A herd or pasture bully can wreak havoc on the other horses with which it lives. Bullies can injure other horses by biting, striking, and kicking them. They can run them into things and through fences. A bully can adversely affect the condition of submissive horses by preventing them from getting to hay. They can wreak havoc on turnout blankets by shredding them, as they bite at the horses wearing them.
Sometimes herd bullies act on their own, and sometimes they have a partner (or partners) that joins in terrorizing the rest of the herd. Bullies can even be mares or geldings, big or small, and can be any breed or age. They’re difficult to deal with because you can’t control what goes on in the pasture when you’re not around.
Horses in a herd have a hierarchy. There is often one horse that is the leader, a few that may find favor with the leader, and sometimes, one submissive soul that takes the brunt of any abuse handed out. Little can be done to influence this pecking order.
When You Are in the Pasture
One thing you must do, however, is to make it clear to every horse in the herd, that when you are present, you must be respected. No horse should ever present its heels to you, lay its ears back, or bite at you when you are in the pasture. If you are just socializing, every horse must know that you are the one that chooses when the social time is over. You are the one who decides when the interaction is over.
When a horse is disrespectful in the pasture, it is the one time that punishment in the form of a smack or sharp word may be appropriate. If a horse is known to be disrespectful in the pasture, it may also be appropriate to carry a whip so that you can use it to keep the horse a safe distance from you and to apply a quick punishment in the form of a flick.
You can’t punish horses for their actions towards other horses in the pasture, because punishment rarely works and you won’t be there enough to do it consistently. Jostling for herd dominance and places in the hierarchy is natural horse behavior.
Protecting the Other Horses
There’s a limited amount you can do to protect other horses from pasture bullies. If the bullying becomes injurious to other horses, you may have no other choice but to keep the bully separated. Build an extra paddock, or perhaps section off a portion of a field with an electric fence. Or, you can try changing the members of the herd around so that the bully is pastured with a more dominant but confident horse that will keep it in line.
Ensure your paddocks aren’t overcrowded, your horses have enough to eat, and they are not bored and standing around looking for something to do. Frequent exercise may also help your pasture bully expend pent-up energy.
Sometimes, battles happen over food. If this is the case, try adding an extra pile of food, so when the bully chases someone from theirs, there is another pile to eat. Space the piles of food or buckets far apart, so the bully has farther to run and the victims have more time to get away.
If a bully is shredding turn out blankets, a bitter no-chew spray might help. It might dissuade some horses. Be sure to check blankets often. A badly ripped blanket can become a hazard if the horse becomes entangled in it.
If the bully or a group of bullies is only chasing one horse, it might be best to keep that horse separated. Sometimes, horses will pick on one horse so much, that they lose weight and get injured often. If the bully or bullies are shod, this can increase the chances of a serious injury to other horses. It’s important not to put very young, small, or elderly horses (that might not be able to get away quickly) out with a pasture bully.