Affiliative behavior in Equus caballus


A review of literature on the social behavior of horses is likely to lead many to think equine society is governed solely by the establishment of social hierarchies, usually based on the outcomes of social conflict or competition, commonly referred to as agonistic behavior.

Agonistic interactions are social activities “related to fighting, whether aggression or conciliation and retreat.” (Wilson, 1975)

“Behavior patterns associated with fighting and retreat, such as attack, escape, threat, defense and appeasement.” (Slater, 1999)

The description of animal societies is mainly based on agonistic classifications, in which cooperation and affiliative behaviors were overshadowed by the competition-aggression-reconciliation paradigm generally emphasized by many writers.

Affiliative interactions refer to the activities between two or more (dyadic, triadic and so on) individuals within a social group with the function of developing, maintaining or enhancing social bonds. {Equus Ethogram Project}

konik stallions mutual grooming

Indeed, agonistic and affiliative behavior are inextricably intertwined (Price & Sloman, 1993) in the complexity of social interactions, making it a laborious task to filter away the units of behavior neatly into separate compartments for either one type of interaction, or the other.

Social interactions lay on a behavioral continuum, a continuous stream of movements  (Fentress, 1990; MacNulty et al, 2007) or spectrums of behavior (Abrantes, 2011):

“The distinction between any two behaviors is a matter of function; the borderline separating one category from the other is a matter of observational skill, contextual parameters and convention; the way we understand it all is a matter of definition.” (Abrantes, 2011)

For instance, in the ‘Agonistic ethogram of the equid bachelor band’ published by McDonnell & Haviland (1994), agonistic encounters were considered based on their intensity, running or flowing across a spectrum from “very quiet affiliative behavior to serious aggression” (McDonnell & Haviland, 1994).

In this Equus Ethogram Project, affiliative interactions will be classified separately from agonistic ones, at least when at all possible. A host of authors have extracted units of agonistic behaviors from the interwoven fabric of equine social interactions, so it should be likewise possible to extract those other units of behavior which promote group cohesion: affiliative behaviors.


The results of a growing body of research on free-living mammals suggests that affiliative social interactions, those enhancing social bonds, have important fitness consequences for individuals ( Swedell, 2002; Weidt et al, 2007; Silk et al. 2003, 2010; Cameron et al. 2009; Frere et al. 2010; Wey & Blumstein 2012) engaged in them.

In horses as in most social mammals, affiliative interactions are usually described by mutual grooming, play and group resting. This ethogram considers including more subtle forms of affiliative behavior, such as the frequency or duration one individual is found sharing close proximity with others as an indication of their level of bonding (Hinde 1976; Garai 1992; Kleindorfer &Wasser 2004).

This Equus Ethogram Project is an on-going work, and the general framework, or particular sections and pages will be updated as new light is shed or brought to our knowledge.

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