Horse Care Tips

Groups of Horses: A Beginner’s Guide to Herd Dynamics

group of horses
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Written by Cathy H.

Equine behavior, hierarchy, and social dynamics

Have you ever stopped to wonder how we got so lucky to interact with – not to mention ride – these incredible creatures? They’re physically far more powerful than us, and yet they’re also gentle and quite willing to figure out what we want them to do.

The reason horses fit so well in our lives is because they are very social creatures. They need to interact with others in order to fulfill needs like safety, affection, and play. To better understand your horse, you can learn how horses communicate with each other, why they live in groups, and what their daily life is like in the wild.

For example, foals (baby horses) have to immediately interpret other horses’ body language for their own survival. If mom says run, they need to run – now. Growing foals also go through a crash-course in learning about cause and effect. They learn that certain actions lead to nips and bites. They learn how to dish out those nips and bites for rude behavior, too. It’s this expert ability to quickly learn the consequences of an action – and how to influence others – that makes horses so trainable. 

Basic Terminology

Let’s define some basic terms before we get started.

What is a group of horses called?

A group of horses is called a herd.

What is the leader of a horse herd called?

Each herd has one stallion (male horse) to protect it and one or two lead mares (female horses) to move the group toward food and water and defend it as needed. Because some younger stallions may stay with the herd, the stallion-in-charge is also called the alpha stallion to differentiate him as the leader.

horse herd

source: canva

What is a boss mare?

Boss mare is another word for lead mare or alpha mare. It’s the mare in charge of making most of the daily herd decisions. Where this mare goes, the others follow.

Horse Hierarchy

A herd of horses establishes a hierarchy or a “pecking order.” A horse at the top of the hierarchy is said to be dominant, whereas a horse at the bottom of the hierarchy is submissive. The dominant horses can push the others around and, as a result, get to access valuable resources (like water and food) first, while others have to wait their turn.

Most horses fall somewhere in the middle: they can push a few horses around, but they’ll act submissive toward the herd’s more dominant members.

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What are the ranks in a horse herd?

It’s easiest to define the top and bottom of the hierarchy. Rankings get a little muddy in the middle.

At the top is the alpha stallion, followed closely by the lead mare.

On the bottom rung are foals, and the steps above them are filled by weanlings and yearlings. The remaining mares and young stallions define their own pecking order based on their personality traits, especially aggression and persistence.

What is typical dominant horse body language?

A dominant horse stands its ground. It moves toward, not away, from other horses. It expects those horses to get out of its way. If they don’t, a dominant horse will display aggressive body language by pinning its ears, swinging its head, biting, swinging its hips toward the other horse, and kicking out.

stallions fighting

source: canva

What are some signs of submission in horses?

A submissive horse will move away from a dominant horse at the first sign of trouble. A very submissive horse has to only receive a “mean look” from a dominant horse in order to move. Submissive horses do not display any aggressive behavior, as they know the dominant horse will retaliate.

5 Interesting Horse Hierarchy Facts

  • Horse hierarchy can change, especially as horses age.
  • Horses immediately try to figure out where a new member fits into the herd hierarchy. This usually happens through displays of dominance and/or play fighting.
  • Researchers have recently suggested that all mares, rather than a lead mare, may share decision-making.
  • When horses travel, the stallion’s job is to stay behind the herd and make sure everyone keeps up and stays safe.
  • If food is severely limited, only the dominant horses may end up getting anything to eat.

Horse Communication

Horses are expert communicators. They are highly observant and capable of interpreting even subtle gestures. What’s your horse trying to say?

Why is it important to know how horses communicate?

Because it’s fun! But, perhaps more importantly, it also keeps us safe. Horses are big animals, and if they start to act aggressive, we could get seriously hurt if we don’t recognize the signals they’re giving us.

But knowing how horses communicate also helps us understand what our horses are saying when they’re stressed, nervous, relaxed, playful, or in pain. It enriches our experience with our equine friends and helps us give them a good quality of life.

herd of horses

source: canva

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How do horses communicate in a herd?

Horses primarily use body language to communicate in a herd. They also use their sense of touch to send messages, including mutual grooming, play-nipping, and physical aggression.

Horses also make a limited number of sounds to communicate.

How do horses communicate with their ears?

One of the first things an unhappy horse does is lay its ears completely flat against the back of its head. But when a horse is relaxed, the ears will lazily flop out to the side or toward the back.

When something in front of the horse has captured its attention, the ears point to the front. A horse’s ears will also swivel toward sounds that it’s listening to, and each ear can move independently.

What are common horse communication sounds?

Horses may make a comforting “nicker” sound to greet each other, squeal when meeting a new horse to say, “I’m big and scary!” or whinny in distress to locate lost members of the herd.

5 Interesting Horse Communication Facts

Horse Behavior

Understanding normal horse behavior and the daily routine of a wild herd can help us be better caretakers for our domesticated equines. For example, when horses have to be stalled, it can be helpful to allow them to see and/or touch their neighbors to fulfill their need for socialization.

How do you interpret horse body language?

It’s important to take a “big picture” perspective when interpreting a horse’s body language. For example, a horse may swish its tail and stomp its hoof as an act of aggression. But there’s no reason to panic if you’re grooming your snoozing lesson horse on a hot summer day and it suddenly stomps its foot and swishes its tail – it’s probably just reacting to pesky flies!

In addition, sometimes horses will play-fight. They rear up, bite at each other’s faces, and nip each other’s knees. They’re usually having a great time. They’ll pause and take breaks and then start up again.

horse behavior

source: canva

You’ll know there’s a problem when one horse won’t let the other take a break, and the more submissive horse repeatedly tries to turn and get away. Then, maybe it’s time to intervene. Someone’s being a bully.

