ ears and then moving into the other horse’s space. If the other horse doesn’t comply, the body language could progress to biting, a lifted foot or kicking out.
Heath says the horses lower in the pecking order are usually the ones more easily moved, whether it’s by the dominant horse or a human. They aren’t necessarily less smart or even smaller in stature – they just may have different characteristics that make them valuable in a particular spot in the herd hierarchy.
“Sometimes the more dominant horse knows that another horse is better at determining human behavior,” Heath said. “For example, if I bring out a new object for them to look at, our dominant horse is going to send one of the lower horses on the totem pole to check it out, because he knows that particular horse is better at evaluating humans than he is. So herd hierarchy is really more about their strengths than their weaknesses. The leader of the herd is chosen because that is his strength; being aware of what is going on in their environment and keeping the other horses safe.”
Encouraging positive relationships
Our experts agree the most important component to a healthy herd is adequate space for the number of horses.
“A lot of accidents happen because people have put too many horses in a small area, and they haven’t taken the necessary steps to integrate them properly,” Heath said. “When horses are going through the process of figuring out what each horse’s job is and their role in the herd, they need ample space in order for that to happen.”
Paws for Reflection aims for one horse per acre when turned out in the two turnout pastures during the week, and all of the horses are turned out in a larger area on the weekend, which Heath says allows the smaller pastures to rest while giving the horses a greater level of social interaction in a larger space.
With up to 1,000 acres in a section for his herd of 56 mares, Myers is also an advocate for adequate space. He also rotates his herd based on how the grass is doing in the pasture to avoid overgrazing.
“The size of the lot or pasture where you’re running your horses needs to be big enough that the horses can get away from each other, especially when you’re introducing a new horse,” Myers said. “If the new horse doesn’t fit in right away, it’ll get run off. And if it doesn’t have enough space to get away from the more aggressive horses, it can get hurt.”
In general, Myers sorts his herds by gender and life stage. Older broodmares that eat and move more slowly are grouped together. Younger broodmares go together. Yearlings and weanlings are also separated by age and gender.
He also spends time observing the groups to make sure the horses are getting along, especially in the 5- to 15-acre lots where interactions are a little more compressed.
“We watch for dominant and submissive horses,” Myers said. “If you have a big enough area for your horses, they’ll usually get to where they fit in and know their spot. Once they have their pecking order, they’ll usually get to where they get along pretty well.”
When introducing a new horse, Myers watches to be sure the interactions don’t become too aggressive. He’ll give the horses a week to ten days to adjust, unless a horse is getting kicked or bitten too much, in which case then he’ll move that horse to another pen.
He also makes sure all the horses are getting enough to eat. The weanlings and yearlings in the smaller lots get fed grain daily, and Myers watches the feeding times especially for signs of strife.
“If I feel like a horse is getting pushed away from feed and isn’t able to get the amount of feed they need, then I will separate a specific amount of horses that I feel might need to be more by themselves; four to six horses out of a herd of 30,” Myers said. “I will put them where they have more time to eat and aren’t being bullied so they can eat without being stressed.”
Myers says many times horses will run in pairs and become friends. He encourages this by keeping those horses together if they get moved to another area.
“We like for the horses to become buddies,” Myers said. “We think that’s healthy for them. It’s a good thing.”
Heath also watches her herds closely. When horses are turned out for a limited amount of hours in a smaller space, good dynamics becomes even more important. This is particularly key when introducing a new horse and at feeding times.
“They are going to have some ‘discussions’ as I like to call them,” Heath said. “The horses have to figure things out. Especially when you are introducing a young horse that may not have a lot of social skills yet, or a horse that simply hasn’t been in that environment before. But most of the time, the other horses are going to teach them social skills. It just takes time.”
Heath looks for complimentary personalities when putting together her herds. She looks for the leaders, the followers, older horses, younger horses health issues and other factors that can influence a horse’s role in the herd.
“Basically, I pick the herd that fits that horse’s personality, age and qualities,” Heath said. “I’m not right 100 percent of the time. When you are choosing horses that are living in smaller lots, you have to take these things into account even more than if you had a herd living on larger acreage, where the horses could just work things out in their own time.”
Heath carefully introduces new horses to her herds. She’ll usually begin by placing a new horse in an adjacent pen next to the bigger group so the horses can get to know each other across the fence. Next, she may add a middle-of-the-pack horse to the new horse’s environment in hopes of encouraging a friendship.
“Once you put the new horse with the herd, there will be that one horse he knows a little bit.” Heath said. “A lot of the herd management is trial and error, but just keep a close eye on those early interactions.”
Heath brought in a draft horse recently that refused confrontation and wouldn’t stick up for himself. She created a situation where he could eat while not worry about the other horses stealing his food.
“Eventually, he started to gain more confidence and now he’s standing his ground and the other horses are letting him eat at the hay,” Heath said.
Like Myers, Heath watches for unsafe conditions, which include physical fighting and horses not getting enough to eat. But sometimes a little time can smooth rough edges.
“With the draft horse, it was never a situation where he was unsafe,” Heath said. “He wasn’t getting run around and he didn’t show signs of stress. If a horse seems not to be eating, or has health concerns, you need to find another solution, like a different pasture or group.”
Keeping that eagle eye out
Most of all, Heath stresses the need to be aware of the mood and health of the horses, as well as how they’re interacting.
“Make sure you understand where your horse fits in the herd,” Heath said. “Knowing your horse’s position will strengthen your bond with your horse, whether it’s riding or working with them on the ground. You need to be vigilant and pay attention to your horse’s interactions in the herd, especially when your horse is new to the group.”
Myers agrees. He says frequent observation can reduce problems.
“You need to monitor your horses closely,” Myers said. “We look at our horses every day. When you see something not going quite right, you need to act before it becomes a major issue. If you don’t look at them very often, little things can become bigger problems. If a horse is unhappy and not eating or is acting stressed, try to find a happier environment for them.”
Meet the experts
Kylie Heath CTRS and PATH Instructor, is the director of therapeutic riding for Paws for Reflection Ranch, a therapeutic riding center located in Midlothian, Texas. She has a bachelors’ degree in therapeutic recreation, and has worked with horses for 16 years. She worked for natural horseman Robert Hays of Guthrie, Oklahoma, for six years, where she increased her knowledge of horse and herd behavior. Paws for Reflection Ranch offers therapeutic riding and equine assisted therapy, among other services.
Bill Myers manages Myers Performance Horses of the Black Hills area in South Dakota with his wife, Deb, and their sons Chad, Billy, Brandon and Brady. The family stands the legendary barrel racing and performance sire Frenchmans Guy, breeds top-notch horses and offers an annual production sale of the ranch’s highly-sought-after performance horses.