Herding behavior

Similar to  herdsmen or shepherd dogs herding their flocks of sheep, stallions herd or drive conspecifics  controlling their direction and speed, and this is usually referred to as herding or driving behavior (Tyler, 1972; Feist & McCullough, 1976; Lucy Rees, 1986; McDonnell, 2003).

Stallions have been observed to adopt a species specific herding posture (Berger, 1986) characterized by lowering their heads, stretching out their necks, pinning back their ears, and moving forward toward the targeted conspecifics. If we breakdown the herding posture to its component parts we would find a conglomerate of behaviors which may be interesting to consider on their own. The pinning in a backward direction of the ears, or Ears Laid Back (McDonnell, 2003), or Ears Retracted (Berger, 1986), is typical of a threat posture or expression (Tyler, 1972) as is the Head Threat (McDonnell, 2003) in which the head is pointed forward with neck extended and it is usually associated with agonistic encounters.

The targeted individuals typically responded by moving in the opposite direction from which the stallion was approaching. According to Tyler (1972), ocassionally the stallion would have to gallop in front of the group to ensure that mares did not straggle from the rest of the group in higher intensity movements.

The vigour or intensity of this behavior is assumed to correspond to how low the head is dropped and the general speed and gait adopted by the stallion. Not only that but how far ears are pinned in a backward position may also be indicative of intensity.

Additionally stallions may move the head from side to side in a snake-like fashion usually referred to as snaking movement, or head tossing (Berger, 1986). So, if a stallion approached with the herding posture at a walk, it was most common that the targeted conspecific/s would respond in a similar pace.

Stallions usually approached from the rear pushing the individuals forward, but they also approach from slightly to one side in order to direct movement.

Feist & McCullough (1976) observed this behavior in their study of the Pryor Mountain  feral horses of Montana. From a total of 139 instances wherein stallions were recorded to perfom this behavior, they noted that 42% (n=55) of these corresponded to stallions herding or driving their band away from other bands or stallions, in 30% (n=39) stallions where guiding the direction of movement of their bands while on the move, 12% (n=15) of the time stallions singled out a mare for courting, in 12% (n=15) stallions drove  non-band members away from theirs, and in the remaining 4% (n=6) stallions herded-in new members.


If you are a photographer or happen to have images related to this topic, and wish to share them, please do contact us. We could surely use them, and would appreciate it greatly!

This is a work in progress under our ongoing Equus Ethogram Project, further information and suggestions are welcome and will contribute to further updates.


Reference list

Berger, J. (1986) Wild Horses of the Great Basin The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL

Feist, J.D. and D.R. McCullough (1975) Reproduction in feral horses. J. Reprod. Fert., Suppl. 23:13–18.

Keiper, R. (1985) The Assateague Ponies. Tidewater Press, Cambridge, MD.

McDonnell, S.M. (2003). A practical field guide to horse behavior: The Equine Ethogram. Lanham,US.: The Blood-Horse, Inc.

Rees, L. (1984). The Horse’s Mind. London: Stanley Paul.

Tyler, S. .J (1972) The behaviour and social organization of the New Forest ponies. Anim. Behaviour Monographs 5 (2): 85-196.


2 thoughts on “Herding behavior

  1. Pingback: El mal comportamiento del caballo - easyhorseonline

  2. I still have vivid mental images of trying to keep out the way as the harem stallion kept trying to drive in a new recruit and the resident mares trying to expell the newbie! Sadly no pics just memory from a predigital age!

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