What A Group Of Horses Is Called
You know that sheep run in a flock and fish swim in a school, but have you ever wondered what a group of horses is called?
What is a group of horses called? Whether in the wild or on a ranch, a group of horses is called a herd. Natural horse herds consist of anywhere between 2 and 20+ horses, with an alpha stallion at the top of the pecking order and a couple of dominant mares directly beneath him.
Horse herd dynamics are fascinating, and we have some of the more interesting facts for you below. Keep reading for more information and fun facts about horse herds.
The Hierarchy Of The Horse Herd
In any horse herd, the head stallion is the one in charge. He serves as both the protector of the herd and the settler of disputes that occur between his mares – often called his “harem.”
There is most commonly only one mature stallion in a herd, but there will sometimes be a couple of young “bachelor” stallions that live in the herd as well – these bachelors do not have breeding rights, and are subject to the rule of the alpha.
After the head stallion, the rest of the horses share a social structure that includes higher-ranking (dominant) horses, lower-ranking (submissive) horses, and others that fall in the middle of the pecking order.
It has previously been believed that there were one or two “lead mares” in a herd who would direct the course of the herd, but recent research suggests that though there are mares who are certainly dominant over the others, typically all of the mares share the responsibility of determining which direction the herd will graze.
When one horse departs the herd and begins to walk in a specific direction, the rest will usually follow. A mare of any social status can depart and expect the rest to follow her, though the more submissive mares will usually be more comfortable following someone else.
Mare Dominance In Groups Of Horses
Don’t let the fact that a stallion is in charge of the herd fool you – mares tend to oversee the day-to-day comings and goings. It is not unheard of for a group of mares to leave behind a stallion completely as he is grazing and distracted – the mares don’t seem at all concerned about their stallion, and once he glances up and sees his herd taking off he will quickly catch up.
This scene is not unusual and does not seem to support the idea that the stallion is the one who calls the shots. In reality, it is more like a cohesive family unit.
While the male is the “protector” and is, therefore, the alpha, the females are the ones who handle the details – where to graze, when to visit the watering hole, and even where the rest of the herd members rank on the social ladder.
In this way, the members of a horse herd work together to manage the group as a whole, and the stallion is not the only one who has a responsibility to the herd.
Horses Can Have Distinct Relationships With Other Horses
Considering what we know about other animal groups, it may not surprise you to learn that horses can show a preference for other individuals in (or out of) the herd.
These horse besties will often graze together, groom one another, and even work together. Two separate examples that demonstrate this behavior can be seen in herds from the Great Basin in the US and Spain.
A researcher at the Warner College of Natural Resources spent years studying feral horse herds in the Great Basin region of the US. Two unrelated mares had spent much of their lives together, and when a new stallion took charge of their existing herd, they worked together to resist the advances of the new boss.
Each time the new stallion would attempt to mate with them (and thus assert himself as their leader) they would work together to bite him and kick at him until he would give up. This happened each time that the stallion attempted to mate with either of the mares.
In another situation, researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain studied a herd of Garrano feral horses for years. In one particular herd, there were two mares that were always with one another and always stood just outside of the rest of their herd.
When either mare was in heat, both mares would leave their herd and travel together to the stallion of another herd. After they mated with the stallion of the other herd, they would together return to their home group.
In this case, the mares clearly preferred their home herd – they likely could have stayed with the neighboring herd if they chose – but they preferred to breed with the stallion of the neighboring herd.
What Are Satellite Or Lieutenant Stallions In Horse Herds?
Satellite stallions, also called lieutenant stallions, are stallions that are allowed by the alpha of a herd to live on the outskirts of the group.
The satellite stallion will often serve the role of secondary protector, another set of eyes, and will defend the herd against challengers or predators. In exchange for the added defense, the alpha will allow the satellite stallion to breed with a few mares of the alpha’s choosing when he sees fit.
This arrangement may work between the two for years until the satellite stallion either wanders off to create his own herd or decides to challenge the alpha stallion.
How Bachelor Stallions Create Their Own Herd
While foals are permitted to live among the herd without any issues, when a young stallion is around the age of 2 or 3, the alpha stallion, his father, will push him out of the herd. The immature stallion will usually follow the herd from a distance, hesitant to strike out on his own, until he happens upon another lone stallion.
These bachelor stallions will then form their own herd and will stay together for safety and companionship until they are able to find their own harems.
If a bachelor stallion decides to challenge an alpha stallion of an existing herd, he will approach the alpha. The alpha and the bachelor will square off, rarely seriously injuring one another, but instead relying on intimidation tactics.
They will pin their ears, lower their heads, and charge at one another. The “loser” will back down and will rejoin the bachelor herd (or will join the bachelor herd for the first time, in the case of an alpha that is overthrown). The “winner” either remains or becomes the alpha stallion of the herd.
It is not unheard of for a third stallion to approach the harem while the other two are busy fighting, luring one or two submissive mares away from their original group, thus creating his own little herd before anyone is the wiser. Of course, he must appear attractive and powerful to the mares, which are not always easy to impress.
Sometimes, a bachelor will refuse to back down. When it becomes apparent that he will not win a challenge, he will back away and remain just outside of the herd, following them endlessly and pestering the alpha stallion every chance he gets.
This can wear on an alpha stallion, who will become weaker when faced with the constant threat of defending his role within the herd. For this reason, feral stallions are known to live much shorter lives than their mares – the constant threat of being overthrown can become even more stressful than the act of protecting the herd from potential predators.
The Role Of Fillies In Horse Herds
While young stallions are pushed out of the herd at 2-3 years of age, young fillies are rarely driven off and instead are often given the ability to choose for themselves where they would like to land.
Fillies can stay with their family herds and sometimes do. More often, however, they will choose to leave their herd on their own, joining another horse herd.
They may also decide to wander away with a challenger or a satellite stallion. This is likely the filly’s way of protecting the bloodline – while inbreeding can occur for a few generations without issue, new blood needs to be introduced regularly for the health of the herd.
The Study Of Horse Herds
Horses have fascinating social lives, and we are able to understand them to a degree because of the countless hours that researchers have spent studying them.
From the American West to the outback of Australia, researchers have been keeping tabs on these feral animals over the decades and are constantly learning more about them. This is important research for a number of reasons, not least of which is the information that it provides those working with horses in captivity.
Training horses is a huge industry, and I’ve found that the more I learn about horse behavior, the better equipped I am to connect and cooperate with my horses in a way that they understand. I’ve compiled the essential exercises and tips I’ve learned in my Gain & Maintain Your Horse’s Respect course, which you can learn more about here.