Wild social behavior is fascinating. Wild horse watching is so informative because the whole horse society is there; they have all grown up learning the behavioral “rules”; and they have a large area in which to interact. Most notably, a number of stallions are present, the whole social “order” is in place, and there are no artificial boundaries – only natural ones.
The wild herd of 110 – 130 horses divides itself into about 25 smaller herds or harems which are composed of the alpha stallion, sometimes a beta stallion, the mares, and their youngsters. Youngsters stay with the harem through 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years of age. When they leave, the young mares move to another harem. The young stallions form loosely organized bachelor bands.
The only horses that spend time alone are older males that can’t keep a harem, but they are often within sight of one harem or another and have interactions with other stallions (and mares, if they have the chance). Instead of leading, stallions most often follow the mares as they move from place to place. As long as the mares are far enough away from other threatening stallions and within the area the stallion wants to occupy, he is content to follow along.
When the harem gets to a potentially dangerous area (like a water hole where others may be present) the stallion will pass the mares and go ahead to check it out. If another, more dominant, stallion is there, he may prevent the mares from going in, or move them somewhere else until the area is clear. The more dominant the stallion (the higher on the hierarchy he is) the less he has to herd his mares to keep them safe from other stallions.
What about horses meeting? How do they interact? Each time horses meet there is some kind of interaction. It can be very subtle – sometimes it’s on a level we don’t even detect.
In the wild, each interaction answers one segment of the question “who’s dominant?” Generally speaking, the horse that wins more conflicts is more dominant. The most dominant horse gets his/her choice of feed, first chance for water and the opportunity to pass on his genes.
Stallion interactions can get quite violent, though they don’t always. Interactions follow a predictable escalation pattern – there’s everything from just looking at each other to standing on their hind legs and biting at each other’s jugular veins.
It’s a very civilized system: the level escalates only as high as the importance of the issue. For example, a dispute over personal space likely wouldn’t escalate past the visual. Disputes also occur over a grazing area, a water hole, or mares. The highest escalations can be expected to occur over mares in estrus (breeding readiness).
The result of any interaction is usually a clear winner and loser. If a youngster is involved, he may show his teeth in a clapping gesture to display his submissiveness and thus avoid being the target of aggression. When a stallion loses he doesn’t necessarily run away. You may see him suddenly be interested in grazing, or he may walk to his mares and move them away to protect them. Regardless, the hierarchy is a natural part of horse life.
OTHER INTERESTING POINTERS ABOUT HORSES:
Horses are not solitary animals and they will never choose to live individually if they have another option. In captivity, horses who do not have another horse for company will bond with donkeys, mules, cows or even goats.
When the ancestors of today’s wild horses escaped from captivity, they formed herds in the wild and have survived for decades without receiving regular care from humans.
The reason horses have been able to survive so long on their own is in part because of the herd. Herd members provide social interaction, grooming, warmth and companionship to one another.
Herds spend most of their time grazing on grasses, though it is not unusual to see them playing or snuggling together for a nap. Often, when it looks like they are fighting, young mustangs are actually playing a game, much like when human children wrestle.
Lifespan. In the wild, Mustangs can live up to 40 years. Hurt or disabled horses are protected by the herd and can live remarkably long lives when compared with other animal species that live in the wild.
Living as part of a herd has many advantages for horses such as ‘safety in numbers’. A horse living alone in the wild would be much more likely to be caught by a predator therefore horses feel safer when they have other horses around them.
Offspring. Like other mammals, mustangs have live births. Their babies are called foals. Mares carry their foal for an 11-month gestation period. Mustangs typically give birth to their foals in April, May, or early June. This gives the young horse time to grow before the cold months of the year.
Mustangs have no natural predators. Without human intervention, their population can double in size every four years. Some have proposed contraceptive treatments that would help lower the population increase of these animals.
Diet. It is a common misconception that horses only eat hay or oats. Horses are omnivores. This means that they eat plants and meat. Mostly, though, wild mustangs eat grass and brush. They can stay a healthy weight on very little food. When food is readily available, adult mustangs eat around 5 to 6 pounds of food each day.
Mustangs live in large herds. The herd consists of one stallion, around eight females and their young, though separate herds have been known to blend when they are in danger. The herd is led by a female horse, or mare, and a stallion that is over 6 years of age. In dangerous situations, the head mare will lead her heard to safety, and the stallion will stay and fight.
Horses in a herd have additional protection and warning from predators. Predators that might try to attack a single horse are often not so brave when it comes to attacking a whole group of them.
Horses are flight animals, meaning that they will run away from danger rather than choose to attack it head on. A single horse will live a nervous and risky existence, because he will be relying solely on his own instincts for detection of threats rather than the senses of an entire group of animals.
A lone horse will be extremely vulnerable to predators if it lays down or goes to sleep.
Every horse is an individual and, whether wild or domestic, wants to be recognized entirely for himself. Horses are herd animals and have a hierarchical social behaviour within the herd. Within this structure, there is a trusting of individual friendship. We can see both wild and domestic horses within the herd finding a favourite partner. This is why we humans, if done right, can build a special relationship with our horses where they love to be with us.
Wild horses and domestic horses are very cautious, aware, sensible, and do not want any trouble.
Horses take it in turns to watch over each other while they sleep. One horse usually stays standing when the others are asleep on the ground. This horse is more alert than the others (even if dozing) while the others sleep more deeply. This is a good example of how herds operate.
When not eating or sleeping horses carry out many other social behaviours termed ‘loafing’. Loafing includes activities such as mutual grooming and playing. Mutual grooming, which is where horses use their incisor teeth to groom each other, is a very important behaviour for horses. Areas that they cannot reach themselves can be scratched by the other horse. It is also a way of maintaining bonds among herd members. Horses regularly simply stand together in the shade, nose to tail during hot weather, using their tails to keep flies off each other. In cold, wet weather horses will stand in a sheltered spot together because their large bodies help to keep each other warm.
Horses that live alone do not get to benefit from the shared responsibilities of herd life and all the benefits of social behaviour.
Horses graphically portray the basic drive for self-preservation that is shared by all living creatures. The concern that horses have for their security stays on the surface throughout their lives. Horses can recognize simple patterns of predictability and take confidence in them, but when anything out of the ordinary happens, their nameless dread springs to the forefront. –
We must understand that all horses respond differently. Some are very sensitive and respond quickly, and some are more lethargic. Whether wild or domestic, one major difference in their behavior is caution. All horses are curious by nature, but the wild horse differs in his curiosity from the domestic.
Even though they are cautious, they are more curious and trustworthy.
The most appealing trait of the horse is that if he is loved, if he is given the proper body language and leadership, he begins to put trust above his own fears.