WILD HORSE BEHAVIOR

INTRODUCTION FOR BEGINNERS

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BANDS OF WILD HORSES

Wild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim LaytonWild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim Layton Horses in the wild instinctively form into bands. They are extended family groups in which each plays a specific role. Like human beings, their positions are determined by age, gender, strength, and intelligence.  They are tight-knit groups organized for mutual protection and survival. They have a strict hierarchy with a lead mare and stallion, a few or several other mares, and their young offspring.  When you visit the herds, see if you can identify each of these roles.  

The Wild Horses of Missouri have traditionally divided themselves into four or five bands along the Salem Plateau near the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers in Shannon County, Missouri, on the Ozarks National Scenic Riverway. 

Each band is traditionally named after the local range area they claim for themselves: Round Spring, Broadfoot, Shawnee Creek, Rocky Creek. They typically number between seven and a dozen animals in each group.  

In the case of Missouri’s wild horses, there is also a human dynamic that affects the make-up of the bands because of legal restrictions on herd size. 1996 legislation passed by the U.S. Congress protects these free-roaming horses on National Park Service land in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. But it also limits the herd size to only 50 horses. Local area residents volunteer to manage the herd under the Missouri Wild Horse League banner. They use humane methods, capturing only a few horses at a time and readying them for adoption with the help of a veterinarian.

LEAD STALLION

Wild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim LaytonWild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim Layton The lead stallion is the dominant male in the wild horse band. He fathers all the foals, not just by breeding with the mares but by acting as a protector.

As the horses graze and move from place to place, he often follows behind as rear guard. See if you can witness this behavior when you visit them in person.  

He will signal them to run or round them up in a tight group when there appears to be a threat. Often at Broadfoot, I have seen this occur, and it is a fantastic thing to see in person. He is known to charge at intruders, although I have never seen this in person.  I have had the lead stallion look and stare at me when I photograph them.  

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BOSS MARE

Wild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim LaytonWild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim Layton The boss mare is the matriarch and co-leader of the herd.  

She typically goes out ahead of the rest as a scout when they move to new locations.

I've seen this several times in person, and this never fails to put a smile on my face.  

She also plays a disciplinary role with the younger ones, which is fascinating to watch.

If anyone or anything moves in too close and causes fear among the horses, she can charge until the intruder retreats.

Make no mistake.  The boss mare is the real boss.

FOALS

Foals are usually born in the spring. Like young ones of any species, they add a lot of play-action and affection to the group's life. They also provide an intense focus for the bands’ defensive instincts. It is always good to keep a careful distance from wild horses and when new foals are present.

FILLIES

Wild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim LaytonWild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim Layton Fillies are females from a year to four years old. They play a significant sister role with the foals, running and playing with them and modeling more mature behavior. I've watched this behavior and interactions in person, and it is a delight.  Early mornings are an excellent time to see these actions and behaviors.

When they reach reproductive age, their place in the band becomes tenuous. They are often harassed by the older mares, sometimes to the point of being expelled from the group. That might be less about jealous emotions, as we might think in human terms and more of a genetic instinct that helps to prevent the lead stallion from breeding with his offspring. Young mares can be forced to leave one band and be welcomed into another.

COLTS

Wild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim LaytonWild Horses of Shannon County Missouri by Tim Layton Males past the yearling stage face an uncertain future. When they reach three or four years old, they are not allowed to stay in the band. As the colts approach maturity, they are shunned by the mares with increasing violence. This can provide a lot of drama.  

If they try to stay in the herd, they will eventually fight with the lead stallion.

With wild horses on broad rangeland out west, young stallions form bachelor bands if they cannot defeat a stallion for the male lead role in a group. In the case of Missouri’s wild horses on limited free-range, humane herd management plays an integral part in their quality of life and long-term survival.

Free Wild Horse Journal by Tim LaytonFree Wild Horse Journal by Tim Layton