We might not be able to ask our horses, “How was school today? Did you make any new friends?” But once we understand horsey interactions and herd dynamics, we can use them to identify where our horses fall in the power pyramid and whether things are working out well or poorly for them with their turnout or paddock buddies.

When trying to observe the pecking order of a herd, often you can see pretty clearly when one horse or another is top or bottom dog—especially in a small herd. The former pushes everyone else around at feeding time and the latter gets beat up all the time.

But equine dynamics are subtle and complex, and the horses in between top and bottom can be a lot more difficult to sort out. Often, it takes long observation over time to get the social status of various members of your beloved pony’s turnout herd.

Horses do not necessarily establish dominance based on strength or size. Sometimes, the biggest, baddest warhorse in the pasture is also the biggest sissy if his personality tends that way. Rather, equines gain respect for each other through acumen, smarts and tenacity. Often, older horses will be dominant. But not weak horses.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Horses with the biggest personal space bubbles, showing most worry or reactivity when other horses approach, are often low in the pecking order. They have large bubbles out of self-protectiveness, not aggressiveness.
  • Dominant horses, on the other hand, tend to be eager to approach other horses, touch noses and “talk” or squeal. They may even strike or charge. They aren’t afraid to fight to assert themselves.
  • Horses in turnout play games with each other that assert dominance or submission over time. One of these you can observe is when they play one-on-one, nibbling each other’s faces and maybe raising or swinging their heads around at each other a bit. The horse that moves his feet and backs up first loses this game.
  • Similarly, horses that give in to pressure or give ground in a push contest lose.
  • Horses will threaten kicking out in self-defense, but typically won’t actually kick a horse that is more dominant than they—only one that is beneath them.
  • When running about, dominant horses sometimes give subtle cues that keep faster horses from passing them. This reality sometimes affects horseracing: when a faster, more submissive horse refuses to pass a slower, more dominant one. It can also impact trail riding.

Remember that dominance can vary over the life of a horse. It is their nature to try to move up in the pecking order over time. They’re always testing the waters, pushing against the rules to ensure their place. It’s their way of reassuring themselves that the structure they need is in place, or creating new structure.

Because of this pecking order stuff, horses are expert readers of body language. We can learn what their movements toward and away from each other mean and use that knowledge for training!

Their natural hierarchy-setting has implications for us, too! Because we have to show our horses where we fall in their pecking order structure. More on that to come in our next blog!