Becoming a Horseman: Understanding the Social Hierarchy of Horses; and How it Affects the Horse-Human Relationship:


Even domestic horses still have the herd instinct.

We’ve all seen it happen-a new horse owner, or even someone that has had horses for awhile, with a horse that is buddy sour, pushy, biting, kicking, bucking, bolting, or generally misbehaving. Sometimes it is simply because a green rider bought a green horse that was unsuitable for them. Other times they buy the right horse-an experienced, older horse-and gradually the horse’s behavior turns bad.

What happened?

The rider hasn’t earned, or kept, the horse’s respect. The rider hasn’t proved to the horse that they are a worthy leader. So the horse, lacking leadership, becomes the leader, and no longer respects the rider. The horse does what it wants, when it wants, and ignores the rider completely.

In this article, I will discuss the horse’s herd instinct, and the social hierarchy in a wild herd. By understanding this instinct, and “speaking horse” by acting as the boss mare, we can become the leader in our herd of two with our horse, earning their respect. And a respectful horse is a safe, fun horse to ride.

The Herd Instinct:

Horses are herd animals. They need social interaction to thrive. In a herd, the horse that can make the other horses move is dominant and the leader. Herd members respect the herd leader; the herd leader doesn’t get crowded or chased away from food. In wild herds, the herd leader (usually a boss mare) is responsible for finding food and water, deciding when the herd moves and rests, and determines who gets to eat and drink first. The boss mare can decide who gets to stay in the herd, and she will chase away unruly herd mates. Since there is safety in the herd, horses want to belong. The lone horse without a herd is more likely to be eaten by a lion. The horse is comfortable with the social hierarchy, they are ok with following a leader, as long as they feel that they belong, that they are safe in a herd.

How does this herd instinct apply when we are working with our horses? To put it simply, we must understand and use the horse’s herd instinct and need to belong, to ensure our safety. To be safe around these large and flighty animals, we need their respect. We need to be the leader, the boss mare, in our herd of two with our horse.

The Boss Mare:

The lead/boss mare is the boss because she makes the other horses move-first by snaking her head and pinning her ears, then by biting, and if needed, by kicking or striking. The lead/boss mare ups the pressure until the less dominant horse moves. She does not yield, or move her feet. The horse that moves is the less dominant horse. The lead/boss mare only uses as much pressure as necessary-she doesn’t go around kicking other horses just because. She gets the respect of her herd mates without causing them fear.  However, the boss mare has to earn the respect of the other horses. The other horses will test the boss mare, to see if she really is the strongest horse, the best horse for the important job of being the leader. The boss mare must always be prepared to defend her position as the leader, to prove that she is worthy of being the leader. Some horses will test the leader daily. This is a normal horse behavior-and they will test humans too, to see if the human is worthy of being the leader.   Don’t be offended by it-it is just how horses are-but you need to be prepared to be the leader, and be prepared to have your leadership tested.

Earning Respect Without Causing Fear:

To ensure our safety, and to earn our horse’s respect, we need to show the horse that we can make them move their feet, and that they cannot make us move-that we are the boss mare. Once the horse respects us by understanding that we can make them move their feet, then they can accept us as the leader. They key here is to use as little pressure as possible, but as much pressure as necessary, to get the horse to move it’s feet without causing fear. If we can gain the horse’s respect without causing them to fear us, then we have earned the role of the leader. If we earn the role of the leader, then the horse will be able to trust us, and with the horses trust we can achieve great things. I want my horses to trust me so that we can work as partners. I want their respect without fear.

Sleeping Mustang

The sleeping mustang trusts her herd mate to watch for danger.

Can’t I Be Friends With My Horse?

I find that many owners want to be friends with their horses, and that is great. However, they tend to think that they will get their horses to like them by bribing them with treats and making excuses for why they are pushy and run them over, saying “Blackie is just scared, he doesn’t mean to run me over.”  The problem here is a lack of respect. How much would you like a friend that has no respect for you and runs you over?

We all want to be “friends” with our horses, but we need to remember that our horses are big animals that can and will hurt us. Your horse will still be friends with you if you earn the role as the leader in your relationship, and you will have a much safer experience.

Does Your Horse Respect You?

So ask yourself-does your horse respect you?

When you lead him in from the pasture does he try to run you over, or follow quietly?

When grooming him does he move into you or away from you?

When you ride your horse does he neigh and whinny and worry about where his friends are, or does he listen to you?

These simple little tests can tell a lot about your Horse-Human Relationship.