Common Herd Problems


Handling Common Herd Dynamics

Developing herds for domesticated horses can come with its own set of unique challenges. Let’s take a look at the factors that can affect herd dynamics, and how to create the ideal herd situation.

Put a group of horses together and you will witness herd dynamics unfold before your eyes. Within moments, the dance of establishing leadership and other roles within the herd will begin. The horses will become extremely “vocal”, and will establish rank through challenging behavior that can be as subtle as a glance or ear movement, or as bold as moving the other horses’ feet, charging, biting, kicking and squealing.

The Natural Herd

Under more natural conditions, individual horses adopt very specific roles to secure a safe and harmonious herd environment. Some horses can be born into leadership positions, groomed by their parents over time to become all they can be. These “heir apparents” usually display a more passive form of leadership, while other horses fight their way to the top, bringing forth a dominant style of leadership.

A common misconception is that the alpha mare rules through dominance. Often, the leader is not the most aggressive horse, but instead leads by strong example, by simply “being”, observing all, and acting only when needed. The dominant mare is commonly the second in command, ensuring much of the discipline is enforced, and displaying her emotions freely.

Equine personalities and behaviors are similar to human characteristics, and various types can be found within the herd. As we find both loners and socialites among people, we find them in the horse world too. Those seeking adventure balance out those seeking a simple life. There are natural born leaders and natural born followers.

Forced Herd Dynamics

Under unnatural circumstances, however, these healthy relationships can go awry. This often happens in our attempts to develop small herds of horses in pastures and paddocks, either at home or in boarding barn situations. Think about a classroom of juveniles ruling themselves, or of adolescents without parental guidance — where would this lead? To the very same place it takes foals who find themselves orphaned, or yearlings allowed to frolic without supervision – a misguided place that often causes future behavioral challenges or social ineptitude. Without the wisdom of their elders, the young are at a severe disadvantage as they venture into unchartered territory.

While wild horses will gather cordially during daily waterhole rituals, isolated non-socialized stallions may have a propensity for extreme violence and even potentially life-threatening injury, when forced into interaction.

Understanding Disruptive Herd Behavior

It would be remiss to overlook our horses’ environment as a reason for possible disruptions in herd behavior, since space is a distinctive concern for these animals. Behavior is often accentuated in small enclosures, and we often see this in situations where horses are confined to smaller paddocks and pastures. Space is crucially important for your horse’s health and well-being; it gives horses an opportunity to get away from one another, or from the herd, if necessary. This helps prevent negative interactions and injuries. The ability to move around freely is a must!

Another obvious behavior influencer for domesticated horses is the introduction or removal of food. Horses are natural born grazers and are used to being surrounded by an abundance of food. Fighting often occurs when there is a lack of food. Remove the lack of food (by providing adequate pasture or hay) and harmony is reintroduced to the herd. If you don’t have the means to create the ideal feeding scenario, slow feeders are essential.

Adjusting Habits and Patterns For A Happy Herd

If you and your horses are happy and healthy, then keep up the good work. If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it! However, if you are concerned with the dynamics of the herd or your horses have incurred physical injuries, it may be time to consider making some changes and reviewing your horse-keeping methods and circumstances. Take time to review your habits and patterns to find an all-around better solution.

If your horse(s):

  • Has been moved recently — Try accommodating for this time of transition and be the support he needs during this adjustment period.
  • Is not accepted in the herd — Evaluate his personality, role, and past and current mental, emotional and physical health. Try building him up (through physical and complementary therapies and nutritional support).
  • Is crowding the gate — Try training him to take a step back and create a safe entrance space, or organize feeders from the outside of the paddocks for your own safety.
  • Has a sudden behavior change — Try reviewing all recent changes to determine the cause and have him checked physically.
  • Does not want to be caught — Try to discover the true cause of this behavior, be it pain-related, ill-fitting tack, your relationship, his activities/discipline, or simply a lack of motivation and energy or his strong desire to be with his family herd.
  • Is classed as herd-bound — Try building a stronger partnership through a trust-based connection while discovering his motivation.

While we certainly do our best to develop herd situations that will work well for our domesticated horses, it can be a challenging feat at times. Each horse is an individual, and things can constantly shift and change with each horse and the herd as a whole. Provide your horses with as much pasture space and food resources as possible to help prevent disagreements and injuries. With a little understanding and observation you will be able to help create the best possible herd situation for your horses.

