Do horses really need a 'herd leader'?

Some trainers base their methods on the idea that every horse needs a 'leader' as they believe horses would have an 'alpha' or a 'leader' naturally within the herd.

For many years the scientists (ethologists) studying horse behaviour have known that equine societies are extremely complex and the idea of there being a single leader within the herd is far too simplistic and incorrect. Sadly however, the idea has stuck and as a result many horses have been bullied and forced to follow or 'respect' their human leader.

The horse is a social animal, that naturally lives amicably within a herd showing little aggression. In his natural environment with plenty of food, shelter, space and water the horse has no need to compete with other herd members over these resources in order to survive. In fact, horses usually go out of their way to avoid confrontation.

However, in domestic horses we often see situations where resources are scarce and there may be competition as a result. For example, restricted or poor grazing means some horses may not meet their required 18hrs a day eating. This combined with a lack of space will mean we start to see aggressive outbursts, where the horses become territorial and compete with each other. 

The horse's potential to compete over a resource depends on two factors. Firstly, how valuable the specific resource is to the individual at that time - for example one horse may value water more than another and so be prepared to fight harder and longer for access to the trough. Secondly, his fighting ability - this could be related to the horse's age, health, size, strength and experience.

All the horses within a herd may have one-on-one confrontations over each of the resources available, and each horse will know who has won these contests. These contests could be as small as a glance at another horse or a full blown aggressive encounter. Once a horse realises he has lost the battle over that specific resource, he is unlikely to initiate a contest again, unless circumstances change.

We see the highest level of aggression coming from the horse who has the most to lose. This may be because he has a history of being deprived or his basic needs are not currently being met, so this aggression is actually just his defence of what he considers so valuable.

Unfortunately, few horse owners are aware of this, and incorrectly believe that the most aggressive horse in the field is the 'alpha' or herd leader. This is not the case at all. In fact more often than not, the horse that is the most aggressive will be the one that is struggling the most.

French researchers have just published a new study looking at the concept of leadership within the herd. The study found that individual horses did not show any signs of being a 'leader' that initiated group movements or 'recruited' other group members to move more quickly than others. In fact the researchers found that decision making was shared by a number of horses within the group in a partially shared consensus. 

To conclude the researchers stated "Despite the widespread use of the leadership concept in the literature, it should be stressed that no study has so far quantitatively demonstrated that certain individuals consistently play the leader role in the group movements of animals."

You can read the full study here.

There is also some great information on affiliative behaviour in horses from the Wild Equus projects here.