Horses are powerful animals and when they are turned out in a paddock together they have a definite pecking order. For them, herd dynamics are all important because it allows horses to know their place and this helps reduce tension and any injuries that could happen if any fights break out in a herd.
Understanding all that goes on within a herd takes a bit of doing and requires lots of observation, but that's part of the joy of owning and being around horses which are after all, magnificent creatures. Just watching them cavort around a paddock can be a real pleasure.
Horses that live together form strong bonds with one another although, these friendships might be stronger with one horse than any of the others they are stabled with. The same applies to horses when they are turned out together which is why it's important to understand the relationship they have with each other.
For instance, if two horses really do not get on, it is far better to avoid them going out to grass together especially if their back feet are shod. A quick kick might do a lot of damage which could end up with a heavy vet bill. Separating two horses that don't get on with an electric fence works brilliantly and it's the cheapest way of ensuring they get enough turn out time without them having to come into contact.
Although a horse can make very ugly faces and pin their ears right back when they are not happy about something, they also have other very subtle ways of communicating with one another. A very simple and slight flick of an ear has tremendous meaning to other horses and the same goes for a quick swish of the tail. This is especially true when horses have established a pecking order with each horse knowing who is the “boss” and their places within the “herd”.
However, it's not just body language that's important to horses because they communicate with each other with their voices too. A snort, a whinny, a nicker or ever blowing through their nostrils has meaning. Another obvious way that horses communicate is by using their hooves. Pawing at the ground or stomping all has a definite meaning to other horses within the group.
You may have also noticed how horses like to “sniff” at another horse's droppings which they often do because they read a lot about the other horse when they do. However, horses also like to smell one another's breath because this too tells them so much about each other.
The most obvious way of telling whether horses have formed strong bonds with each other is to see how close they stand to each other. If they do, it's a good sign they have formed a strong bond and will often groom each other for minutes on end which they tend to do around their withers, their necks and along each others backs. This can all be interpreted as positive interaction between horses.
At the other end of the scale, recognising any negative interaction between horses is also pretty obvious and it often includes a great amount of squealing and threatening behaviour. This includes the threat to bite and kick another horse. Pinned back ears and snarly faces are another good indication that horses don't particularly like each other. All too often these threats turn into the real thing which is always a bit of a worry.
However, if only it was that easy because in the horse world a lot of negative interaction does not mean the horses involved don't get on because very often this aggressive behaviour is simply done to set and to maintain a pecking order. The only time you would need to separate two or more horses is if things start to get really violent and when you do, you have to be extremely careful or you might end up getting seriously hurt albeit by accident because you just happen to be there!
It's important to know which horse is the dominant character within a group, remembering this is a very normal behaviour in horses. It helps them establish a hierarchy because in the wild having a pecking order protects the herd and it helps maintain the group when they run together. Our domestic horses still need to establish this “order” because it means each horse knows their place and as previously mentioned, this reduces the chances of them being injured by another horse.
It may seem that one horse gets all the best of everything which includes food, water and anything else including the best place to shelter from bad weather, but in fact, they are looking out for one another with the strongest in the “herd” guarding any resources they have which they do instinctively.
The pecking order within a group of horses is often quite complex because it tends to be a constantly evolving situation. However, what usually remains the same is there will always be a “leader” although not this may not always be the same horse. The thing to bear in mind is that horses are social animals by nature and they like to be with others of their own kind. Establishing a pecking order is important to a group because it allows each horse to know their place and this actually makes their lives more comfortable.