Groups Of Horses: Understanding Herd Dynamics

Do Horse Herds Have Hierarchies?

Understanding the dynamics among horse herds is both fascinating and useful if you have your own horse. Horses are highly social animals, and within their own groups, they have a sensitive and ever-changing social structure.

What are the dynamics of a horse herd? A feral or wild horse herd will consist of 2-20+ individuals. The herd will be overseen by an alpha stallion, with the lead mares directing the majority of the herd’s daily movements. Within this group are higher-ranking (dominant) members, lower-ranking (submissive) members, and other horses falling somewhere in the middle. The social structure is ever-changing, with the alpha stallions having to regularly defend their roles from usurpers. 

If you spend time with horses, it’s important to understand the latest research when it comes to herd dynamics. Keep reading for more information on the roles within a herd, including what the latest research says about what used to be known as the “lead mare.”

Horse Herds: The Alpha Stallion

At the very top of the herd hierarchy is the stallion. Most herds consist of only one, but there are herds with an alpha stallion and other lower-ranking or younger stallions as well. In these latter situations, the younger stallions do not have “mating rights.” 

While most animal groups are led by their alpha, this isn’t necessarily the role of the stallion. A stallion, while clearly in charge of the herd, acts as the protector. He will keep watch over the herd and will stand guard, protecting his mares with his life. When the herd travels, he will travel at the very back – watching over them to make sure they’re safe and urging the stragglers along.

Another job that the alpha stallion will hold is in the settling of disputes. When two mares are having a mild disagreement, the stallion will often ignore them, allowing them to work out their problems on their own. If the disagreement is more than mild, however, the stallion will most often intervene – coming between them with his ears pinned and his neck lowered until the two contentious horses back off. 

To learn more about stallions and male horses, visit my article What a Male Horse is Called (and More Fun Facts!)

Horse Herds: The Lead Mares

It has long been considered common knowledge that within a herd, there are one or two lead mares who direct the movements of the herd. These mares would be the dominant females in the herd, allowing them to lead, knowing the others would follow. However, the latest research into this theory is suggesting against the idea of a single or even a couple of mares directing the herd.

After questioning this theory while watching her own mares, Dr. Konstanze Kruger of the University of Regensburg set out to study three separate feral horse herds in Italy. Two herds had a single alpha stallion, while the third had an alpha stallion along with two younger stallions. They were all stable herds, with the stallions being in charge of their harems for several years. 

As these herds were observed, it was discovered that while only the stallions would physically herd the group, the mares shared in the responsibility of leading. Mares of every status would display “departures:” walking away from the herd and allowing the other members to follow.

While it was previously believed that only the dominant females would display this behavior, this was not the case for the three herds studied. As would be expected, higher-ranking females would “depart” more frequently, and lower-ranking females would follow more often. However, the entire group would move regardless of which mare decided to depart. 

While it remains true that there are dominant mares within a herd, what may soon be debunked as more research becomes available is the idea that the dominant mares are the ones that direct the herd – this seems to be a responsibility that the mares within a herd seem to share.

Horse Herds: The Bachelors (& Bachelorettes)

As the male offspring of a herd mature, they will be removed from the herd. The young stallions may set off on their own, or they may be forcibly removed by the alpha stallion. When they leave, they will meet up with others of their kind and will form “bachelor herds” – groups comprised of stallions in search of their own harems. These herds will fluctuate, with members leaving to form their own herds and new members joining as their own alpha roles have been usurped.

Fillies, on the other hand, may stay with their family herd. More often, however, they will wander off with another herd or with a bachelor. 

Horse Herd: “Satellite” Stallions

Interestingly, not all stallions will fight, and other agreements will occasionally be made among them. It is not rare to see a “satellite” stallion near a herd – these are stallions that are allowed to stick around on the outskirts of a particular herd.

The alpha stallion will not allow him to live further in the herd, maintaining his position as the head, but will also not choose to fight him. He will even cooperate with him, allowing him to mate with one or two mares on a limited basis, with the secondary stallion content to live on the side for a time.

If you plan on breeding horses, there’s more that goes into it than you may initially realize. To learn more, visit my article How Do Horses Mate? Horse Mating Guide.

How Are Horse Herds Formed?

Horse herds can be formed in a few different ways. Researchers suggest that around half of horse herds are formed peaceably, with submissive mares wandering off with a bachelor to start a new herd. The other half is not so peaceful, with two stallions squaring off in a bid to win the herd.

In this latter scenario, a male from a bachelor herd will often stumble upon a mature herd – he may size up the sitting alpha stallion and, if he thinks that he has a chance against him, will challenge him. The alpha and the bachelor will then fight – not always violently, but always with much show and fuss in an attempt to get the other to back down. The one who does back down will be thrown back in with the bachelors, while the “winner” is the new alpha of the herd.

When two stallions are squaring off in this manner, another stallion from the bachelor herd may sneak in, luring away a submissive mare or two while the other stallions are distracted. This is one of many ways it is beneficial for these bachelors to stick together. 

Horses Show Preference For One Another

It has long been observed that horses, particularly mares within a herd, have “best friends,” or other horses with whom they spend most of their time grooming and grazing. It has also been shown that mares can even show a preference for their mating partners – mares will occasionally refuse the advances of a new stallion, working together to fight him off during mating attempts.

In Spain, researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela found that every year during the breeding season, two mares of a particular herd would sneak away and mate with a stallion of another mature herd. After the mating, they would go back to their own herd until the next year’s breeding season. In this instance, these two mares clearly preferred the comfort of their own herd, but they also preferred mating with another stallion over their own alpha. 

Horse Herds Are Intricate And Always Changing

The secret lives of horses are fascinating to learn about, whether you have horses or not. Horses clearly have a unique social structure within their herds, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t. Why horses have a preference for some over others is likely similar to how we humans form friendships – based on individual personalities and experiences.

Also, like our human relationships, the groupings and statuses of different horses will change over time, with individuals coming and going, climbing the social ladder, and falling a few rungs now and then. The only constants among horse herds seem to be 1) the stallion’s desire for his own herd of mares and 2) horses do not like to be alone. The intricate dynamics of the herds themselves will be ever-changing, with times of power struggles and times of peace. 

Adding a horse or taking one away from a herd can cause big social shifts. This is why it can be a little nerve-wracking to introduce a new horse to your herd at home. I share some useful tips in my article Introducing Horses to a New Herd: Tips for Success.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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