The effects of poor training or socialization on herd behavior and dynamics

  • Over-handling foals can result in crowding and unsuitable behavior/habits.
  • Lack of socialization can develop into social ineptness.
  • Lack of knowledge and boundaries can show up as a horse crossing boundaries and displaying aggressive tendencies with his herd mates.
  • Incorrect hand-feeding can create crowding, mugging and biting behaviors.
  • The stall-bound horse will have pent-up energy, vices/habits, physical issues, lack of socialization and possible dangerous behaviors.
  • Horses kept in a stressful environment display vices/habits and emotional, mental and physical issues.
  • Horses that have experienced fear-based training show displacement/depression and aggressive tendencies.

Teaching Your Horse To Tie


Being tied doesn’t come naturally to horses, but it’s an essential skill for them to learn.

There are many situations in which it’s important for your horse to tie well. It could be for the vet or farrier, at a show or event, or perhaps while you are grooming and tacking up. While it may seem simple enough, your horse may have quite a different perspective.

As prey animals, horses have a strong inborn desire to flee in the face of perceived danger. When a horse is tied, he can’t respond in this way. For the uninitiated or fearful horse, this can set off alarm bells and send him into a state of frantic panic, particularly if there is no breaking point or release in sight.

It is also important to recognize that horses are innately “into pressure” beings and – by their very nature – they lean into the point of pressure. This leads a horse to lean into you when you press on his flank, rump or other part of his body; or to raise his head high when asked to follow the feel of the lead rope.

Without any support, or formal trust-based training, it is unlikely a horse will automatically take to being tied. While some horses may learn fairly easily to accept being tied, others may have had experiences where they’ve broken their halters, hitching posts or worse, and have subsequently developed a phobia to tying. The good news is that no matter what his age, any horse can be taught what is expected of him if you use a kind and patient manner.

Set your horse up for success

There are number of things you can teach and practice with your horse to help prepare him for being able to tie well. By taking the time to do this work and approaching the task in an open, empathetic and supportive manner, you can create powerful and lasting results while avoiding mistakes or gaps in training that will require fixing later.

Pressure and release

One key to training your horse to tie well is teaching him to yield to pressure in situations that are stress-free, before introducing him to stressful scenarios. The first rule is to never attempt to tie without first exploring your horse’s knowledge of pressure and release.

  • Neck stretches and yields following the feel of the line
  • Light touch head drops
  • Forward and back rocking horse steps
  • Altering gait and speed while leading

As the exercises build on one another, make sure to create times for your horse to feel somewhat restricted while being given a chance to find a way out using collaborative communication.</p

Desensitization exercises

Once your horse fully understands how to get himself out of trouble by coming forward towards the pressure, it is time to introduce him to some surprises. It’s easy to teach him to tie when everything is calm, but you would be remiss if you didn’t prepare him for the unexpected, and provide him with appropriate coping skills for those stressful or startling moments.

  • Desensitize to scary objects and items
  • Desensitize to startling and unusual sounds
  • Graduate to an in-hand obstacle course of higher learning

Building confidence

Another key to successfully training your horse to tie is to address the emotional and mental factors that create a “non-tying horse” to begin with. Training is essential to building the horse’s confidence in both himself and you, and will allow you to create a trust-based partnership.

This can be done over time as your horse learns to come into himself more, leave the herd behind, explore and venture off campus, and experience a multitude of environments and situations. Once he has a good foundation of confidence, you can gradually introduce him to new locations and scenarios, and increase the stimuli that will trigger fears, such as a fear of isolation. Soon, fear will be replaced with the understanding that he is safe, even when you are asking him to be restricted or isolated for a time.

Training your horse to tie

The simplest way to begin is to loop the line over a hitching post to create some resistance, and hold it in your hand while grooming! This way, the horse does not hit a rigid line and panic, which could put both of you at risk for bodily harm. Instead, your horse will be able to feel the give while at the same time making a pleasant association with tying through mindful grooming.

