A horse can bully another horse (or an entire herd) for a number of reasons. Equine ethologist, Victor Ros, calls this “learned dominance” and he points out that it is a learned behaviour – usually due to competition for resources – rather than a personality type. So when you label a horse as, “Oh, she’s the dominant mare.” You are actually doing the horse a disservice by not recognizing that there is a causative stressor, or wounding, underneath what is actually learned behaviour.
In this case, with my two stallions, the competition for resources exists in the form of not having adequate space (i.e. hundreds of acres) to run away or separate. And there is also an inequity in testosterone! Montaro (Fjord/Belgian stallion) is 2 years old and has already bred a few mares, so he is much more “studdish” than Jax (Belgian/Arab stallion) who is only 18 months old. Jax still makes the foal mouthing movements and still views mares as maternal figures.
So in this video below, I’m going to show you how – over the course of 4 days – I worked with these 2 semi-feral stallions to help teach them how to co-exist peacefully, in this restricted space, without the older one beating up the younger one, or making his life fearful and stressed.
Why? So that they could live together and not be isolated. No horse should live alone – it is completely unnatural and considered ‘illegal’ according to zoo standards.
If you have a bully in your herd, or you have two horses that are not getting along and you’re wondering if there’s anything you can do about it, then this video may give you some ideas to try.
As you may already know, when horses are in their native habitat, they have thousands of acres to roam over and plenty of space to get away from a bullying horse. They can also choose their herd configurations, or choose to leave a herd to go join a different herd. When we place horses in artificial environments, disrupt their families, and throw them into random herd groupings, a fearful or aggressive horse can wreak havoc on other horses.
Teaching a horse how to control their aggressive energy
So what you’re going to see in this video is me doing a combination of behaviour modification and energetic teaching to show this yearling and 2-year-old stallion how to playfight in a way that no one gets bullied. Whether due to age or personality, the older stud, Montaro is more aggressive than the younger grey stallion Jax.
I’m going to be focusing most of my teaching on Montaro – I’m asking him and showing him how to stay in control of his aggressive energy so that he is able to have Jax as his field-mate, rather than being alone. I’m teaching him how to read the signs from Jax of when he’s had enough, or when he doesn’t want to playfight, and to be able to leave Jax alone.
To be honest, I have two sons and found the process to be quite similar to the teaching and space-holding I’ve had to do to keep my sons from hurting each other. It is just as difficult for young human males to learn how to control their testosterone-driven impulses, as it is for young stallions. If there had been a wise, older stallion on my property, I may have just been able to leave the job to him.
Also keep in mind, that these two semi-feral stallions have only recently been through a very traumatizing cull, auction and Horse Rescue process, before a 7-hour ordeal trapped in a tiny box delivered them to my place.
Introducing a new herd member safely
With every new horse that I introduce to a herd (and I’ve done this with 17 different horses) I first put the newcomer into their own field or paddock with a common fence line. I give the horses enough time to work out most of the details of their relationship OVER THE FENCE. And believe me, they will. For some horses, this will take a couple of hours, for others it can take weeks. But I wait until I see signs of calmness, interest and a budding relationship, and even better, affection.
Jax and Montaro have been in adjoining fields for 3 days before I let them in to the same field on Day 1 of this video. Also very important to note, is that Jax and Montaro have shared a field before, at the Rescue. But they have been apart for about a month when Jax arrives at my place.
Even if horses have been herdmates for years, I never just throw them back into a field together. I once knew of a brother and sister who had been together their whole lives, then the mare was sent away for a couple of months of training. When she returned, her brother beat her terribly – why? I suspect it’s because horses map each other by smell, more than sight. And because she was immediately put in with him, his nose told him she was a stranger before his eyes could counter the idea. Perhaps 5 minutes in an adjoining paddock would have been all that was needed, or perhaps they needed a day or two… It’s always best to let the horses decide.
As you will see in the video, I also create a “safe zone” for the newcomer where they can come to escape pressure or aggression. Sometimes, a herd dynamic needs to be worked out over several days, as happens in this video.
It is SO important not to rush things and so worth it for the long-term peace and safety of your herd to let the horses take as long as they need to work out their relationships, while holding a firm “no violence allowed” policy. We are the ones who have put them in this unnatural environment, so it is our responsibility to teach them and give them the tools to successfully navigate this man-made living arrangement.
