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.
About the author

Anna Twinney

Anna is the founder of Reach Out to Horses®, based in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Golden, Colorado. As an internationally respected Natural Horsemanship Clinician and Trainer, Animal Communicator and Reiki Master she travels the world teaching the art of creating a trust-based partnership between Humans, Horses and all Animal Companions.

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