Figuring out the status rules in the herd your horses comprise can be important. If you try to pull a lower-echelon member out for a ride, there's a chance the higher-ups will take umbrage and sneak a nip at his butt as he passes. Pull the herd leader, and you're likely to find your mount expending a great deal of energy looking to see what the underlings are up to. Conversely, you could find the fence lined with horses watching every move the herd leader makes under saddle. And try riding him or her out of sight! There's considerable yelling involved from the abandoned herd in some instances. This is important to know because we often mistake the motives of our horses and become frustrated and even punitive at all the wrong moments. Fortunately, researchers have come up with a short and easy way to determine the herd hierarchy for anyone so inclined.
Since the article above is only available to readers who have a login at The Horse.com, I'm going to quote the most important fact here:
To improve social hierarchy studies, Ahrendt and her colleagues have recently developed a more efficient system called the "limited resource test." By placing three bins of food in the group's pasture, scientists can study the interactions among all the horses for as little as 80 minutes over a four-day period. And according to their research, the limited resource test is just as reliable as the much longer field observation method.
Her study involved a comparison of both methods with the same group of horses: 25 Warmblood geldings age 2 to 3 years old. They had been pastured together in a 19-acre field for two months--long enough to establish their social hierarchy, said to Ahrendt. The researchers recorded 180 interactions during the five-day, 15-hour field test. They recorded 163 observations during the four-day, 80-minute limited resource test. Ratio calculations were made to determine the hierarchy in both tests.
"The results showed a significant correlation between the hierarchical orders obtained by the two methods, suggesting that the less time-consuming limited resource test can provide the same information regarding hierarchy based on aggressive encounters as when determined by field observations," she said.
"This is really good news for horses and their owners because this simpler, less expensive method means more research into social hierarchy, which is fundamental to understanding equine behavior," Ahrendt said.
|Can you tell who is in charge here?|
Look at Zip's face (left), his lowered head, and
his vaguely assertive stance. Right! It's Pokey
in the back who is running this show.
In other words, throw a couple of flakes of hay into the feeder and watch who decides who will get to eat it. The dominant horse--the one most likely to nip your mount on the way by--will be the one in control. S/he will eat first, then back away and allow the next-favorite to eat. Once the first two have had their fill, the rest will jockey for position for the remains of the meal. The dominant horse may step in and sort them out if s/he feels that someone is being a pig or that there's a weak link that simply shouldn't have anything to eat at all. A couple of days of observation will give a clear roster to even the least observant.
If your horse tends toward the wussy end of the scale, s/he may also tend toward being less assertive during your rides. You may be able to make faster training strides because s/he will be more subservient than pushy. On the other hand, that same subservient attitude may show up as a negative if you're looking to make waves as a bold jumper in the show ring.
Time spent figuring out who your horse is and what his personality will mean to his training and performance is never wasted. I'd bet they spend nearly as much effort figuring out which of the human denizens of the barn are most likely to fork over cookies and which need to be looked out for as they're going to be quick with the whip or the nose chain. Horsemanship exists on both sides of the saddle.