This same looping method applies while teaching the horse to tie at a trailer, wash rack or other location, keeping in mind the necessity for excellent footing and surrounding safety. Naturally, the horse finds himself in a pressure/release situation and you may decide to include food as a reward to enhance the situation while expediting the lesson.

You may also want to introduce the quick release knot, popular around the world. It gives a similar sense of resistance but still gives you a chance to release the horse should he panic.

Some equestrians swear by the tradition of tying to a piece of string or bailing twine on a tie-ring to ensure breakaway. Although some believe that horses can learn their own strength by snapping these strings, and that you should never allow them to break away, I have seen it save lives. While this tradition remains prevalent, its popularity is being overridden by the blocker tie ring, which provides soft resistance and safe tying without using knots.

If all else fails and your horse is truly phobic, you may decide to ground-tie him by simply teaching him to stand still when the attached lead rope is placed on the ground close by. It’s a pretty easy “trick” to start with and moves effortlessly into all you do when you ask your horse to stand!

Work with, not against, your horse

From decades of experience worldwide, I have witnessed many approaches and seen some horrendous tying styles, ranging from snubbing posts through solitary standing stalls. Although it is customary for trainers to state that their methods work, these harmful and sometimes even cruel training styles simply aren’t necessary, and reflect a fear-based, dominance style of training.

Remember that teaching your horse to tie goes beyond simply seeking a place for him to stand and wait — it is an introduction to the concepts of patience, respect, focus and a time to process.

The bottom line is to recognize that tying is not something that comes “naturally” to a horse. Choosing a style of training that supports and works with your horse’s mind, and encourages trust, not dominance, will help him find success with being tied, and will create fewer issues down the road.

Thinking and Living with Lightness


If you are someone who believes that our life is how we think it is, then you should have no problem understanding that brooding, negative thinking, criticism and angry thoughts, can bring us down and create depression. These sorts of thoughts produce a giant weight we carry around on our shoulders daily. Having this negative energy and taking it to our horses creates stress for our horses and removes any chance for lightness in the animal’s movements and performance. Horses tend to reflect what is going on emotionally for the human who is caring for and interacting with them.

The question becomes how we can rid our minds of this damaging, heavy negativity and return to lighter, more loving thoughts? I believe in the positive benefits of self-awareness and paying attention to our thoughts to spot negativity before it gets a foothold in our minds and our lives. The one thing you have absolute control over is your own mind. Many folks will not agree with this or understand the principles behind it. For me, it is an obvious truth, but not always easy to accomplish.

We cannot control others, our spouses, the weather, stock market, or anything else I can think of. But we can change our minds if we choose to. Many believe they have no control over their thoughts, but this is an illusion. Try this little experiment; think of something you do not like. Notice how those thoughts makes you feel. Now simply change your thoughts to something pleasant and how those make you feel. You have just demonstrated how you have control over your thoughts.

Here is another example: If you have a dentist appointment and worry and think about it much before the actual date, by the time the appointment comes up, there is a good chance you’ll be a nervous wreck, have a panic attack, feel sick in your stomach, or some such discomfort. However, if you do not dwell on your fears and worry, but choose thoughts that help you to feel good, peaceful and happy, you will most likely face the dentist with a more positive attitude and not succumb to those fearful emotions negative thoughts can produce.

It seems to me most fear is related to the future, the unknown. Our current, or present situation, is often just fine, our needs are mostly met, and we are in our comfortable, habitual, routines. It is easily seen that when we move out of our routines and away from our known comfort zones, that anxiety, stress and fear may creep into our minds and lives. Imagine how it may be for our horses when something changes in their environment which may create uncertainty, discomfort, and fear. Lightness leaves when fear comes in. I believe it is the same for horses and human alike.

I deal with my fearful thoughts by focusing on the present. If this is practiced with consistency, I have found that negativity has much less of an opportunity to take hold of my mind and energy. This has a wonderful spiritual and psychological truth attached to it: “Our thoughts create our lives. Love and peace come by letting go of fear.” If you find yourself in a dark place mentally, no matter what the outward situation is, change your thoughts. It takes practice, but you can do it. We have all read stories about people having horrific and painful challenges. But they seem to still be undaunted and able to maintain a positive attitude. Even confined to a bed or wheelchair, they exude peace, light and lightness. They have learned to focus their thoughts on peace, love and the release of fear. Fear is dark and heavy. Peace is light. Find the peaceful places within yourself and your life and horse will be much lighter.

