The Importance of Social Relationships in Horses
by Machteld C. van Dierendonck
Edition: Utrecht, 1st., 2006
Feral horses are social animals, which have to rely on survival strategies centered on the formation of cohesive social bonds within their bands. Many problems in the husbandry of social animals such as horses, are due to the fact that the limits of their adaptive abilities are exceeded. Evidence suggests that the fundamental social characteristics of domestic horses have remained relatively unchanged. The social structure, social strategies and social interactions were investigated (3 non-consecutive years, 24 hr per day for several weeks) in long term established groups of domestic horses (mares and geldings of all ages) and a few small introduced groups, kept in (semi)natural environments. The general aim was to investigate the social needs of domestic horses. The social life of domestic horses was characterised by long lasting bonds with preferred partners which were established and maintained by allogrooming, play, proximity and dominance behaviours. Bonding partners were mainly found within the same sex-age group, but adult geldings also bonded with sub-adult mares and geldings. Adult mares were clustered in a group, while the other animals formed a second group. Among the adult mares, subgroups according to reproductive state were formed. Individuals regulated their social network by interfering with interactions between other members of the herd, which in itself is complex. An intervention is a behavioural action of one animal that actively interferes with an ongoing interaction between a dyad with the apparent aim of altering that interaction. This was verified by post-hoc analyses of disturbed and undisturbed interactions. Interventions in allogrooming or play were performed significantly more often when at least one member of the initial dyad was a preferred partner of, or familiar to (within the small introduced bands) the intervener. The stronger the preferred association in allogrooming between the intervener and member(s) of the initial dyad, the higher the probability the intervener would displace one initial member and continue allogrooming with the other. Just five behaviours were extracted which reliably reflected the dominance relations among horses. Aggression with the hind quarters was used both offensively and defensively and therefore not suitable as a reliable parameter. Individual dominance relationships were related to social experience. The implications of these findings for horse husbandry were assessed. It is argued that the execution of affiliative behaviours may be rewarding in itself, and therefore always will be a highly motivated behaviour. It is shown that social positive physical interactions (allogrooming, play) with other horses is an ethological need and therefore indispensable in modern husbandry systems. Ethological needs are so important for the animal that husbandry systems that lack the possibilities to execute such behaviours will cause chronic stress. It is concluded that all horses need physical social contact, and that horses, which lack appropriate social learning experiences during ontogeny, may be hampered in their social functioning later in life. Solutions for problems, including dominance problems, in individual social housing and group housing are presented.