Horses Reconcile, Support Each Other after Conflict

After a squabble in the field, horses might "kiss and make up"--at least in their own equine way. But even more often, post-conflict horses are visited by a "peacemaker," probably to preserve the unity of the group, according to a new study by European researchers.

conflict resolution


Long-term pasturemates sometimes show reconciliatory behavior after a moment of conflict, and a third pasturemate often will display similar behavior to provide comfort or to encourage reconciliation between the other two horses, said Alessandro Cozzi, PhD, DVM, researcher at the Phérosynthèse Research Institute Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology in Saint Saturnin Les Apt, France, and primary author of the study. Conflict behaviors include kicks, bites, chasing, and threats, while reconciliation is represented by sniffing, grooming, playing, and following each other, he said.

In the study, a group of seven domestic horses shared the same four-hectare (10-acre) pasture for two years. These horses showed reconciliatory behavior within 10 minutes after conflict about 40% of the time. But nearly a third of these reconciliations were encouraged by a "peacemaker"--a third pasturemate not involved in the conflict. Overall, "peacemaker" horses would come to provide comfort or encourage reconciliation in about 60% of the post-conflict periods, although this would not always lead to reconciliation, Cozzi said. At some stage in the study, each of the seven horses was involved in both conflict roles and peacemaker roles, he added, and this could be related to a preservation instinct.

conflict resolution

These images were taken from a camera used during the study, showing conflict (top) with one horse chasing off the other, and then resolution and friendly contact from a third party "peacemaker" (bottom).

"Conflict resolution (in social animals) may represent important evolutionary mechanisms which help to maintain the cohesion of the group (and to) share resources such as food and living space," Cozzi said.

The post-conflict behaviors were compared to the same horses' behavior at the same time of day on days without conflict, he said. The frequency of friendly behavior between the horses in conflict and third-party horses was significantly greater following conflict than in periods not following conflict.

The research led by Cozzi and his colleagues could lead to a better understanding of the importance of different kinds of conflicts between pasturemates, which would provide insight about when it's important to separate horses and when it isn't, he said. "With more data on the mechanisms of conflict resolution in horses we will be able to better understand the social system of this species and so respect their welfare by organizing their space and living groups in a more practical way."

The full study, "Post-conflict friendly reunion in a permanent group of horses (Equus caballus)," (Behavioural Processes Volume 85, Issue 2, October 2010, Pages 185-190), was carried out in collaboration with scientists in Italy and the U.K. The written publication is available through Elsevier online.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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