Equine Behavior : Herd Dynamics Copy

Lesson 1, Topic 1
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Equine Behavior : Herd Dynamics Copy

Herd Dynamics, Senses, Communication

The study of equine behavior is a complex topic that could constitute its own in-depth field of study. For the sake of this class, we will give a brief and simplistic overview of equine behavior as it relates to massage therapy. During the practicum we will continue the discussion of behavior, address questions and be able to observe interactions.

Natural State

Most behavioral research is based on wild or feral herds of horses and therefore gives us a somewhat skewed perspective on how the domesticated horse lives its life. However, the basic drives that determine behavior in a horse today are the same that inspired its ancestor: grazing or foraging, mating and survival.

Like so many prey species, horses band together in nature. The herd provides safety in numbers and allows a sharing of tasks so that each horse can graze, rest, mate and raise its young. Living as a group provides not only more eyes and ears to sense danger, but also opportunities for physical contact, including mutual “grooming,” which is very important to their physical and emotional health. Domesticated horses are often deprived of this contact with other horses much of their lives, and are then reliant on their human contact to fill this void to one degree or another.

Family groups called harems are made up of mares and foals and one stallion. The activities of the herd are generally directed by one dominant mare, the herd matriarch. The stallion acts as soldier, sentinel and suitor, but has less authority in regards to herd activity than most people suspect. After their first month or so, foals often play and sleep together in kindergarten groups with mares sharing the babysitting duties. The herd spends up to 80% of the time grazing and foraging and most of the remaining time resting. Grooming is another important social activity, as mentioned above.

Young and mature males travel in herds called bachelor bands. These herds change in terms of their make-up as colts are chased from the family group or stallions find a herd to join or obtain a herd from an aging stallion.

Behavior of individual horses can nearly always be attributed to their role as a prey species, as well as to their status in the herd, whether that involves other horses or a substitute “herd” as small as just one human. Horses are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment and are on the constant lookout for danger. At the same time, when there is a clear leader present, such as a herd matriarch or a skilled handler, horses will look to their leader for signals to determine whether something constitutes a danger.

In addition, horses are very sensitive to subtle differences in the energy of intent, and can learn to distinguish fine nuances in body language. For example, in the wild, horses share the same watering hole and resting places with the very predators that stalk them. The horse, however, is well equipped to sense when that predator is on the hunt and when it is safe to abide together. This sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of the species and a key to our relationship with them, given that humans are a predatory species!

It is also important to note that the pecking order in any herd is constantly being challenged (by some individuals more than others) and is either adjusted or reconfirmed, depending on the outcome of the challenge. In other words, just because a horse is generally docile in the past, doesn’t mean they won’t test the boundaries regularly to see if they can’t raise their status, at least temporarily!


Domesticated horses have adapted to life that is less herd oriented. As mentioned, some horses have little or no contact with other horses. Many have limited time outside, which greatly reduces the amount of movement they would have in nature, as well as giving them little or no opportunity to graze. Most have adapted to a feeding schedule of less frequent and larger meals that suits their owners, but not their nature. These conditions of domestication that so often occur have significant consequences on the horse’s physical and emotional health. Just a few examples include decreased circulation, poor functioning of the digestive system, and boredom. Massage is highly beneficial to a horse facing any of these stresses.

Despite centuries of domestication, the natural instincts of the horse are never far from the surface. In fact, domesticated horses that are returned to a natural state become feral practically overnight. As a massage practitioner, it is in your best interest to remember the key drives that trigger horse behavior. Your strokes can provide the sense of safety that a horse desires and your contact can help to replace the interactions of the herd.