Herd bound behavior is a common and challenging issue. But increasing your awareness of herd dynamics and developing a more effective leadership role can help it become a distant memory.
I can’t remember ever conducting a clinic or speaking at a horse expo where the question of how to deal with herd bound behavior hasn’t come up. Aside from spooking, it’s one of the most common and frustrating challenges people face with their horses. Unlike other behaviors such as trailer loading or being needle-shy, herd bound behavior can surface at any time and with any horse. Even the most “seasoned” horse, when certain conditions arise, can suddenly decide to return to what feels safe.
So what does all this leadership stuff have to do with herd bound horses? Everything!
When a prey animal has a thought, whether it’s for survival (herd bound) or comfort (barn sour), he will automatically check in with the established leader. When he does not perceive a leader, he will naturally make his own decisions. It can be very difficult, especially for women, not to take it personally when the horse doesn’t check in with us. Why would they? Just because we pay for everything, clean up after them and feed them? Sounds like kids!
Posture, Pressure and Physical Touch
Leadership is a learnable skill! Even if being a leader is not your true nature, think of it as learning the language of horses – their language being one of posture, pressure and physical touch. I’ve seen children as young as five and adults as old as 75 learn to earn that leadership role with their horses, with the result that they feel even closer and more connected to them. I get pretty excited about that!
The true solution to resolving herd bound behavior is to develop a broader basis of communication by following a program specifically designed to influence the horse’s mind. When a horse views a person in a position of leadership, he will bond with her as if she were another horse. As you can guess, this doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not something anyone can “train” a horse to do for you. It’s common for a horse to understand and respect the trainer, but demonstrate a whole different behavior with the owner. That’s why I describe my program as one that teaches people leadership skills with horses – when you think about it that way, the horses already know it!
Learning to effectively communicate with horses from a position of leadership involves a lifetime of study, but don’t be disheartened. There’s one thing you can start with that will have a tremendous and immediate influence on any horse: conditioning him to respect your personal space. This sets the entire tone for the relationship.
Imagine two horses meeting. Both will posture, sniff, then squeal/strike/kick/nip – whatever it takes to move the other away. Leadership is instantly established in what seems like a brief and insignificant moment, but that moment has a tremendous effect on all future interactions between these two horses. Like children, horses will continually test the boundaries. It’s not about a horse “getting it” but a shift in our awareness and an expectation that a 1,200-pound animal does not need to be so close that you can feel his hot breath on the back of your neck.
Initially, this can seem counterintuitive to a close relationship, but horses hardly ever hang on each other or stand so close they can touch at any given moment – that’s the nature of humans or other predator species. This is why puppies sleep in a pile, while foals sleep on their own.
This closeness-equals-love is so prevalent in human nature that I’ve nicknamed it “the hugging position”. We want to keep the horse so close that we could turn and hug him at any time! But in horse language, we’re telling him that because we’re letting him stand in our personal space uninvited, we are below him in the pecking order, diminishing our role as leader in his mind. This is one of the most significant opportunities we have to move up the “leadership ladder” with a horse. When we keep him at a distance from us, we make the very first shift in our newly forming position as leader. It may seem silly or unrelated to herd bound behavior, but when this initial expectation is changed it generates a ripple effect that influences every interaction we have with the horse. Think about it – if a horse doesn’t respect us enough to stay out of our personal space, why would he respect us enough to go the direction we choose when the other horses are heading a different way?
You’re Not Alone
Last fall I was teaching a five-day course in the mountains of Colorado. Afterward, I stayed on at the ranch to ride my horses, Berg and Deb. When I rode out, I ponied the other horse rather than have him stand around back at the ranch. I stopped to talk with some other folks and the woman assumed that the horse I was riding probably wouldn’t go out without the other. She didn’t understand that I can and do ride any of my horses anywhere and anytime, alone or with others. But the problem of herd bound horses is so prevalent that it made sense in her mind to express this assumption.
Getting Your Horse To Look To You
When we earn the trust and respect of a horse as an individual, he will become so impressed by our qualities as a leader that he will think very little about the other horses, the barn or dinnertime – whatever the distraction – because we have learned to become so interesting and engaging in our ability to hold a “conversation” with him.
Reclaiming our personal space is just the first step to changing a horse’s mind about our position in the herd. But as we chip away at improving this dynamic, know that every effort is for the horse’s ultimate benefit. This large powerful animal looks to us, as the true leader of the herd, to make the best decisions for him. One day, that horse straining to get back to the other horses will become a distant memory, as if it happened to someone else – not the new loving leader your horse now looks to for guidance, direction and fun.
Karen Scholl is an equine behaviorist and educator, presenting her program, Horsemanship for Women, throughout the United States and Canada at horse expos and clinics. Find out more at karenscholl.com or call 888-238-3447.