In our last newsletter, we discussed herd bound behavior. For a refresher, read that article here.
Getting Over the Herd Bound Blues
Horses, as everyone knows, are herd animals, and as such they like to be with their buddies. Herd bound horses run the gamut from those that call out a few times as they leave the barn and give a few half hearted attempts to turn back, to those that will get in an all out rearing bucking fit in their panic at being left behind or being asked to go out on eth trail alone.
On the trail, some horses need to be very close to their buddies, and some are fine regardless of distance as long as the other horses are in sight. Some horses have to be in the lead and some only want to follow. All of these are herd bound issues indicating to you that your horse’s “herd priority” and its position in the herd are more important to it than what you want your horse to do.
In those instances where the horse is not too troublesome, fixing the herd bound issue can be a relatively easy process of spending more and more time away from the rest of the horses.
Doing it the easy way
There are many ways to deal with a herd bound horse, and I’m going to start with some of the simplest and easiest changes you can make. By doing this you won’t have to “fight” with your horse, or spend half the morning riding him and circling him up as you try to leave the other horses. While some trainers may insist that you “make your horse behave” and that “you must ride away” from the barn leaving the other horse behind, I think they sometimes forget that the average horse owner does not possess the same riding skills as the trainer. So while some trainers may be able to ride a horse through a “hurricane” of bucking, spinning, and rearing to get the job done, the average rider can’t. So why bother trying to use those techniques?
Simply isolating a horse in his own paddock can begin to assist in the process. If your horses live together in the same pasture/paddock area, you can divide that pasture or paddock and make sure that your horses spend some alone time. The horses do not have to be “out of sight” of the rest of the herd -- the simple act of placing them in separate pens begins the process.
Not allowing them to make contact with one another whenever they want begins the mental change. And lets face it, herd bound issues are mental/emotional issues. (Don’t believe me? Sell one horse and see if the other horse survives by itself. They always do.) Feed them separately, and have them spend as much time as possible in the new configuration. If you’re concerned about too drastic or too quick a change, then begin by separating them only for several hours each day. The best time to do this is during feeding time.
If your property can be set up properly, you can have your horses in dry paddocks (no grass) at night, and then turn them into separate pastures to eat in the morning. If you can’t divide your grass pasture to keep them separated, then you can turn them out one at a time. Feed the horse that’s left behind in the paddock some hay so that they get to eat, too. Both horses will be less concerned if they have something to do. Even if the horse turned out in the pasture stays close to the fence line, it won’t take long before it begins to follow its stomach further and further away. I have never seen a horse starve because they wouldn’t leave their buddy long enough to eat, especially in circumstances where they can still see their horse friend. The next day alternate the horse that goes out into the pasture.
The “paddock” horse may also run the fence line for a little bit, but it too will eventually go eat the hay you’ve provided. These horses often run the fence line, then run over and eat two mouthfuls of food and then run the fence line, then return to the food and so on. Under these circumstances the process is more painful for the owner to watch than it is a real issue for the horses. Think about how many times you’ve seen your horses separated by hundreds of feet as they grazed together in the pasture.
As this process starts to take hold and the horses settle into the new routine, you can start doing additional things to help them realize they can survive without their friend being right by their side.
Sometimes you will notice that the pastured horse (regardless of which horse it is) will only use a certain area of the pasture and not walk by itself to the far corners. In this case put a halter and lead on the horse and take them for a walk around your pasture while the other horse stays in the dry paddock eating its hay. Allow your horse to graze in the far corner on the lead line for a while (fifteen to twenty minutes). Then turn them loose out there. Don’t be surprised if the horse heads back towards his buddy, but you might also discover that they stay right there, either way do not be concerned. Regardless of what happens when you turn them loose, leave the pasture and let it get worked out. Some of you might be thinking, “I don’t have time to do this, I have to get going in the morning.” Remember -- this is a training issue and you need to treat it the same way you do other training issues. You simply have to invest the time to fix the problem.
This means that on the mornings you have to get going, you simply turn one out and feed the other in the paddock. On the weekend when you were planning on go for a ride, you make plans to work on your horses herd bound issue instead. You might have to forgo one or two rides while you begin to work on this, or of course you can continue to deal with the herd bound horse forever. But I can tell you, it’s far easier to deal with this and get it corrected, even if it takes a few weeks, than to spend the next ten years with a horse that constantly fights with you.
