Horses have personalities just like humans. They also establish social structures and hierarchies within their groups. Unfortunately, if horses are allowed out in a pasture or paddock together, conflict may occur.
Occasionally there may be a certain individual horse that acts like what we would consider a “bully.” A herd or pasture bully can wreak havoc on the other horses with which it lives. In these situations, you may see injuries to the other horses in the pasture caused by biting, striking, or kicking. In extreme cases, horses may be chased into objects and through fences.
Another issue of concern is a bully horse that keeps their pasture mates from eating or drinking. Sometimes a more dominant horse will guard these resources and prevent the more submissive horses from accessing them.
What Causes Conflict Between Horses?
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 be mares or geldings, big or small, and may be any breed or age. They are difficult to deal with because you can’t control what goes on in the
pasture when you’re not around.
Though it is easy to label a more dominant horse a bully, there is almost always a reason for the horse’s behavior. The horse may feel frightened or even threatened by the other horses. Past trauma may be a factor as well.
Not feeling well or being in pain can also cause these types of behaviors. A horse in pain may be trying to keep the others away in fear of being hurt. All horses should be frequently examined by a veterinarian and any issues promptly treated.
Another common issue that results in bullying in a horse herd is boredom. Horses are intelligent and need mental stimulation. Crowded paddocks, nothing to graze, and pent-up energy can all contribute to bullying.
What To Look Out For
As mentioned earlier, horses in a herd will establish 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. This is the natural process of a horse herd hierarchy.
Because establishing a pecking order in the herd is a natural behavior for horses, there is little you can do to change the dynamics. Punishing horses for this behavior is not effective and should not be attempted. You are not able to be present all of the time with the herd, and the horses will not
understand your correction. Determining a hierarchy is a natural process and has evolutionary purposes for a horse herd.
You can, however, be cognizant of the situation. The first step is to spend some time simply observing the horses from a distance to allow for natural interaction. Make notes of which horses seem to be dominant and which are more submissive.
How to Prevent Pasture Bullying
It is imperative to ensure your paddocks or pastures are not overcrowded. This is the number one most important factor in reducing pasture bullying incidents. There needs to be enough room for the dominant horse not to feel threatened and for the more submissive horses to be able to get away.
When feeding, make sure that you have a feeding station for each horse that is spaced well apart from all of the other stations. Each pasture or paddock should also have at least two water sources, spaced out from each other, if possible. These strategies will aid in reducing bullying in the herd.
If the bullying becomes injurious to other horses, you may have no other choice but to keep the bully separated. Not all horses will get along, and it may be advantageous to have multiple smaller and separate paddocks as opposed to one large pasture. If there are issues, you should always remove the more dominant horse first and then observe to see how the hierarchy adjusts.
Another strategy that may be helpful is to keep horses of similar ages and personalities together. For age, it is a good idea to pasture younger, more active horses together and older, more sedentary ones in another area. These groups will have more similar energy levels and also work out their hierarchies more easily. When considering personalities, you will need once again to observe the horses for a period of time to determine which horses will get along well with one another.
There are many reasons why bullying behavior may be seen in a herd of horses pastured together. Establishing a hierarchy is normal behavior for horses and cannot successfully be prevented. Identifying the underlying cause is the first step to dealing with horse bullying and can aid in
protecting all of the horses in the group.