Can you feel the love?

Andrew and Alexa_9999_394 - Copy

Two weeks ago, horsewoman Elsa Sinclair embarked on an extraordinary journey with a dear friend, a film crew, and two rescue horses across the Costa Rican jungle.

If you’ve never heard of Elsa, take a moment to google Taming Wild, the name of her first documentary. This beautiful film has sent ripples through the horse world, a year-long experience captured on film while she challenged the age old question, “If given full choice, do horses really want to be ridden?” with the help of a mustang mare called Myrna who had literally come straight out of the wild the day before being trailered to her West Coast farm.

What transpired was as inspiring as it was astounding. She used no ropes, halters, treats, whips or coercion of any kind and they did most of their work together on 100 acres where Myrna was free to come and go as she pleased. In heart-opening moment after heart-opening moment, Myrna chose to come and stay and play and learn, eventually welcoming Elsa onto her back and away on many adventures.

Elsa named her work Freedom-based training, a method she now teaches worldwide, and is using with two rescue horses during her current journey across Costa Rica while she films her second documentary Taming Wild: Pura Vida.

Alexa and pups_9999_105 - CopyI highlight Elsa here for a few reasons. First, I had the chance to speak with her for a webinar for my Whole Horse Apprenticeship last year (see below for a link to this awesome conversation) and was overwhelmed by her generosity and gentleness, and completely inspired by her zen-like patience. As a horsewoman, I know how tricky it can be to walk the fine line between passive and active work with our horses and Elsa shared about this in ways that completely shifted my way of working with my mare and interacting with all horses. It is all too easy to shut down when things aren’t going our way, get angry and take those frustrations out on our horses, something that has been, in many instances, encouraged as a way to “get things done” and force the behaviour we are wanting. I, for one, am wanting to shift this way of being with horses, tired of abuse being disguised as leadership, dominance or the only way to solve a problem.

As in the case of Myrna and Elsa, there are, very obviously, other ways to create cooperation and collaboration if we are open to them. The documentary Taming Wild finishes profoundly, and although I’m not going to give away the stunning ending, Elsa achieves the dream of almost every horse person I know, a deep and effective connection with a horse without any tools – no bridle, no saddle, no ropes, no whips, no treats. I sat watching, jaw slightly ajar and tears rolling down my cheeks, my heart bursting with the possibilities that such a story presents. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was as if a part of me remembered what my horse-obsessed inner 8-year old always knew to be true.

My time spent with Elsa combined with watching Taming Wild inspired me to start working with my 18-year old Percheron-Morgan mare Diva to receive my signals without reins, crop or treats, a challenging yet brilliant exercise in connection. I love this feisty mare more than almost any living being in my life and even so, I have treated her unlovingly more times than I care to admit. My initial training with horses as a young woman had taught me to be dominant and aggressive to get what I needed from a horse, and it has been remarkably hard to unlearn. Even so, in our fourteen years together, Diva has been my teacher on what connection between horses and humans can look like when you shed all the harshness and harm away. I have challenged myself throughout to be open and willing to soften and shift my thinking.

Repeatedly, I receive the messages to do less, to give my horse the benefit of the doubt, to opt for gentle whenever possible, to breath, ground and balance myself first, and to get clear on my intentions before beginning. The more I listen and embrace expression, the more connected and cool our relationship becomes. The less I listen and attempt to control and oppress Diva’s expression, the more tension, resistance and disconnection arises. My constant question whenever Diva and I spend time together is this: “Am I being loving?” From this place, I can see where my biases and agendas begin, when my old harsh learning and conditioning rises up and I do my own work to unwind those patterns that are based in fear or a need to dominate.

Elsa Sinclair PodcastI invite you to commit to yourself and to your horse that you will do your darndest to come from a place of love. Remember, love isn’t always passive or gentle, but it is always connecting. I would love to hear about your journey to “feeling the love” with your favourite equine – Please comment below.

If you’d like to learn more about Elsa Sinclair, her documentaries, and her work with horses, she granted me permission to use our awesome and content-packed webinar together on my new Whole Horse Podcast, a podcast for horse lovers and their inner rebels. Listen to her episode at!

