You have to make sure animals are socialized to other animals, because most of what animals do in life they learn from other animals. Adults teach their young where to eat, what to eat, whom to socialize with, and whom to have sex with. The adults teach the young ones social rules and respect for their own kind. If an animal does not learn these rules when he's young, there may be many problem behaviors when he grows up.
One of the worst things you can do to any domestic animal is to rear it in isolation. Many people mistakenly believe that stallions are aggressive nutcases you can't handle, but that's true only because we make them that way. I remember being amazed when I walked into a holding pen at a Bureau of Land Management adoption center, which contained fifty wild stallions. The stallions were completely peaceful and quiet with almost no fighting. Every year the BLM gathers surplus wild horses and puts them up for adoption so that the horses don't over-graze the ranges, and people who visit the BLM pens find it hard to believe that fifty stallions can actually get along with one another. But that's the way well-socialized animals of any species usually behave. In the wild, constant fighting is not normal.
On the plains, subordinate stallions live together in bachelor groups. There's one dominant stallion who has all the mares to himself, like a harem; the rest of the stallions all band together and live in another group. The bachelor group tracks peacefully along with the harem group until the day when the dominant stallion has grown weak due to age or illness, and is ready to be replaced by a younger, stronger stallion. Only then does the younger stallion challenge him, not before.
Stallions would have to get along with one another to stay alive. Prey animals live in groups; that's how they survive. Wild horses in herds take turns sleeping and keeping watch for predators. If they had to live on their own they'd be killed in their sleep.
I mentioned this in the last chapter, and I'll say it again here: the modern fancy stable is a super-max prison for stallions. When a stallion is raised in solitary confinement he never learns normal social behavior, and that's what makes him dangerous to other males.
While they're growing up, young colts learn that there is a give-and-take to social interactions. They also learn exactly how horses establish and maintain a dominance hierarchy. All animals who live in groups -- and that includes most mammals -- form dominance hierarchies. It's universal. Researchers assume that dominance hierarchies evolved to keep the peace, because when each animal knows his place and sticks to it you have less fighting over food and mates.
No one ever knows for sure why one thing evolved and another didn't, but in the wild dominance hierarchies are usually stable once they've been established. Fighting levels drop and remain low until a new animal is introduced or an old dominant animal who has become weak is dethroned by a younger, stronger animal. If the animals in a dominance hierarchy are too evenly matched you might see a situation where no clear winner is able to emerge, so the animals keep fighting. That's not uncommon, but it's not the norm. Dominance hierarchies seem to minimize fighting.
Domestic animals are the same. Growing up with other horses, a young colt learns that once a stallion has achieved a certain position in the hierarchy he no longer has to keep kicking or biting the other horses. He also learns that no one challenges the dominant stallion unless he has a good chance of winning. Dominance hierarchies among horses are not like competitive sports in humans, where individual competitors or teams go head-to-head for the life of the athlete or the team. Subordinate horses don't keep on challenging the lead stallion day in and day out until somebody gets lucky and wins. They wait until the lead stallion is ready to be deposed. That's the rule.
But a horse isn't born knowing the rules; he has to be taught the rules by other horses. A stallion locked up in solitary confinement in a fancy show barn is not normal. He's especially likely to show abnormal aggression. There may be another reason for this, besides the fact that isolation-reared animals haven't learned proper social etiquette. Horses are social animals, and it's possible that a super-max stallion becomes a psycho fighter from emotional damage due to too much time spent alone. He might have more easily activated rage and fear circuits in the brain.
Click here to return to Animals in Translation page