Herd Instincts Revisited

(Editor's Note: Dr. McDonnell answered a reader's questions on her horse biting another in the throat in the March 2007 issue. The reader and McDonnell follow up on this interesting story. Below is how her initial query began.)

Q: My horse was seen biting another horse in the throat. They were up on their hind legs supposedly playing when all of a sudden my horse made a very unusual move, according to the witness, and bit the other horse in the throat. The other horse ran and hid. The next day my horse was put out with three other horses, and two came back in with throat bites. All of the bites broke the skin, leaving swelling. In one case the skin was torn.

Reader Follow-Up

I have learned a lot about my horse's behavior since I wrote to you regarding his biting other horses in the throat. I wanted to write up what I have learned so that maybe other readers could benefit.

First of all, I learned that it is stallion-like behavior. He was a wild stallion for 4½ years running with 20 other wild stallions on a large Texas ranch. He comes from a different culture than horses brought up in stalls or in public barns that in many cases don't have herd social skills. He operates as if in a herd of wild horses where a clear pecking order and conservation of energy is critical to survival. He is a leader horse, but does not bully, spar with, or pick on other horses. He likes to be left alone and is somewhat aloof. However, he does engage in play, but when he gives signals to the other horse to stop, he wants it to stop. If the other horse ignores his request and continues to pick and annoy him, he may bite his throat. This is especially true if there is inconsistency in the herd and continuous disruption to the pecking order.

Right after I e-mailed you, I moved him to another farm where there were five horses, three of whom were mares. He was there a year and never bit one throat. When he first got there, he and the leader battled for two months before my horse dominated him and took his mares. At no time did he bite that horse's throat. He was fully respectful of that horse and fought it out fairly. The difference here was that the herd had consistency and clear boundaries as to the pecking order. The other factor was that there were no picking or annoying horses that didn't have social skills.

I moved my horse again to a training facility last January. They put him in with the herd gradually, but found that he and the top leaders were really starting to fight fiercely for domination. His neck was pretty severely bitten and the trainers made the decision to keep him with the training horses since he was only there temporarily. However, he has been there for seven months with training horses coming and going. Again, he has had no consistency in his life. There has been too much change and no stable herd. He was put in the pasture with two picker-type horses, one being the trainer's horse, and he bit both throats, dominating them immediately. The trainer saw both events and said that the bitten horses ignored his communication to stop. The trainer did not remove my horse from the other horses. In the natural way, they submitted to his leadership, stopped picking, and became his good friends for the short time they were with him.

I am bringing him home to our new farm in another month. We have been preparing it for him and my other horse. There will be three horses here to start, and I am going to do everything possible to give him stability and bring horses in that have good social skills. If I happen to put one in the herd that doesn't, I know he will teach them respect. He is of good bloodlines and is a strong, fair leader. I'm sure you can tell that I don't have the anxiety I had when I first wrote you. It is because I now have knowledge that I didn't have.

I am grateful for the good work that you are doing. We need good educators so those of us who never stop learning will make the right decisions in our horse's lives. We are their voice and the only ones that really know them and will stand for them. If you have any questions, let me know.                   Joan Starkowsky

Dr. McDonnell's Reply

Thank you for updating us on how things are going with your horse. Thanks also for your kind and encouraging comments on equine behavior education. Positive reinforcement is very effective, you know.

Reading through your note, I am reminded of how much we expect of our domestic horses with grouping and regrouping, and actually how well they do with the rather various arbitrary social and physical environments we provide them over a lifetime. In a way, it's no small miracle that they survive it all.

One thing you mention that is new from your previously reported experiences is that your horse has been the target of bites to the throat from other horses. It is tempting to attribute your horse's tendency to bite at the throat to his being raised in a herd situation. However, as you can see from the other horses that are biting your horse, these are natural intermale fighting behaviors that are typically well-preserved in horses raised under almost any social environment. The full complement of herd behavior typically emerges whenever horses are turned out, even after generations of very little or no open social access. Equally amazing is how much goes on over fences.

Another thought I should share is that while your horse might have been observed to take the leader role, as you describe it, in his various situations so far, under some groupings he might not. He might either lose the battle during the sorting-out phase, or he might just assume a less-dominant role from the start. It is not easy to predict how dominance will sort out.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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