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Horse Behavior. Moira Ilg ERS 697 13-April-2004. Outline. Introduction and General Background Social Status or Ranking Foal and Mare Behavior Stallion Behavior Grazing Behavior Conclusions and Possible Implications. General Background. Factors that influence dominance relationships

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Horse behavior

Horse Behavior

Moira Ilg

ERS 697



  • Introduction and General Background

  • Social Status or Ranking

  • Foal and Mare Behavior

  • Stallion Behavior

  • Grazing Behavior

  • Conclusions and Possible Implications

General background
General Background

  • Factors that influence dominance relationships

    • Body size

    • Physical condition

    • Age

      • Older the more dominant

    • Sex

    • Previous agonistic encounters

    • Group size

    • Dominance hierarchy of parents

Background continued
Background continued

  • Band structure

    • Single adult male

    • Adult females and their offspring

    • Normally stable

      • Changes are normally juvenile males and females

    • Juvenile males may remain solitary for months or years

    • Juvenile females normally bands

  • A well defined hierarchy is present during grazing and will persist if they are provided with food

General background1
General Background

  • Behaviors

    • Threatening Behavior

      • Maybe widespread or may have a few favorites to pick on

      • Is often one sided

      • If there is a “winner”, they move up in rank


  • Grooming

    • Normally groom with two or three individuals that are similar in rank and age

Behaviors continued
Behaviors continued

  • Play

    • Important for social development of young

    • Most common within in peer groups

  • Submissive

    • Often a response to threatening behavior

Social status or ranking
Social Status or Ranking

  • Top ranking individual

    • Large number of threats

      • Distributed widely across the herd

      • Often don’t have “friends”

    • Stallion

      • Is often times the only breeding male

    • Mare

      • Often decreases aggressions as rank becomes higher

Social status or ranking1
Social Status or Ranking

  • Friends

    • Normally close in age and social status

    • Mares may bond more closely with those that are related to them

    • It is important account for “friendships” when assessing the distribution of threats

Social status or ranking2
Social Status or Ranking

  • Tend to be selective about who they interact with

  • Animals tend to spend the most time near individuals that have the same rank or age or both

  • Top ranking animals are seldom seen alone or in a small group

    • Elders are less social than the young

      • Often have fewer interactions with younger subordinate mares

Social status or ranking3
Social Status or Ranking

  • May recognize individuals that they have competed with

    • Leading to fewer competitions in older animals

Theories of the evolution of bonds
Theories of the evolution of bonds

  • Evolved between mares and stallion in a band because of pressure from predators that hunted cooperatively

  • Protect mares against harassment from other stallions and reduce inter-mare aggression


  • Acts of aggression is most common with mares that do not have foals

  • The least amount of aggression is seen between mares that have foals

    • Protection of foals


  • Intermediate aggression is seen between mares that have foals and those that do not

  • Young mares are much more aggressive than older mares when foals were less than a week old

Mares continued
Mares continued

  • Older mares have fewer encounters of aggression

    • Number of acts of aggression decrease as the mare becomes older

  • Aggression frequencies increase in May (foaling season)

  • Frequencies of aggression increase significantly the closer the mare is to parturition

  • The advantage of being a dominant mare
    The Advantage of Being A Dominant Mare

    • Receive less aggression

    • Access to shade on hot sunny or rainy days to rest

    • Increased access to feed

    • Supermare

    • May suppress conception, induce abortions, or harass or kill offspring of subordinate mares

    • However, dominant mares may not live as long

      • They have increased amount of stress and a increased amount of cortisol

    The disadvantages of being a subordinate mare
    The Disadvantages of Being A Subordinate Mare

    • Increased acts of aggression

    • Denied access to shady areas

    • Give birth to fewer or less fit foals

    • Denied access to food

      • Decreased growth rate


    • Foals will often play with foals of their dam’s friends

    • Also like to associate with foals of the same gender


    • In the case of fillies they most often will have a similar rank to their dam

      • Dams may assist their foals in agonistic encounters

      • Foal-mare association

      • Genetics

    Stallion behavior
    Stallion Behavior

    • Some bands will have multiple stallions

    • The subordinate stallions are more likely to help defend the band than the dominant stallion

    • However these stallions are forced to stay on the periphery of the group by the dominant stallion

    Grazing behavior
    Grazing Behavior

    • The time spent grazing is dependent on the intake of the grazer

    • Daily intake is determined by

      • Time spent foraging

        • Varies from a few minutes to 13hrs and 25 min

      • Bite rate

      • Bite size

    • Are selective when quantity and quality of forage is high

      • When drops below a threshold level they become less selective

    Grazing behavior1
    Grazing Behavior

    • Foraging time increases for mares in the summer months

    • Major feeding bouts after dawn and before dusk

    • Feed mainly during the day except for summer months when there is a midday lull

    Grazing behavior2
    Grazing Behavior

    • Often forage from plant communities that are continuous with patches of more desirable plants

    • May use spatial memory to find those plants that are the most desirable

    • Study by Edwards et al., 1996

    Grazing behavior3
    Grazing Behavior

    • Most large herbivores rest in the areas that they graze

      • Some herds have been shown to travel over 1 kilometer to high ground, saltflats with low plant cover, or denuded vegetation

      • Yet when they arrive they show signs of extreme discomfort

    Grazing behavior4
    Grazing Behavior

    • So why travel all that distance?

      • Higher altitude cooler temps?

        • Unlikely, cooler temps are more likely to be found in shady areas rather than bare ground

      • Fewer biting flies?

        • Probably, though the reasons are unclear

        • Most likely the flat, open areas are poor habitat for biting flies

    Grazing behavior5
    Grazing Behavior

    • Is it really worth the effort?

      • They can lose up to 500cc of blood to biting flies a day

      • Biting flies are also the carriers of disease

        • Anthrax

        • Lethal arbovirsues

    • Horses actually spend less energy in the comfort movements

    Grazing preferences
    Grazing Preferences

    • Preferences

      • Prefer gentler slopes

      • Mesic grasslands

    • Avoid

      • Steep slopes

      • Drier grasslands

      • Large tracks of forests

    Home range
    Home Range

    • Home range varies in size in relation to the band size

    • Home ranges overlap

    • Groups can move seasonally

    • Home range cores become larger during winter months than in summer months

    • Change elevations for foaling and mating


    • Focal animal

    • Focal groups


    • In feral herds it is often times difficult to identify individuals

      • Identify distinctive individuals

        • Markings

        • Colorations

        • Sex

        • Location

    • Counting by helicopter


    • Horses are for the most part herd animals and they move as a herd, but can be influenced by individualistic behaviors

    • There are reasons and patterns in their movements that can be predicted when their behavior is understood

    Possible implications
    Possible Implications

    • Understanding behavior can allow

      • Better prediction of movements

      • Understanding habitat choice

      • Better herd management