Consider a question: when would you expect to see more ‘arguments’ over access to hay between a group of horses –
All I’ll say is that trivialising horse’s social lives into some simplistic quest for ‘dominance’ does horse-kind a huge injustice.
- on a nice sunny day, when there is grass to be had, and everyone is getting plenty to eat
- on a miserable, rainy winters day, when the grazing has gone, and the supply of food is much more limited?
You might well expect there to be more problems with the horses ‘sharing nicely’ on the horrible winter’s day – after all, we know that horses have a social hierarchy, and that this hierarchy determines who gets the best access to food, so we might think they will all be out for themselves and the most ‘dominant’ horses will get the lion’s share of the food.
However, what I notice with my group of 5 is that when their other needs are fulfilled (i.e. they are warm enough, not particularly hungry or thirsty, feeling safe and physically comfortable and so on), they will ‘squabble’ on and off – moving each other off the hay, competing for water, and 'evicting' each other from the field shelter. They are not engaging in what we would normally call play here (although they do this as well) – they are telling each other what to do, albeit in a fairly low-key way.
On a miserable day, when they are hungry and would rather be in the field shelter than outside, they tend to settle down and share peaceably – nobody is told to leave the shelter, not even the most minor of threats are issued, they approach each other and share hay without any issue of 'social rank' appearing to be considered.
What does this tell us? There are lots of theories we could call on here – about friendship, bonding, sharing and so on. But I wouldn't want to generalise - this is one group of horses, observed by one person.