Food and the Pecking Order

Recently, I made the comment on Facebook that horses use food to establish their place in the pecking order of their herd.  This elicited a strong reaction from a reader that I did not know.  The reader seemed unfamiliar with this concept.  She seemed as shocked by my statement as I was by her response.  As I tried to figure out how a horse person would not have seen this occurrence, I realized how blessed I am to be able to live with, observe, and study my horses every day.  I have spent countless hours just “being with them” as we share territory. The time that I share with my horses provides me with the inspiration to write my blogs and this one is no exception.  I am with the herd as I am writing these words!

My horses – Bella (yes…Bad Baby Bella: see her previous blog) and Shadow share the same pasture.  They are well suited to be together.  Bella and Shadow share a strong bond.  They often move each other around in the pasture as they are so closely ranked in the pecking order.  It is sometimes difficult for me to know which of them ranks above the other because they share a very balanced “give and take” relationship.  

Recently, as Bella and Shadow were in the barn eating, I put three flakes of timothy hay in their pasture in three separate locations along with a flake of alfalfa hay.  As do most horses, mine prefer alfalfa above anything else.  When I let Bella out into the pasture, she quickly discovered the alfalfa and began eating while I returned to the barn to get Shadow.  As soon as Shadow entered the pasture and got wind of the alfalfa, he pinned his ears and with a strong intention he proceeded to move Bella off of the alfalfa, leaving her to eat from the piles of timothy hay.  Bella did not hesitate to move for Shadow as she knew he meant business.  Through the use of alfalfa, it became abundantly clear who was who in the pecking order!  The alpha horse always moves horses of lower rank away.  This creates a domino effect within the herd from the highest to the lowest ranking horse.  The manner in which this is done is dependent upon the nature of each individual horse.  Like people, some horses are aggressive bullies while others express their intent with a more subtle use of body language.

Sampson and Lisa Mettam, September WHR Clinic 2014

Sampson and Lisa Mettam, September WHR Clinic 2014

My horse Sampson is the alpha male in my herd of eight horses.  He can be extremely aggressive and dominant.  When I first got Sampson, you could not enter his stall or even stand outside of his stall while he was eating.   He would challenge you through the stall bars or through the Dutch door.  When I went out to put hay in the pastures, he would come charging at me with his ears pinned and teeth bared.  Many of you have read about my experiences in taking Sampson to clinics, in hopes of making a connection with him, only to watch him drag clinicians around like rag dolls.  Thus, I stopped taking him to clinics.  

It has been a long process but my how things have changed!  Regarding food, Sampson is now the most respectful horse in my herd.  How did I achieve this miraculous transformation, you ask?  I used food to establish MYSELF in the pecking order.  By doing so, I used the language that he understands the best; HIS OWN LANGUAGE.

In next week’s blog, I will provide details of how my relationship with Sampson changed and flourished as I began to use food to establish my own position.  I look forward to your comments and thank you for reading my blog!

Have a great rest of the week!


Linda Salinas4 Comments