Going out of Sight
As the horses settle into the new routine you can now start to do some other things. For instance, one morning after you’ve haltered the horse that you would take out to the pasture, take a detour. Instead of going directly to the pasture, you can walk around the barn area and even out of sight and then back to the pasture. If you have an area that you can walk to and let your horse graze then do it. If you’ve been practicing taking the horses into the pasture and letting them graze while they were on the lead rope, then when you go to the new area they already know they’re probably being led somewhere to eat. You can take them to the front lawn, down the edge of the driveway, etc. The paddocked horse might get upset if you go out of sight, but if it has hay and the horse you’re leading gets to grass, they’ll both start eating.
If you’ve gone out of sight, how long you stay out of sight might depend on how badly your horses are reacting. But generally they will settle into this quickly as it isn’t a big variation in the routine you’ve already established. Odds are good that the horse on the lead line will eat, even if the other horse is getting spun up in the paddock.
When to return
Let the horse you’re holding eat for a few minutes (five to fifteen) and then lead them back into view, out to the pasture, and turn them loose. Do not return if the horse is acting foolishly, as this will only reward the inappropriate behavior. But if you’ve done your previous routines, odds are very good that once this horse starts eating it will concentrate on that and not the other horse. It finds comfort that you are with it instead of the other horse because you practiced leading them in the pasture and standing quietly while they ate.
Don’t worry about what the horse in the paddock is doing while you’re gone or as you return because you can’t control that while you’re dealing with your horse on the lead line. A common question at this point is, “But if my horse in the paddock is acting up, and I return with the other horse, aren’t I re-enforcing that behavior and won’t that horse act up even more?” You might be, but there isn’t any way for you to control two horses at the same time. Additionally if you have someone else there trying to make the paddocked horse behave, you only make them more anxious. More importantly it isn’t what the paddocked horse is doing that should concern you -- worry about what the horse you’re leading is doing and how it’s behaving. As long as you can control the horse you have in hand, you’re doing fine.
You have two options in regards to when you switch horses for the above leading routine. You can switch back and forth like you’ve been doing for the pasture, or you can wait until the horse you started with can go out of sight and be comfortable for longer periods of time. In other words, get one horse going well before you switch to the other horse. If your horses have been progressing evenly with one another during the previous processes, then switching back and forth will be easy. When you have one horse that seems to be “getting it” quicker than the other horse, then you might want to continue to concentrate on that horse until you get further along and can take it further and further off your property. I feel it’s better to get one horse doing well and progressing further away with each trip than to have two horses that are “half done” and neither one can still be taken away.
Riding Your Horse Away From His Buddy
Naturally, when you the horse you are leading can be out of sight of the paddocked horse without having a fit, you can then begin to ride that horse away from the barn, too. However don’t just change the routine one morning from leading and eating, to riding and working.
As you’re working on your leading out of sight routine, take the time to saddle the horse before you head for the grass. Just saddle the horse and lead him to breakfast. Please notice I only said saddle and not bridle your horse. When you’re done hand grazing your horse return to the barn and unsaddle the horse and turn it out. Once this routine is going well, then go ahead and add the bridle (leave the halter and lead on underneath), and when you get to where you’re going take the bridle off before you let the horse graze. This way you won’t accidentally teach your horse it is okay to graze when it’s wearing a bit/bridle.
Next, you can saddle and bridle your horse (leave the halter and lead line on) and ride down to where you normally graze, get down, take the bridle off and let your horse graze. You can walk back (which is good for both of you) or you can re-bridle, mount up, and ride quietly back. If you have not skipped any steps you shouldn’t have much problem doing this. If your horse is mildly herd bound and has caught on quickly you may be able to accomplish this all very quickly. If they’re seriously herd bound then it may take longer. Worry less about how long it takes and worry more about the quality of your work.
The Other Horse
Regardless of whether you change horses every time, or you work on one horse until it’s doing really well, I can guarantee as you progress with one, the horse that has been left behind is also learning. The horse left behind is learning that his buddy can go out of sight, and that he will return. As the “working” horse stays away longer and longer you will notice that the paddocked horse spends less and less time throwing a fit. How can you tell? If when you walked out of sight the paddocked horse was acting up, and when you came back into sight is was still acting up….simple…pay attention to its breathing and sweat and to how much the paddock is torn up. What you will generally find in these situations is that every day you leave with the “working” horse the “paddock” horse will act up. In the beginning it might race and pace for the whole time you’re gone, but in almost every instance this lessons as time goes on. The reason most people don’t realize that the process is also helping with the “paddock” horse, is that as the “working” horse and you return, the “paddock” horse hears his buddy coming back and starts to act up again. This often happens long before you and the “working” horse come into view. By the time you can actually see the “paddock” horse it is acting up again and it appears to you that they never quit, when it actuality they did.
Next time we will discuss methods for dealing with the more difficult horses.