Hierarchy changes- my little behavioural study - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 5 Old 03-08-2017, 11:05 PM Thread Starter
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Hierarchy changes- my little behavioural study

Our little herd of twos hierarchy has changed.

As many of you know I had to separate Spirit from Trouble due to her extreme aggression toward him. I usually wouldn't interfere, but he would not fight back and she was unfair in her aggression. It was dangerous for him and for me, after she pushed him through fences, overtop of me, into walls and god forbid she ever cornered him, she'd kick the daylights out of him unrelenting.

This has finally changed. I have been slowly reintegrating her back into his pasture over the past few months. She would be taken away from him when she did anything unfair (in horse terms) like chasing him for more than 5 minutes straight, kicking him over and over and over, etc. Now, they've been back in the same pasture for about a month with minimal issues.

A few weeks ago Trouble kicked her. Really planted her one. She was pushing him from behind while he stood at the gate and he double barrelled her in the neck. Since then he's been fighting back when she gets snarky with him. She will try to move him off his hay and he will hold his ground, and kick her. Now, he lifts his foot a few inches off the ground an she thinks twice.

I'm very relieved. I started watching their herd interactions from afar, a few hours a day. Their herd dynamics have truly changed. He now moves HER off her hay, in a fair and down to business manner. They even interact in a friendly manner, grooming and resting their heads on each others backs- something they've NEVER done. She used to be very defensive about him in her space and would lash out aggressively.

I'm so incredibly happy. I started thinking about WHY the change occurred. What has happened in the last few weeks that would have brought it on? When did I start seeing this? I came to the conclusion that I caused it. When I first saw him act defensive, I was holding both their leads, she barged into me and he bit her. I corrected them both but had a "wow he actually bit her" moment.

He's gotten defensive over me before, parking between other horses, laying his ears back when other horses approach me, etc. I always corrected this behaviour. He will also hide behind me when Spirit goes after him, and I corrected her harshly for this. I tolerate absolutely no shenanigans while I'm in the pasture.

So my final conclusion was this:
I gave him the confidence to react to unfair treatment. This strengthens my belief that a horse NEEDS a strong leader, who will teach him confidence in whatever he does. Just thought I'd share my studies of our small herd!

One thing that troubles me, the behaviour he exhibited before was behaviour of an unsocialized horse. This makes zero sense as he is very well socialized.

He ran in a herd with his mother, a stallion-sire- a second mare and her foal- which was close to his age- until he was nine months old. After that I bought him, he was quarantined for thirty days and let out with our main herd- consisting of two geldings, and two mares. One of those mares is our old appaloosa matriarch. She is a wonderful teacher, firm in her leadership but fair. With her there is no ifs, ands or buts about it but she never takes anything too far. She's wonderful at teaching young horses their manners, and herd dynamics. She immediately took him under her wing and taught him the go arounds of the farm. He was then moved at 2 1/2 to our farm, kept isolated with two goats for two months until we bought Spirit. He never had any issue with his goat friends, or about being without an equine buddy. He's never been herd bound, has always been brave and curious.

Spirit came into the picture and I theorize that he had no idea how to handle her. She was extremely aggressive, unfair and unrelenting. He was taught (by me and by other equines) that once the correction is dealt, that's the end of it. Spirit did not behave this way. Maybe I'm wrong in my findings, I'll never know.

I'll add, Spirit behaves in the exact same patterns and such as our bottle baby, who was a monster for the first 11 years of her life. We do not know any of her history beyond the last four years, so this may be the case. Again, I'll never know.


Anyway, I thought I'd share my behavioural studies of my small herd, as it's something I'm passionate about and love watching. Feel free to post any theories or any experience or knowledge you have on the subject!
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post #2 of 5 Old 03-09-2017, 12:22 AM
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Sounds like something interesting to think about. I've learned a good deal about herd dynamics by observing Cherokee's rather large herd, which contains about 15 horses. I've noticed how the youngest of the herd has worked her way up in the hierarchy with the passage of time.

At the same time the mare she seemed to push around the most seemed to be spending more time with those at the top of the herd, and now she is defending herself from the little brat, who has gotten knocked down a few notches.

