Horses are herd animals. In the wild, they survive by roaming in groups. Herds consist mostly of mares, called harem bands, which are serviced by one stallion that protects and defends the herd. The patriarch is the sole adult male horse in the herd. All other males are young colts that will be driven out to live in a bachelor band when they are mature enough to become interested in breeding and, thus, represent a threat to the patriarch.
There are also young fillies in the herd who will remain with the herd until they are either stolen by another stallion trying to start or increase his harem band or are bred within the harem by their own father or by a new stallion who takes over the herd, which happens on an average of every two to three years.
The dominant member of a herd, however, is always an alpha mare. This mare decides where the herd goes and, as the high-ranking member, gets first choice of food and water. Through a process of testing and retesting, all herd members come to understand and accept this as standard. If a herd member does not submit to the lead mare, the lead mare drives the disobedient horse outside the group, which leaves the horse vulnerable to predators, a fearful situation for any horse to be in. The horse may learn from this experience and be accepted back, join a bachelor band if it's a young stallion, or be scooped up by another stallion's harem if it's a mare.
What does alpha mean?
The term alpha refers to an animal's personality type. Alpha animals are usually more aggressive, curious, protective, and bossy in a herd. They are leaders, not followers. The proud attitude of an alpha mare can make her an exceptional show horse and an intelligent mount to ride. However, she must be trained and handled with knowledgeable care and respect, so as to mold these qualities into desirable, rather than dangerous, behaviors. It is a huge mistake to try to bully such animals into submission.
In domestic horse life, stallions have the reputation for being dangerous and going after what they want — which tends to be to mate with any mare in sight — whether or not there's a human being in the way. However, anyone who owns mares knows that little compares with the bossiness of an alpha mare and the danger she can pose, especially if she is protecting a foal.
The stallion keeps the herd together, and newcomers are not allowed into the established herd without the stallion's okay. With the mare and stallion dominating, all other members of the herd are part of a pecking order and must show submission to the ones that rank above them. As the herd dynamic changes — members die, foals are born, and youngsters age — the pecking order constantly adjusts. Age typically determines rank, with the youngsters being at the bottom, but as they grow older, these young horses constantly challenge and, thus, alter the status quo. The herd members may change, die out, or move on, but the herd laws remain the same. Such consistency gives the horse a sense of security, as it helps him know his place in his world.
If you have more than one horse or if you keep your horse at a stable with other horses, you have ample opportunity to see horse-to-horse behavior in action. Of course, the domestic herd dynamic is different from that of a wild herd. In the wild, the herd grows and changes according to breeding season, and there is a natural mix of younger and aging animals. In your backyard or at a boarding stable, the herd changes artificially, directed by humans. New horses may be of similar age, size, or even of the same sex as the existing herd members.
You can learn a great deal about horses simply by watching groups of domestic horses interact in the field. You can learn more about your own horse and how she functions in her equine world by watching how she fits in with her pasture companions.