Contextual Dominance

Former antagonists are now friends

I’m always fascinated watching how my ponies interact with each other.  Recently, the interactions between two in particular have changed.  Around the same time, my attention was drawn to the chapter in Desmond Morris’s Horsewatching on “How is Horse Society Organized?”  I was seeing the very thing he described in action.

It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about dominance and subordinance when discussing horse herds and even to assume a hierarchy from top to bottom of a herd.  Morris states, “It used to be said that within each group of horses there was a rigid pecking order – a system of dominance and subordination that meant that each animal knew its exact status in relation to all others at all times.”  (1)

In my herd, I constantly see dynamics that contradict the idea of a rigid top-to-bottom pecking order.  Morris goes on to say, “We now know that this [idea of a rigid pecking order] is not strictly true.  Instead there is a shifting, changing system of dominance relationships, with the context always playing a vital role….  The reason why there are such complications is that horses are strongly ‘affiliative.’  That is to say they develop very tight bonds of affection for one another and when a powerful friendship has been established it can disrupt the usual simple dominance pecking order and make it much more complex.” (2)

In my herd, my two-year-old filly was pushing my twenty-five-year-old mare around.  The old mare’s daughter and the filly’s mother are also in the herd.  The old mare pushes her own daughter around, and the daughter will push the filly around, creating a sort of circle rather than a hierarchy.  The old mare will push the filly’s mother around, and the filly’s mother occasionally pushes her filly, and the filly, as I mentioned previously, will push the old mare around, another sort of circle.  The filly and her dam have a very tight bond, mutually grooming more than any other two ponies I have ever had in my herd.  According to Morris, “Careful studies have revealed that mother/daughter, brother/brother and sister/sister attachments are frequently particularly strong, resulting in special relationships that ignore the usual dispute rules.  The result is a society based on friendships and context dominance rather than rigid formal dominance.”  (3)

There was a significant change last month when the filly’s mother produced a new foal.  Suddenly my two-year-old filly was no longer the apple of her mother’s eye.  I didn’t notice this as much as whom the filly started eating with.  Who gets the first pile of hay thrown out and then who shares hay with whom is the most obvious way for me to assess relationships.  To my surprise, the filly started associating with the old mare.  More often than not, they are now seen eating together, and I haven’t seen the filly push the old mare around nearly as much.

It is the ability of equines to have bonds of friendship, of course, that makes them attractive to humans.  Not only do we put that tendency to use when we put our equines to use, but we also recognize that we bond with some equines better than others, just as they form tighter bonds with some horses rather than others.  Morris concludes, “[At] heart the horse is a friendly, cooperative creature among its own kind, displaying a softness of character that has led all too easily to the exploitation of the species by mankind.  A less sociable animal would have repelled all boarders and would have sent would-be riders packing.” (4)  Rather than assume the attitude of exploitation, I prefer to consider how important relationships are to equines, including the relationship I offer to them myself.  Putting the relationship first allows me, I think, to do more with them in the long run.

1)      Morris, Desmond.  Illustrated Horsewatching.  New York:  Knickerbocker Press, 1997, p. 62.
2)      Same as #1
3)      Same as #1
4)      Same as #1

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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  1. Pingback: Dominance is Not Leadership | Willowtrail Farm Musings

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