Horses are not very complicated. Their herds work simply. There is a boss horse, and a not boss horse. The other horses are in-between horses, but mostly there is a fairly linear ranking from boss down to not boss.
To find out your horses' herd dynamics feed them, or stand at the gate of the paddock about to feed them. The horses will get finicky, waiting for the food and they shall push each other out of the way. This is when you get to see how they interact the best.
Horses are physical. They will demonstrate some things with noises but mostly they will snake their necks, run at other horses, bite, snap and kick. Sometimes horses will be out and out mean, and run horses down until they are exhausted, but despite popular belief horses will not fight to the death or even near death. They are not carnivores, they do not need to show their strength in this manner.
When horses meet they sniff, do general animal meeting stuff and so on. They shall both probably try to establish themselves in the herd, though some horses, if they know they are very low down traditionally in a herd will give in instantly.
To show strength a horse will make himself big. This will consist of a raised neck, high-stepping walk or trot and general bigness. The horse will then have to prove his bigness to all the other horses. This consists of lots of parading, during which time you can take pretty pictures of your pony!
Now a horse who thinks he is deserving of a similar rank in the herd will also be parading like this and very quickly (in a few steps or more) they will confront each other. This confrontation will probably be a few quick sniffs of each other’s noses, to do this they will snake out their head and do their best not to be in each other’s space.
One of them might instantly give in. But if they put back their ears be ready for some action. They may then nip at each other, dance around each other and make a few squeals.
Then the two horses will try to move forward and get the other one out of its space. This is what determines the competition. They will run at each other, snaking their necks and trying to nip at the other horse’s rump, neck and shoulder. All attacks should stop if a horse retreats. If they retreat the attacking horse may attempt a testing run, at which the other horse should run back. Should the horse being attacked try to challenge this attack, it will go until one of them retreats for good.
When one of them has apparently given up the now-boss horse will spend a few days establishing that he won, but there should be nothing as dramatic and as lengthy as this original dance. If blood is drawn, or if the horse under attack retreats but the attacker continues, do not put those two horses in together again except under strict supervision.
Giving in consists of moving out of the other horse’s personal space; 2 meters is what a horse considers to be their personal space. A horse who has given in will hang their head and not look the other horse in the eye; they will not perk their ears up or put them down, they will keep them in the neutral position. A beaten horse, or simply a horse that is currently interacting with a higher ranked horse will generally try to be as small and meek as possible.
Once the horses have met, there will be occasional small fights so that the horse can restate their dominance in the herd.
Please note: Do not ever put a new horse into a large herd. Give him a few horses, one or two, to deal with at first. This small group of horses the new one mets first off should not be the most dominant or the least dominant horses. Once they have sorted themselves out, add more horses slowly to this small new herd. Always keep an eye on horses when they meet each other for the first time, but do not have them tied, near bad fences or other things that could get them hurt in this initial dangerous meeting.
What to do if your horses just keep fighting
My horses all knew the command “back”. This was generally hollered at them with basic “back” movements waved with my hands.
To train a horse to go back simply take them in hand with either a halter or bridle (use your discretion, it depends on how comfortable you are controlling your horse). Stand at their shoulder, facing them, and say firmly “back”, once you have said this push on their chest with your hand. You may need the help of a short crop to tap on their chest firmly while you do this. Once your horse realizes that leaning into your hand will not reduce the pressure, he will take a tentative step back. Immediately you must stop the pressure and praise him.
Do this until there is no pause and you do not have to apply much, if any pressure on the chest. Work on this for ten to twenty minutes for a few days in a row. By the third or fourth day there should be no resistance or slow steps back. You should be able to yell this back command at a horse from across a stable at a horse and he should step backwards. Once they can do this, if the fight gets a little bit too violent you should be able to yell “back” to get them apart. The horse that is being victimized would probably like to get out of there, open the gate and call him to you.
If the fight goes on and on, get yourself a whip. If you have a stock whip, that is good. If you have a lunge whip, that will also work but do not get out there with a pathetic dressage whip or crop. You need something long, you need something that cracks. When you walk into the paddock with the fighting horses, do not let the horses, any of the horses, get between you and your way out. Keep an eye on all the horses in the paddock including the ones fighting because horses are unpredictable creatures. Be ready to get out of the way of a horse and to flee to a place of safety.
Get out there and lay into them. Beat at the ground by their hooves, crack it by their flanks, hit them, all the while yell and scream at them, stamp the ground, hell, anything to get them apart.
Don’t, don’t get a hose and spray them. The cold of the water can send them into shock.
If horses really do not get along, do not put them together, or even in adjacent paddocks as horses can be bullied from afar.
Ideas, experiences and further information are, as always, well received.