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Pecking Order Problems in Pasture Mates
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [October 5, 2000]


Training Question:

Hello. I was just reading The Pecking Order and just bought a 5 month old colt to keep my 2-1/2 year old mare company. She has been acting like a wild woman. She seems to be nice to him and then tries to run over him. They are fine together and then she does something that to me seems like she is saying "She is boss". Should I worry about keeping them pastured together?
From: Mary


Trainer's Response:

I have seen your situation and variations of your situation many times, and it is very common among horses that are first being introduced. It is important to remember that both of your horses are young and learning to stand for themselves in the pecking order. The mare feels that her position in the pecking order is threatened with this colt's presence, whether he is trying to threaten her position or not.

I would suggest having the colt gelded before the age of 1 year to reduce the possibility of stud-like behavior. If your mare has been pastured alone for some time before the colt was introduced, she might need a little extra time to get used to it, and to prove that she is higher in the pecking order than he is.

It may take several hard kicks or bites from this mare for the colt to learn his lesson of staying out of and respecting the mare's space and requests. If he gets too close to her, she may act out in an aggresive manner to teach him to stay at a distance until he can respect her space.

If the mare is not wearing borium or hind shoes, and the threats aren't very physical (hard kicking or biting that leave injuries), I would suggest giving them some time to see if they work out their pecking order. Even when they do work out the pecking order, it doesn't mean the kicking and biting will completely stop, although it most likely will become much less often and much less severe.

Even horses that know their pecking order will continue to make small threats such as ear pinning, tail swishing, bareing their teeth, or lunging out. This is because they only want to ensure that they don't "lose" their place in the pecking order after it is established. They may continue to use the smaller threats as a reinforcement.

You might also want to consider the possibility of the mare having PMS, "Pissy Mare Syndrome". At her age, she is perfectly capable of reproducing (although it's not recommended), and she may be having mood swings or the colt may be teasing her and bringing her into heat (even though he may be too young to reproduce).

If the paddock does not have ample grass to keep them occupied during the day, it may also be possible that the mare is acting out in boredom. If you switch them to a grass pasture and there are still problems, then you'll obviously know that is not the cause.

When the two horses are together, it would be wise not to feed them. Grass pasture is fine, but piles of hay or buckets of grain may upset the mare and encourage aggressive behavior. If you have to feed them together, be sure to place the food piles/buckets far enough away that the mare cannot "hog" both piles. (At least 50 ft.)

Also, make sure that the colt has enough space to get away from the mare. If the space is too small for him to get away from her when he needs to, she may feel that even when he is on the opposite side of the paddock, he is still too close and, therefore, disrespecting her space.

If you give them ample time (I'd say 1-2 weeks together from 8am to 8pm each day), and the mare continues to act out in a way that may threaten the colt's health, you might want to separate them.

As in our article on Turnout Guidelines in the Stable Management section of our website, one of the guidelines is to turnout horses separated by sexes. This is because of raging hormones, and the way the pecking order is structured (one stallion per several mares), the horses may fight over each other and cause injuries. Horses are generally more relaxed and less aggressive when they are turned out with their own sex. But, I have seen many, many geldings and mares that get along very well together.

If you become concerned about the aggressive behavior injuring either horse, you should separate them. However, be sure that there are other horses to turn each of them out with. Horses are herd animals, which helps them feel more secure and content. When they find their place in the pecking order with other horses, it gives them the extra security should they be threatened by a predator or other frightening object or being. Remember that, in the wild, a horse that does not belong to a herd usualy does not survive. The instinct to gather in herds and create a pecking order is one that stands strong in all horses, whether wild or domesticated.

You may also be interested in the articles in our Equine Behavior section.





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This article was published on: October 5, 2000. Last updated on: October 5, 2000.