How do horses in a herd interact?
How do horses in a herd interact with other horses? How do horses interact with people? If I were to pick a social model, I would say, “Horses in a herd live in a herd hierarchy”. Think of a social ladder, with some horse occupying each rung. If this were the case, then the horses that live in our horse herd would be so calm and orderly.
Horses would move through our pastures in a recognizable order. They would move in and out through gates in that same order. Feeding time would be quiet, with no quibbling over which horse got which pile of hay, and who got fed first.
No, interactions between horses in a herd cannot be explained so simply, and thank goodness for that! It is precisely because hierarchy does not suffice, that horses are so compelling. Here is an example: Bravo and Blossom are both new to the ranch, adopted from a wonderful equine rescue facility in Ramona, Equine Well Being, Inc.. Bravo is a gelding in his teen years. Blossom is a ten month old filly, almost a baby horse. The two horses have a special relationship: he seems to have adopted her as his responsibility. Bravo escorts Blossom around wherever she goes, and inserts himself between her and anything that he thinks might be dangerous for her – even other horses in the herd! In their group of two, he seems to be in charge (dominant).
According to a simple hierarchy model, he should go through gates first, drink first, get his pick of hay, and Blossom should respect his personal (body) space by staying out of it. Today I saw little Blossom stick her nose into Bravo’s flank (his side, right in front of his hind leg). I expected to see sparks fly- to see Bravo kick her or wheel around and bite her on her neck, back or rump. Instead, something else happened! Bravo lifted his hind leg and mimicked a kick, but his hoof only moved out an inch or four. He held his leg up for another several long seconds, waiting. Blossom immediately backed up two steps and Bravo set his hoof back on the ground, while I breathed a sigh of relief for the young filly.
According to the rules of hierarchy, if Bravo were not considering anything else, he would have simply kicked Blossom for touching her nose to his flank. Something else was going on, something wonderful. This is not the only time I saw Bravo bend the rules for Blossom. Last night I fed the two horses in a corral together. I put out several piles of hay, so that each horse could eat from its own pile. Blossom ignored her pile of hay and moved right over to the pile Bravo was eating. Bravo surprised me – he simply moved over a little and continued to eat. He allowed Blossom to eat his hay, until she got so close that their mouths touched. Bravo did not reach out and bite her neck as I was expecting, not even lift his head. He laid his ears against his neck in a visual warning. Blossom moved about a foot away, and the two horses continued to eat. Why didn’t he bite her? His measured, gentle response is more than hierarchy. Whatever guides it is something I love about horses.