Do horses have a play ‘circuit’ too?


I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up to an email to one you may have read titled “Bracketology and why horse training has nothing to with basketball”.

To give you a summary, in that email I compared the knockout process in the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness with supposed hierarchies in wild horse herds.

More relevant though, I explained how equine science is debunking the whole notion of pecking order in herds.

I was prompted to write the follow-up as I received a lovely email from a lady called Myra with reference to the original email.

She wrote, “Re Hierarchy, Yes, I’m hearing this more and more, Teddie, since a recent study observed horses in the wild, a herd of Camargue horses.

“Domestic horses do form their own levels of order. I’ve observed this with herds I worked and started, Brumbies from, outback Australia (as feral as they get here in Oz) my horse dealer / boss bought and trucked home, from the auction back in the late 60s early 70s, We did not paddock them all the time but I would let them loose on the common in the morning, and round them up and bring them home in the evening.

“Even though they had been grazing all day, the hay (put out before I got them in) had to be in multiple separate piles away from kicking distance to one another. I found older horses (both sexes) rather than the young colts, were more likely to be the ones pulling the strings.

Unfortunately, We can’t keep our horses in a totally natural wild environment. We are their guardians and aggressive or assertive behavior does exist on different levels and we have to work with it.”

Myra makes a very good point about domestic horses in that we cannot compare the situation we keep our horses in to that of horses who are able to roam free.

I’m sure we’ve all seen one horse move another off a pile of hay or some other food and when you think about it, it makes sense. In a domestic environment there is often a ‘shortage’ of food which then might trigger more assertive behaviour.

But this got me thinking about why I’ve sometimes seen this occur in a pasture where food is effectively unlimited. Why would a horse in this situation display such behavior?

One reason might be to reassert dominance and remind another horse of that fact should they find themselves in a situation of scarcity.

However, I was listening to a podcast and heard about the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, psychologist, and psychobiologist.

He carried out social experiments with rats and discovered that, like us, they have a play ‘circuit’ in their brains.

On further reading I found this piece he’d written: “Play may allow young animals to be effectively assimilated into the structures of their society. This requires knowing who they can bully, and who can bully them. One must also identify individuals with whom one can develop cooperative relationships, and those whom one should avoid.”

Panksepp points out that “the most vigorous play occurs in the context of preexisting social bonds.”

In contrast, he says that if “one animal becomes a ‘bully’ and aspires to end up on top all the time, playful activity gradually diminishes and the less successful animal begins to ignore the winner.”

In other words, while a larger rat may win play bouts 70% of the time, he will allow a smaller rat to win some of the time so that playtime continues.

This is definitely something I’m going to keep an eye out for in the future, especially as horses are social creatures too. Have you witnessed something like this?

In general though, it’s fair to say that while horses may compete for resources when they are scarce, they generally show no motivation for wanting to dominate others just for the heck of it.

Moving on to Myra’s other observation about older horses being the ones more likely to be calling the shots, I also came across the work of Daniel M. Higgins, Ph.d..

Professor Higgins says that social hierarchies are usually based on competence, which is broadly determined by intelligence and conscientiousness.

Again, this makes perfect sense that the brightest and most industrious will tend to become the leaders of an organisation, equine or otherwise. Which is why it is often the older members who tend to become leaders due to their accumulated wisdom.

I really like seeing how these ideas and the discoveries of equine science are becoming more mainstream now. As a result, more and more people are realizing that we don’t need to use domination as a way of controlling horses and this can only be a good thing.

Perhaps the coming decade will see these ideas become the accepted wisdom. Let’s hope so.

As always, my advice is to really watch what your horses are doing because you won’t really see these little nuances unless you do.

And when they occur, you’ll say to yourself, “Huh? But if that is true, then why is this…?”

And that’s when things get really exciting as you realize you’re getting a peek into the horse’s world from their perspective.

It’s so much fun for me to keep learning and growing and helping horses in any way I can. What about you?

Do you have observations you can share with us all? If so, please write them in the Comments below. Thanks!


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  • Yes, I also noticed when feeding I would have to put hay in different spots so they would have peace in eating I thought the saying the grass is always greener when one of them thought the other hay pile looked more yummy or even checking out the grain bucket one last time before the bucket was put up but also noticed ones would wait until the boss horse choose its pile then so the next horse than on down the line other times they were all the best of mates and palled around with each other. Thank you again for some good articles to read and also thank you my holiday is going good thank you Happy New Year.

  • suzanne copley says:

    It has long been observed among dressage horses that “the one with the most training runs the farm” that is, other horses seem to defer to this individual. One theory advanced is that this one “has more human”, that is, spends the most time with, and somehow carries our pheromones. I would assume this would be observed no matter the discipline imposed by humans.

    • Interesting thoughts. It also goes along with the horses following another with the most knowledge.

  • Leslie Dresser says:

    My observation may sound peculiar but has been witnessed perhaps hundreds of times over the last twenty years or so. All of the horses I observed were domestic horses in a boarding environment. Each horse was in an individual corral, not in a herd or pasture environment. What I observed, even with my own horses is that at each feeding, just prior to putting their feed in their buckets or barrels, they will urinate before starting their meals. I’ve observed this behavior happen with mares more often than geldings but it’s something that takes place each and every time I feed. I’ve thought of reasons why they do this but it’s just a theory. Has anyone else observed this? If you know the answer, could you please share? I used to manage a boarding stable for many years. We boarded approx. Seventy horses at a time and this behavior was pretty much the norm.

  • Hi Teddie,
    Thanks for this article, it was food for thought. It seems likely that the pecking order that we observe in domestic horses does not exist (at least in the same way) in wild herds.
    Here is what I have observed in my horse and pony, who have been together for about 6 months. They are only one hand difference in size, but I think that is a factor. The older, bigger one is the boss. The pony challenged this at first but after several reprimands, resulting in minor injuries such as bite marks, she became submissive. Now she more or less accepts that she waits for the horse to drink first, etc. I separate them at feeding time except at night. This works out well.
    I have another interesting observation. The pony is 13, but younger than the horse who is 22. The pony is good at observing the horse and learning from her. I made them toys out of milk jugs with holes in them. When shaken, treats will come out the holes. At first neither animal knew what to do. My horse is familiar with puzzles, and figured it out quickly while the pony watched. Then the pony tried it and got the reward. To me that shows two different kinds of intelligence. My horse learns by doing, and my pony learns by observing. I used this when teaching the pony to side pass. I stood in front of her and crossed my legs to move sideways. She immediately did the same. Fascinating and awesome!
    I wonder if part of what we see as pecking order is these two learning styles in action.
    I enjoy your blogs and wish you a prosperous new decade,
    Deborah Houk

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