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The Herd: Horses and Humans

In a herd, each member plays an important role. 

The Alpha is the Lead Mare.

She’s the most present, calm, strategic, and confident. Her role is to lead the herd to food, water, and a safe place to rest. If she has a foal, oftentimes, that role will fall to the Beta Mare so that the lead mare can focus her attention more on motherhood duties.

Sentinels are the most sensitive of the herd and are also mares.

They have more acute hearing, sense of smell, and overall alertness to changes in the environment. They’ll often place themselves at the outskirts of the herd to be on the lookout for potential danger and are the first to alert the herd members when there is a wolf, coyote, bear or suspicious moving object. They’re often anxious. We have a sentinel in our own Free Rein herd, Raza.

Then we have the Stallions.

They take the role of protector. They’re high energy, strong, quick, agile, and can be very aggressive. When the herd is migrating, they’ll take up the rear so as to be the first line of defense from an attack at the rear, trusting that the lead mare at the front is taking the safest routes (paths with the best sightlines and space to change directions and exit in a hurry), and the sentinels on the sides will alert to a side attack…in which case the Stallions will move to wherever they need to, to protect the herd.

Stallions can and will compete for Mares, especially ones in heat (or “winking”).

Safety in Numbers

Herds often gather together with other herds for safety in numbers. So what might look like one large herd of, say, 30-100 horses is actually many smaller herds clustered. You’ll notice, based on which stallions are making sure other stallions don’t get too close to his herd members, how they’re grouped.

Any other herd members are either younger horses who have not yet reached an age to take on larger roles in the herd (or another herd of their own) or other mares who are more submissive, less calm, and less alert.

Equine Assisted Therapy

One of the exercises we do with the youth is to ask them which role they see themselves playing in their own various herds (school, friends, family, etc.). It’s an interesting discussion, and therefore I invite you to think of what role(s) you might play in the herds of your life (gender identity aside).



JENNIFER BAUER is a Certified Equus Coach with the Free Rein Foundation. To learn more about our programs: