Accepted Paper:

Social organization in horses, and its implications for the horse-human relationship  


Lucy Rees

Paper short abstract:

An adaptive view of social organization in horses reveals it to be collective, not a dominance hierarchy structure. The implications are considered.

Paper long abstract:

Horses are prey animals whose physical adaptations, behaviour and social organisation reflect their vulnerability to predators. Survival depends on vigilance, communication, and massed flight. The factors that govern successful flight - cohesion, collision avoidance and synchrony of direction and movement- are also evident in feral band maintenance activities, where strong selection for peaceful in-band relations and stability is shown. Aggression, low in frequency and intensity, is mainly directed from older to younger band members; the response is avoidance, ensuring respect for individual space (collision avoidance). Proximate causes of aggression are examined. In natural conditions, resource competition is so rare that no behavioural mechanism, such as a dominance hierarchy or the use of submissive gestures, exists to control aggression during competition.

Examination of the concept of social dominance reveals confusion about the implication of dominance, the function of dominance hierarchies, and methods of data collection, especially in ungulates. This has allowed the winner-loser avoidance order seen in domestic horses in forced focal feeding competition to be misidentified as a functional dominance hierarchy, to which it does not correspond. Stress, competition and learning increase aggression rates and severity, changing social structure so that no parallel can be drawn between feral horses and domestic ones, or even between domestic ones in different situations.

Horse-human relations, and horse welfare, have been adversely affected by the popularisation of the dominance hierarchy paradigm, which appears to justify the use of force and punishment in cases of "disobedience". A new paradigm is proposed.


Panel P14
Understanding humans understanding horses: constructed and co-created cultures