Introduction to Social Behavior

Humans strive for attachments and social connections. Those who are socially isolated are less healthy physically and psychologically. When a person is excluded from a group, aggressive behavior increases, self-regulation is impaired, and prosocial behavior decreases. Like humans, horses are social animals. In fact, they are probably more social than humans. They don’t seem to need as much personal space as we do, and their bands and herds stick closer together than ours do. They always choose to eat together and drink together. They were born to be wild, born to run, and born to love each other.


Among the most remarkable animal stories are those involving friendships where we might not expect them. A friendship between man and dog is not surprising — after all, a dog is man’s best friend. Nor is it surprising to find a friendship between two dogs — or two men. We expect intraspecies friendships (friendships within the same species) .

But then we don’t. A friendship between two fish would surprise us, or between two invertebrates, two amphibians, or two reptiles. And we are surprised when we come upon apparent friendships between two very different species, such as cat and bird or duck and owl.

Band and Herd

Wild animals that live in groups — herds, flocks, schools — form friendships. They derive benefit from being together. They don’t relish separation from their extended family.

A band is a family group of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their foals. A herd can consist of multiple bands, and the connections between bands are weaker than within them, so a herd may show “fission-fusion” as it splits off a band or adds a band. In this book, the distinction does not matter, and I typically use “herd” to refer to a group of horses.

Horses are weird. Horses are unique among ungulates (large hoofed mammals such as rhinos, cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotamus) and even most mammals in building and maintaining long-term bonds. Mares, stallions, and geldings all bond this way, choose to live together, and remain together until separated by fate. Horses have a sophisticated parental care system in which moms, dads, siblings, the peer group and others may play a role in raising foals of both sexes. A band of horses is a matriarchy, with one mare at the top and most of her daughters, regardless of age, and any sons that are below the age of 2. In the wild, feral bands of horses may have one or two stallions with the group, who play a role in defending territory, driving off other stallions, and fathering some darling foals. Herds form from bands, and alliances in the herd transcend family. In both herd and band, all cooperate in various responsibilities, such as predator defense.


Respect can be defined as “a feeling of deep admiration or deference for something that is good, valuable or important and that is elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” I can drive a car, type, and stand on one foot. Does my horse appreciate me for these talents? Does he deeply admire me for my ability to play the violin? Does he defer to me because I was an Eagle Scout or have a Ph.D.? I don’t think so.

Does a horse respect anything? What does your horse deeply admire? What abilities, qualities, or achievements has he noticed in his colleagues?

These are easy questions with hard answers…


A common premise in natural horsemanship is that “horses need leadership.” This notion draws from the imagination, where we wonder what we would do if left on the plains with strangers. With humans, we imagine, someone would choose to become the leader, and would cheerfully make decisions for us. Governments would form, and we would submit.

Trainers seem to believe that horses are looking for leadership, that the way to have a good relation with a horse is to be that leader. “Leader” in this context is undefined, but could mean “boss” or “bully”.


It is fashionable to talk about “partnership” with a horse. Many of those interested in partnership are from the “natural horsemanship” school of thinking, and want two very different things: to be able to control their horse, and force it to do what they want, and to set their horse free. Their ideal is this: when my horse is free to do whatever he pleases, he will do what I please. He’ll do this without any evident coercion or resistance. He will do it without hesitation.

If your horse is truly free to do what he wants, I can’t imagine that he will be doing what you want. Horses everywhere seem to prefer being with other horses, not with people. They would rather graze than trot in circles in a ring. Most would rather walk around a jump instead of jumping over it.

Dominance and Hierarchy

I have argued that a herd of horses is much like a school of fish or flock of birds, leaderless and choosing a course of action via collective decision making. I have argued that “respect” as is normally meant by humans, does not exist in the horse, and that humans often use it as a euphemism for “fear”. I do not dispute the existence of “dominance” in a herd of horses, but I have questions about what it is and whether the concept is useful. Thirty years ago, researchers were far from a consensus on how to define and measure dominance, and little has changed since then. Anything gets harder to talk about when we can’t agree on what it is.


Humans definitely have personalities. But when we ask psychologists or family or friends what “personality” is, we get different answers. Personality seems to be something we can’t quite define, and the skeptics in the room wonder if we have made something up. Reification is the process in which an idea acquires a reality. We imagine personality, so it must exist. It is only when we set out to measure it that we discover we can’t find it. But that doesn’t lead us to rewinding our reality-producing apparatus. We just keep looking. Reification is one of my favorite words. It just might explain why personality is so hard to nail down.

Horses seem to have personalities, too. But here the thinking and the language becomes even more muddled than when talking about humans.