The Peculiarities Of Pecking Order

I write this essay with a little trepidation because I fear it can be confusing to understand. If you are interested in herd behaviour you might find this interesting, but otherwise I suggest you skip over this post. I think the topic is both fascinating and important, but it is a little in depth. So don’t say you haven’t been warned



I first became aware of social hierarchy at high school. As I grew older I realized social ranking was a big part of having an organized society. In fact, I think almost all social animals have devised a system of ranking or pecking order in order to make their society work. But what did surprise me was that, unlike humans, some social structures are not linear. In human society, human A is above human B, who is then above human C and they are above human D  - it’s a linear hierachy.


However, I have noticed that among horse communities sometimes the social ranking is circular rather than linear. For instances, horse A is dominant over horse B, and horse B is dominant over horse C. However, horse C may also be dominant over horse A. In other words, A->-B->C->A. This almost never happens in human society. In the human world, human C would never be dominant over human A in this scenario.


I find the idea of a non-linear pecking order absolutely fascinating because I think it reveals something about the nature of horses that we don’t give enough consideration to in our relationships.


Let’s go back to think about humans again for a moment where human A->B->C->D etc. Given a specific scenario (eg office or school or sports club or home), the reason that human A dominates human B is the same reason that gives human A dominance over human C and over human D. Furthermore, the reason human B out ranks human C and human D is also the same, and so on and so on.


However, in a horse herd, the fact that horse A is higher in the pecking order than B and B is higher than C, but C is higher than A, suggests that the factor(s) that determine which horse is in charge is different for each horse. For example, horse A can chase horse B away from the food let’s say it is because horse A is tougher and more determined than horse B. Then horse B can chase horse C away from the food because it is tougher and more determined than horse C. Then how is it that horse C can chase horse A away from the food?  It doesn’t make logical sense that the factor that governs dominance in all three relationships is the same (tougher and more determined) if A->B->C->A.


So it appears that the factors that determine dominance in a horse herd are different than in human society and may even be different for individual horses. In fact, the most obvious explanation that comes to my mind is either horse C does not find the tactics used by horse A to dominate horse B stressful enough to cause it to yield OR horse A does not apply the same behaviourial tactics towards horse C as it used to dominate horse B.


So this is the really interesting part for me.


If this is true (and that may be a very big IF) it suggests the way horses figure out relationships is far more complex than many of us assume. I have been doing some reading on this subject and there has been a lot written on herd dynamics. But in all my reading I have only come across a couple of passing mentions of the non-linear pecking order that many horses display. Nobody has examined it in depth or tried to explain it. It has been treated in a fairly dismissive way from all that I have read.


But it seems there are two obvious questions arising from this observation. The first is to ask what are horses detecting when determining pecking order if it is non-linear? And the second question is how does this impact on the way humans and horses relate to each other? This last question may have implications for the way we train and interact with our horses.


I can’t answer either of these questions at the moment, however, I ask you to consider some reasonably common scenario that may be how this issue plays out in real life.


We know that some horses get along better with some people. I’m not talking about the difference between skilled horse people versus unskilled horse people. I’m talking about the stories of horses that get along better with women or the ones that do better with some men or the horses that are gentle with children but difficult to handle for an adult. In my training days, I had experience with horses that instantly took to my wife, Michele, but it took some time before I was able to get along with them to the same degree. Many years ago a friend brought her twin 4-year-old daughters to visit. I let them pat a horse, which instantly showed aggression towards one of the children, but fawned over the other in a nurturing way. I still don’t know why. What was the difference between the twins that the horse picked up on?


I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that I am trying to explain these interactions by giving horses some mystical powers of perception. There are many possible reasons why horses act the way they do with different people that have nothing to do with the way horses determine who is in charge. And I don’t want to give the impression that horses relate to humans in the same way they relate to other horses. In addition, I don’t know if a non linear pecking order exists in wild horses or if it is only a factor of confined domestication or dependent on herd experience in early life etc.


But I believe it is worth considering that there is something about the way horses decide the nature of their relationships with other individuals that are presently beyond our understanding and may be influential in determining how we get along with them. It gets even more complex if you consider the possibility that the factors that determine a relationship are personal to each individual horse and not a generic feature across the whole species.


One day we will understand how social structure in horse herds are determined and I think it will mark one of the most significant advances in horsemanship and contribute markedly to better relationships with our equine friends.

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