To understand all these nuances, you have to spend a lot of time watching horses be horses.

And that can be tough for people who don’t live and work on a farm, because horses do a lot of eating and snoozing, with just a few moments of play and grooming and “get out of my way!” thrown in. One of the best times to witness horse behavior is when a new horse is introduced to the herd. Then you can really expect to see the personalities come out. Hang out with your trainer or other knowledgeable horse person and ask lots of questions. You’ll learn a ton.

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How do horses protect themselves?

Horses have four hooves and a mouth full of teeth to help them fight. They defend themselves by biting or kicking.

How do horses keep watch?

Horses can hear really well. They also have almost 360-degree vision and notice anything that moves. They may also rely on their sense of smell to tell them something unusual is nearby, like a predator or a fire.

Horses also rely on the buddy system.

When one horse says, “I’m scared!” the others trust that they’re scared for a legitimate reason. Everyone skedaddles first, and asks questions later.

Are horses happier in a herd?

Yes. Horses do not feel safe without others to help keep watch. They also don’t get the benefit of playing and grooming other horses. Even stallions remain social in the wild, associating with other “bachelor” stallions for protection until they “win” mares.

group of horses

source: canva

How do horses show affection?

Horses show physical affection by nuzzling each other and by “mutually grooming.” The horses stand facing each other and rub each other’s withers (where the shoulders meet the spine) with their teeth. Studies have shown that this releases endorphins, which make the horses feel good.

Why do horses bite each other’s necks?

Although horses prefer to groom each other on the withers, they might groom each other on the neck instead. Horses also bite each other’s necks when they play. In addition, neck-biting is part of a horse’s mating ritual.

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How do horses find a mate?

When stallions reach a certain age, they’re usually kicked out of their parent herd. They meet up with other stallions and form a “bachelor herd.” They roam around until they encounter full-fledged horse herds. Then, they try to woo that herd’s mares and convince them to leave the herd and join them instead.

Mares are very unimpressed by this invitation unless the stallion actually demonstrates his ability to defend the herd even better than the existing stallion.

So, a fight ensues. The stallions don’t intend to kill each other, but each tries to make the other back down and admit defeat. Sometimes, while the alpha stallion is battling it out with a bachelor, another bachelor introduces himself to the mares and herds one or two of the submissive ones away from the group. And just like that, he has both formed a herd and found mates.

As far as the fight, the winning stallion can lead the entire herd. The defeated stallion joins the bachelor stallions.

How do horses sleep?

Horses typically doze off while standing up, but they lay down for brief periods to enter an even deeper state of sleep. They take turns sleeping so that someone always keeps a watchful eye, but it’s not uncommon to see multiple horses laying down at once for a nap.

5 Interesting Horse Behavior Facts

  • Horses raise their heads and curl their lips up when they smell something strong. This is called the Flehmen response.
  • When flies become bothersome, horses stand head-to-tail with another horse so that their tails swish flies away from the other horse’s face, and vice versa.
  • Horses do not lap water up like a dog or cat – instead, they slurp it.
  • Horses are thought to roll on the ground as a way to dry a wet coat, protect themselves from heat and flies, and to mark territory.
  • Stallions will defecate on top of other stallions’ excrement as a way of marking territory.

Horse Survival

How do horses find their food?

Horses have amazing noses, and not just in terms of their sense of smell. Their noses also have an extraordinary sensitive sense of touch thanks to numerous hairs and whiskers. Their lips can wiggle around and grasp even tiny blades of grass.

In short, they put their nose to the ground and investigate until they find something tasty. They remember plants that taste unpalatable and avoid those in the future. It’s possible they also learn what’s right and wrong to eat from their mothers.

How do horses find water?

Water also has a smell that horses can sense. (In fact, they can smell the difference between clean water and dirty water and absolutely prefer to drink clean water. Scrub those buckets!) They can hear the sound of flowing water too. If a horse detects water, they can lower their head to investigate. Their whiskers will confirm whether they’ve found water.

In the wild, horses also use memory to find water and will travel between known watering holes on a regular basis.

5 Interesting Horse Survival Facts

  • Most horses can reach speeds of about 27 miles per hour to outrun a predator.
  • Horses have much better night vision than people.
  • Horses can live to be more than 20 or even 30 years old, but the record is held by horse that lived to be about 62 years old.
  • The Przewalski’s horse is the only truly wild horse in the world, descending from no domesticated stock whatsoever.
  • Horses grow thick coats in winter that insulate them from cold keep
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a group of wild horses called?

A group of wild horses may be called a herd, band, harem, harras, or mob. You may also hear the terms rag or rake, which refer to a group of colts (young stallions). The phrase “string of horses” is usually used to refer to a group of riding horses, not wild horses.

What is a group of horses called in Australia?

Australians tend to use the words band or mob to refer to a group of horses.

What is a harras of horses?

A harras / haras is a group of stallions or studs.

What is a group of donkeys called?

A group of donkeys is also called a herd.

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Parting Thoughts

There’s a lot to learn about horse behavior, but one thing is certain: horses understand us more than we give them credit for. If your horse tries to communicate with you, stop and listen. You’ll be astounded by how “talkative” a horse can be once they realize you’re paying attention!

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About the author

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Cathy H.

The only thing I love more than blogging about horses is hanging out with my Appoloosa gelding Chacos. (I also have a soft spot in my heart for OTTBs, thanks to my first childhood horse!) Chacos and I enjoy training across multiple English and Western disciplines. #varietyisthespiceoflife