Who is the leader of a horse herd, lead mare or lead stallion? Here's the answer--and why it matters to you.

Who's the boss, lead mare or lead stallion?

The answer may surprise you. No, it's not the black stallion. It's not the biggest meanest horse in the herd. It's the mare with the most common sense, the one who inspires trust in her herd-members.

Here is a description of this horse fact from from Wikipedia: "Contrary to traditional portrayals of the herd stallion as the 'ruler' of a 'harem' of females, the actual leader of a wild or feral herd is an older mare. She takes the lead when the herd travels, determines when to move and the best route, and claims the right to drink first from watering holes and stake out the best location for grazing. The edge of the herd is the domain of the herd stallion, who must fight off both predators and other males. When the herd travels, the stallion brings up the rear, watching for predators and driving straggling herd members on, keeping the group together...By living on the periphery of the herd, exposed to weather, predators, and challenges from other stallions, the herd stallion endures a somewhat vulnerable existence. He is exposed to more risks than any other herd member and can be replaced by a stronger successor at any time."

As a horse owner or stable manager, this important fact about horse behavior is a very valuable thing to know. When you turn horses out in a group, take note of which horse is dominant and how he or she expresses dominance. A good leader will be benevolent. She will keep the peace in the herd and break up disputes. She will lead the herd to safe places in the pasture, and will frequently share food.

Research has also shown that horses sleep more outdoors when there is a dominant mare in the herd or nearby.

What does this mean for you as a rider or trainer? There is a truism among trainers and competitors that mares tend to be "bossier" than geldings. They are less willing to submit to human leadership unless you are very good at winning their trust. If you are training more than one horse, and especially if you are training young horses, start your training sessions with a willing lead mare, if you can. Make sure that the other horses can view the session. They will be more willing to comply with your training efforts once they have seen her do so.

A FUNNY STORY

Here is an example of what I mean. While we were renovating our arenas, we set up a round pen in one of the pastures for our training sessions. The first day, I began with the lead mare in our small herd. I worked her in both directions at walk, trot, canter, halt, and backing up. While doing this, I noticed that the other three horses were standing just outside the round pen, watching intently while I worked and lavishly praised the lead mare. When I was finished, I opened the gate to let her out, mentally planning which horse I would work next.

But it turned out that decision wasn't up to me. It was up to the horses.

As soon as the lead mare exited the round pen, the other three began jockeying for position to be the next one in the round pen. The lead mare, seeing this and apparently disapproving, marched over to the squabble, pinned her ears, and swung her head toward them in a menacing fashion. Two of the horses backed up, and the third (her pasture buddy) pranced into the round pen. Her session went smoothly, and the the squabble was repeated with the remaining two horses when she was done.

If I hadn't started with the lead mare and if she wasn't particularly interested in working that day, she probably would have led the horses off to a far corner of the pasture, making my day a lot harder. But I respected their hierarchy, to everyone's advantage. I had easy training sessions, and the horses got the training and exercise they needed.

For some useful tips on how to use horse psychology to handle and train horses, read this useful interview with gifted horse trainer Darren Woller.

Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD Return to horse facts from lead mare. Return to basic horse training from lead mare.