Did you know your horse’s place in the pecking order might impact how he or she acts in a herd and therefore how well he or she plays polo?

Horses are highly relational herd animals and they have their own methods of interacting and communicating. They can also be rather brutal with each other, enforcing strict rules and hierarchies within each herd or band.

Horses build relationships based on respect, not on “liking” each other like we do.

That’s why some horses come back from turnout looking like they were just in a war zone. Or why one horse might be ostracized or chased away from food by his paddock buddies.

We call it the “pecking order.” It’s the way horses organize their society. An Alpha horse rises up to provide leadership and security upon which the herd depends, and everyone else finds their place beneath him or her. (In a mixed herd, the Alpha is usually a mare.)

In case you didn’t know, the term “pecking order” comes from chickens. In the barnyard, when the farmer scatters grain, you’ll see that some hens get it first while others have to wait. That’s because they already fought it out—basically they played “chicken”—and the winning hens got top dawg status while others accepted positions lower on the feathered totem pole of power.

Horses do the same thing in their own way. Anytime you introduce a new horse to an established group, he’ll need to work out where he falls in that group, and that involves a ton of subtle body language and likely some more overt skirmishes.

When trying to observe the pecking order of a herd, often you can see pretty clearly when one horse or another is top or bottom—especially in a small herd. The former pushes everyone else around at feeding time and the latter gets beat up all the time.

But equine dynamics are subtle and complex, and the horses in between top and bottom can be a lot more difficult to sort out. Often, it takes long observation over time to get the social status of various members of your beloved pony’s turnout herd.

Read our next two blogs for more on pecking order dynamics, how to identify where your horse fits, and what it might mean for your polo game!