Leave them alone, they’ll work it out
I know many people will say, “Oh just throw them in together and they’ll work it out. You’re not helping here, you’re just getting in the way of a natural process.”
But I know horses who have been beat up from head to toe – literally covered with bruises from this kind of unnatural herd grouping. Or horses who went from being secure, happy horses to fearful, nervous horses. Or the horse who has been brutalized turns into a bully – because his new herd has taught him to come out swinging, or else you’ll be abused and won’t get enough to eat. These learned behaviours can then take a long time to shift/heal. It takes a bit more time and effort to introduce horses this way, but it is SO worth it in the long run.
And, it takes less time to introduce/teach them in this way, than it does to heal the emotional/physical trauma caused by bullying, or one horse beating the crap out of the other one.
I have used this same method with geldings or mares who had learned bullying/dominance behaviour. Because dominance is a learned behaviour that creates a feedback loop of this kind of behaviour – it creates scarcity and fear in the other horses; who will then take that default behaviour into their next herd.
So we have the opportunity to provide plenty of separate food, shelter, and watering stations; thus ensuring there is no competition for resources. And then we can also teach the horses how to share and give them a visceral experience of how it FEELS to live together in peace and calmness; rather than the tension and fear their nervous system has calibrated to.
Remember, that when horses are in their native habitat, they have thousands of acres to roam over and plenty of space to disperse. They can also choose their herd configurations, or choose to leave a herd to go join a different herd. When we place horses in contrived environments, disrupt their families, and throw them into random herd groupings, a fearful or aggressive horse can wreak havoc on other horses.
So if you are dealing with bullying or dominant behaviour with your horses, I hope this video sparks some ideas for ways you can teach them to be together in greater peace and affection. Remember, for a horse to correct another horse, or ask it to give way, is fine and normal herd behaviour. What is not okay is bullying or abuse. And sometimes, there is nothing you can do to get certain horses to get along – they just don’t like each other, and then they need to be kept in separate fields.
Misconceptions about stallions
When I first published this video on YouTube, I got a lot of flak for (a) even attempting to put two stallions in a field together and (b) thinking that I could possibly alter or modulate their hormone-driven, instinct-driven behaviour.
Of course, almost all of the people dissing me were people who had never taken care of a stallion before, but were just repeating the massive biases and misinformation that exists about stallions. This is so sad, because it means these beautiful, intelligent, super responsive, amazing creatures are being consigned to lives of misery and isolation; that literally make them go crazy. I could write an entire blog post (and someday I will!) about what I’ve learned from the three stallions I’ve been blessed to share time/space with, but for now I will limit myself to two points.
Number 1, I wish I could have left every one of them a stallion. I was forced to geld them due to circumstances and environment, but if I’d had the space and fencing required to keep them intact as a bachelor herd, I absolutely would have. I find stallions to be super sensitive, intelligent and feather-responsive – I prefer working/playing with them, much more than geldings.
Number 2, Montaro was so intelligent and responsive, that I could interrupt him in the middle of mounting a mare and ask him to come away with me, and he would. When I say, “Ask him…” I mean that he was unhaltered, I had no whip or other tools, just my voice and my fingers beckoning to him, and he would dismount and follow me. He and I both wanted to keep him a stallion and he proved to me he would be able to live a free, enriched life as a stallion – where I could take him out on trails, etc.
What we both didn’t realize, is that stallion instinct is not just to have sex with one mare, or a companion mare, but to breed every mare within sight, smell or sound. The neighbour had seven mares who all came into heat and would stand day and night at the bottom of the field, calling incessantly to Montaro. He controlled himself for up to 10 hours at a time and then he just couldn’t hold it any longer and he’d go through a fence (I had 3 fencelines between him and the mares). The main fence was solid wood with a line of electric on top – didn’t matter, he’d go straight through it. This was the only reason I gelded him.
Almost four years after I first wrote this article, I rescued another wild mustang stallion and his two pregnant herdmates. We had moved to a larger property and I was faced with the challenge of caring for and seeing whether these two separate family herds of wild and semi-feral horses wanted to remain separate, or integrate into one herd – see the Mustang Herd Integration series for that remarkable journey.