WILD HORSE BEHAVIOR
INTRODUCTION FOR BEGINNER
BANDS OF WILD HORSES
Horses in the wild instinctively form into bands. They are extended family groups in which each plays a specific role. Much like human beings, their roles 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 banner of the Missouri Wild Horse League. They use humane methods, capturing only a few horses at a time, and readying them for adoption with the help of a veterinarian.
The lead stallion is the dominant male in the wild horse band. He fathers all the foals, and not just by breeding with the mares, but by acting as a protector.
As the horses graze and move from place to place, he most 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 times at Broadfoot, I have seen this occur and it is an amazing thing to see in person. He is known to charge at intruders, although I have never seen this in person yet. I have had the lead stallion look and stare at me when I have been photographing them.
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 can be 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 are usually born in the spring. Like young ones of any species, they add a lot of play action and affection to the life of the group. They also provide an intense focus for the bands’ defensive instincts. It is always a good idea to keep a careful distance from wild horses and when new foals are present.
Fillies are females from a year to four years old. They play a big 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, to say the least. Early mornings are a good 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 which helps to prevent the lead stallion from breeding with his own offspring. Young mares can be forced to leave one band and they can be welcomed into another.
Males past the yearling stage face an uncertain future. When they reach three or four years old, they are simply 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 have a fight with the lead stallion.
With wild horses on broad rangeland out west, young stallions form bachelor bands if they are not able to 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 important part in their quality of life and long-term survival.