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Herd dynamics

From: Alesa Bussing

I really enjoy Horse-Sense and have learned so much and I have been quite pleased on several occassions when I knew just how you were going to answer a question!! Thanks!

I have a mare and a gelding both 10 years old who have lived together for about 9 months. They have a dysfunctional relationship by human standards; she is mean to him and he likes it!!

Flash, (10yr QH Geld.) and Sydney (10yr Quarab Mare)live in a several acre pasture with a good sized three sided shed that is divided in half, one open stall for each. They really do like each other as far as I can tell. They are always together and every now and again she will rest her head on his back. They usually lay down and sleep right next to each other.

The problem is that Sydney, the mare, can be mean to him. It is usually when we feed or if I go out to chat with them. When I go out to visit with them Sydney will do everything she can to keep him away from me. Flash is such a people lover that I hate to see me just hang back and not come up to me. Also, sometimes when they are hangind out and doing nothing, she will walk up to him and bite him.

When the food comes out she is right at the fence. He, of course, hangs back. She lays her ears back, wiggles her butt, and kicks out, frequently very high kicks. She chases him away also. Eventually they will eat together but not at first. They each have their own grain bucket and I put out a pile of hay for each or them and then at least one neutral pile. They are always fed in the same place, Sydney gets fed first and her bucket is on the left. I couldn't feed Flash first if I wanted to.

So, my question is, am I putting human emotions on normal horse behavior? Is my gelding a happy horse even though she is so mean to him?

Next question, Sydney, the mare, paws the ground for her food. She has done this since we got her nine months ago. As I walk to the fence with the food I stop every time she paws. When she stops, I continue walking toward her with the food. Don't you think that after nine months she should get the picture? She still paws. What else can I do, or should I leave it alone? She was a sale horse and we do not know anything about her background. She is wonderful around people, dominant over Flash, and aggresive over food. Normal mare?

Thanks for your insight!


Hi Alesa! I changed the title of your note: yours was "dysfunctional relationship", and I'm happy to tell you that this is a perfectly functional relationship, horse-style. ;-)

Horses are not in the least democratic; every animal in a herd has a particular place in the "pecking order." When you have only two animals in a "herd", one of them is going to be dominant. In this case, it's the mare. Sydney keeps reminding Flash that SHE is the #1 horse -- and that's quite normal. They haven't been together that long; wait another year or so, and I think that they will settle down more comfortably together. Sydney will still be dominant, but she won't have to make such a production out of proving it. ;-)

I'd be pleased with those two horses if I were you -- it isn't always possible to keep mares and geldings together, but these two are working out their differences. The fact that they DO eat together (after Sydney reminds Flash of his place in the herd) is a good sign. Hanging out together is good -- resting heads on one another's backs is good. These are signs of companionship.

If Flash were truly frightened of Sydney, he wouldn't go near her or allow her to go anywhere near him -- much less EAT with her or sleep anywhere near her! He knows that it's perfectly normal for Sydney, as Boss Horse, to make threatening faces, aim kicks in his general direction, and chase him away from attention and food. This is not a problem for either horse, and won't be until/unless you notice Sydney keeping Flash away ALL the time and eating ALL the food herself.

You've already noticed that Sydney's fussing takes place when there's something specific to fight over -- when a human arrives with food, or when a human arrives and plans to do some petting or grooming. Again, this is normal. Her background may contribute to her behaviour -- she may have been in situations where she had to compete for food. But it's entirely possible that this is just Sydney!

Pawing means eagerness, impatience, and a wish to move forward -- pawing at mealtimes when the food is on the way simply means "I want to get to that bucket NOW, so HURRY IT UP!" There's no reason to punish her for this -- it's more or less the equivalent of a hungry baby banging on the tray of its high-chair. If she paws while you are grooming her or tacking her up, that's another matter -- nothing to do with food -- and you'll be in a position to say "NO" and tap the offending leg with a whip or your toe.

It sounds to me as though you have two very normal horses that get along well with you and each other. Enjoy!


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