I find it really interesting to watch how dynamics change, especially in a well-established herd, when something like a new member or one member's attitude change occurs. I also noticed that the one mare gained confidence from being around the top horses, and began handling herself.

Don't judge someone's horse or skill because they don't compete or work with a trainer.

Sometimes they're the most in tune with each other.
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post #3 of 5 Old 03-09-2017, 03:06 AM
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I wish I had the time to watch a herd through its' daily developments. I see only occasional snapshots, and extrapolate from that.
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post #4 of 5 Old 03-09-2017, 07:49 AM
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This is really interesting Whatta! I agree, I think you brought about the change. It makes sense that horses can learn dominant behavior, and I think it is pretty well established fact that herd dynamics do change.

I had a similar experience with Harley. Last winter, Harley was boarded with three other horses who had been living together for a long time. There was a mare and two geldings, one that was a dominant, large, percheron cross that had little respect for humans. First, we put Harley in an adjacent paddock by himself. A few days in, we added the mare with Harley. They got along just fine. A while later, we let all four in together in a 5 acre pasture. The geldings, especially the percheron, chased Harley around quite a bit, but Harley was able to escape them easily, being the quickest, lightest one of the bunch. He would get cornered and pushed around though, especially when they got in the indoor arena the BO was using as a shelter. Harley would have bite marks everywhere. Getting him out of there was challenging for me too since the other horses were used to being hand fed treats and would all try to crowd me. It was pretty dangerous, so I decided to go in there with a whip and drive the other horses away whenever they got near me. Harley figured this out pretty quickly and took advantage of it. We also had a system whereby I would come in, drive the horses away, put Harley behind the gate and take him out safely. He knew where to go and how to position himself safely while I did all that. We worked as a team, outsmarting the other horses.

Over the next few weeks, I, and the BO, observed Harley begin to challenge the percheron. I saw Harley bite his neck a few times, enough to leave a mark. He never actually toppled the percheron from his alpha status, but he was certainly challenging him, and as a result, the percheron was leaving him alone more and more, even sharing his hay.

In June, I moved Harley into my home barn. We brought in an anxious, very submissive mare to keep him company and be my trail horse (Kodak). The first thing Harley did when she came home, is pin his ears and push her around. He went on full offensive mode to show her he was boss and she would have to abide by his rules. Luckily, she is not the type to question that. They have become friends, but he is still clearly the dominant horse, sometimes even bullying her, which I generally try to correct. He doesn't really hurt her (there's no kicking), but she regularly has bite marks and clearly fears him.

I had understood from Harley's previous owners that he had never really fully integrated in their herd. We observed the same thing when he was with a herd with the other three, but here, he's decided to put his foot down and be the boss, going on the offensive immediately to ensure he doesn't get pushed around again. Seems like my bullied horse has become the bully. And I do think part of that is me getting involved in the herd dynamics at the BO's place last winter. Poor Kodak, she doesn't even know what she did wrong!
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post #5 of 5 Old 03-14-2017, 11:40 AM
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I just think Trouble grew up. It is not un usual at all, for younger horses,m as they get older, to move up in the ranks
You might have had an influence, but Smilie and Charlie are both mature mares, and even when Smilie understands that she can't act aggressive towards Charlie when I am out there, she remain the boss.
She will just give Charlie a look , walk towards the hay pile Char;ie is eating, and Charlie just obediently walks to the next pile
Herd dynamics are not really static,but change over time. My old reining mare was the "queen\, no matter how many different hroses came and went in herd herd, until she started to feel her age and then two geldings would start to dominant her, so that I then had to take her out of the herd, to feed her extra
When I used to add my last year's yearlings to the main herd, come spring, after they spent that first winter in a separate field, being fed different, they were at the very bottom. As time went on, they would find new positions in that herd
All that matters, JMO, far as herd dynamics is that YOUR position stays constant, that when a horse challenges you, and asks 'are you still the leader?" you assure them firmly and fairly that nothing has changed!
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Last edited by Smilie; 03-14-2017 at 11:49 AM.
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