To learn more about Elsa head to

Horsemanship and Equine Assisted Programs & Therapies

I have been a professional horseman, trainer and instructor since the age of 17. At 13 years of age I was the youngest registered polo player in the United States. Currently, at 71 years of age, I have been a paid as a professional trainer and instructor for over 50 years. I was fortunate to have established my own small ranch on the island of Maui in the early 80s and began a horse trekking business into the beautiful tropical outback of Maui’s pristine north shore. This business operated for over 30 years. Prior to moving to Maui, while working as a riding instructor at large summer camps in N. Michigan, I discovered that if I taught the children something about the nature, language and psychology of horses, how to handle them on the ground, along with how to ride them, the entire experience was elevated into discovery about themselves as well as about life itself. A simple riding lesson became an exercise in developing self-awareness, kindness, compassion, integrity and mindfulness. Additionally, the skills of good leadership and how to have a successful team experience were also part of this unique learning program.

Early on, I learned about the significance of developing trust with horses. I love to ride but learning about how and why trust is so important to a horse, brought whatever I did with a horse to a higher and safer level. As trusting it is safe (survival) is paramount to a horse and the most important aspect to its life, developing trust with the horse became the first and foremost thing I did with all horses I interacted with. I began teaching ‘horse’ to all who came to work or ride with me.

In the late 80’s I heard about Equine Experiential Learning EEL) which was started by a woman named Barbara Rector in Arizona. I was very interested in ways of developing the horse/human experience beyond humans riding horses, so I signed up for one of her programs. This experience changed my life significantly. It was not long after that I began my own Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) program called The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience. This was not a program that merely ‘used’ horses within its process. I wanted a partnership with the horses involved. This decision to consciously and intentionally, ‘partner’ and not just use horses, really set my program apart from many others that began to pop up around the country. My focus was not to only to develop a program that was beneficial to the human but was unquestionably beneficial to the horse at the same time. To accomplish this, I needed to be able to impart some basic knowledge of horses to the humans who came to me.

I had visited many other equine assisted programs in those early days and was often disappointed, and even angered, at what I saw. I frequently saw horses emotionally abused by humans who knew little of the nature of horses and seemed to care even less. I would question the humans providing these programs and was frequently told their focus was entirely on processing the human through the program and not about horses or teaching anything about horses. It became obvious to me that these people knew little of the real nature of horses. This was not their job was a refrain that was so often repeated to me. For a time, I became a publicly outspoken critic of these other equine facilitated programs. One had quickly become a nationally recognized organization. They did not care for me as I had gained some credibility and notoriety in the field by that time and was openly and publicly critical of them. Here is an example of a common exercise that made my stomach upset; they would give a halter to a human and tell them to go and put it on a horse. They never said anything about the horse or the piece of equipment. So here is a human with a piece of horse equipment and told to fasten it on to a horse and no information about the horse or equipment given. The facilitator would then proceed to psychologist that human based on the struggle the human had with the horse and task. Imagine if this was a 7-year-old child and the equipment was the shoulder pads of a football uniform and the adult had never seen a helmet, knee or shoulder pads used before. So now you have an adult struggling to put this equipment on the child and the child being made afraid by the struggling of the human. This is what I saw happening to the horse during these and similar exercises. A human who is unsure around them will often create fear within the horse.

In the beginning the normal model for an equine assisted program was for there to always be an equine professional present. Eventually, this requirement was dropped because so many folks doing this work felt they had all the horse knowledge necessary and the added expense of paying another person was unnecessary. It seemed that if someone had owned a horse in their life or ridden a fair amount that was all the horse experience they needed to do this work. This was and still is the norm in many places doing this work. It can be easily seen that the horse becomes a fearful victim because of the ignorance of the humans no matter how well-intentioned they are.

My intention with this short treatise is an attempt to motivate as many of the people doing this work that I can, to gain the experience and knowledge with horses to understand what it really means to develop a trust-based partnership with a horse doing any activity with a human and especially within the process of an equine assisted program. If a program is not as beneficial for the horse as it is for the humans involved, don’t do it. Be part of the solution in resolving this unfair and unsatisfactory situation regarding horses participating in any equine facilitated program.