Who Is The Leader of a Horse Herd, a Mare or a Stallion?
Here's the answer--and why every horse owner needs to know it.
Who's the boss, a lead mare or lead stallion?
The answer may surprise you. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not the stallion. It's also 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.
Scientific studies of wild horses have found that stallions aren't the 'ruler' of a 'harem' of mares. Instead, the actual leader an older mare. The herd moves when and where she does. She drinks first from watering holes and stakes out the best grazing spots. The herd stallion brings up the rear when the herd travels. His job is to fight off predators and other males who try to join the herd. He also nips at stragglers to make sure they keep up with the herd.
Male riding horses are usually gelded in order to control horse breeding. Most horse boarding farms separate mares from geldings. But research shows that horses sleep more outdoors and are calmer when there is a dominant mare in the herd or nearby. They just feel safer when they can see the lead mare, even if she is across a fence.
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 or 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.
You can read more about horse behavior and horse facts in these articles:
Horse Facts That Every Horse Owner Needs to Know
Is Your Horse a Pasture Bully--Or Just Misunderstood?
If A Thoroughbred, an Arabian, and a Quarterhorse Raced, Who Would Win?
Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD May 23, 2018