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 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 can suddenly decide to return to what feels safe when certain conditions arise.
If you find you’re faced with this challenge, know you are definitely not alone! I wish I could tell you that when your horse wants to return to his herd you can circle him, back him or get off and “get after” him – but you probably already know none of this really works. It might get you through a spot, but herd bound behavior requires much more than a band-aid approach.
It’s important to first understand why some horses are herd bound. Because they are prey animals, their survival depends on the herd environment. The herd mentality is the ultimate example of “safety in numbers”. A herd contains multiple individuals using their keen senses of sight, smell and hearing, and who are always on full alert for possible danger. To escape perceived danger an entire herd can go from browsing for grass to a full stampede in an instant.
Because their instinct for survival is so strong, horses that feel they need to get back to the herd are actually fighting for their lives in their own minds. That’s the bad news. Now for the good news – horses can and will bond to a human just as strongly as to the herd! It may seem impossible at this point, but conditioning a horse to bond with us requires only three things: a high level of desire, a greater understanding of herd dynamics, and adaptability on our part. By reading this, you’ve already demonstrated the first requirement!
As we explore herd dynamics more deeply, it’s common to observe horses instantly forming opinions of one another. Because all relationships shift and change based on ongoing interactions, those opinions remain in a state of flux – that’s what makes them dynamic rather than fixed. When observing horses interacting with each other, it’s fairly easy to recognize behaviors that reflect everything from “falling in love” to downright hostility and everything in between.
Part of the Herd
Make no mistake – horses perceive people as another individual of their perceived herd, and the philosophy of my entire educational program revolves around recognizing and accepting the fact that horses have a natural attraction to the lead horse.
It’s nothing new, really. How old is the advice: “You have to show a horse who’s boss!” It’s unfortunate that this saying implies aggression rather than assertion, and why I believe many people, especially women, avoid accessing the natural dynamic of herd leadership and try more “nurturing” ways to interact with a horse – from treats or baby-talk to avoiding situations that would require the horse to be more connected to her than the other horses.
Don’t let this observation offend you. We’ve all tried to bond with a horse using treats (myself included) but what we find is that the horse bonds to the treats and not necessarily to us! When a horse decides that his survival is dependent on the presence of other horses, all the treats in the world won’t change his mind – I wish it would!
At the heart of herd dynamics is a very specific hierarchy sometimes referred to as the “pecking order”. This term originates from a similar survival instinct among chickens, where the top chicken can peck all the other chickens. Chicken number two can peck all the chickens except number one, chicken three can peck all the chickens but the top two, and so on down the line. The chicken at the very bottom of the pecking order is pecked by all the other chickens – literally to death. Though this may seem cruel, it’s nature’s way of ensuring only the strongest chickens survive to pass on the genetics of strong, healthy and intelligent offspring. This natural dynamic is why we commonly see both chickens and horses kept separate from each other – it’s to prevent injury or even death from the others.
With that understood, it’s important to know that a natural horse herd is led by a matriarch – a lead mare. This individual has the athleticism, intelligence and character to make decisions for the herd, and is usually (but not always) an older individual with more experience for survival than others. The stallion has multiple responsibilities, but his primary job is to keep the herd gathered up and following her.
In herds outside of nature, it’s not uncommon to see a gelding take the lead role, and if there’s a pony in the mix, well, most people will report the pony runs the whole show! This is why leadership has little or northing to do with size, breed or even species. To a horse, members of the herd include any individual that interacts with the herd, including other horses, dogs, goats and people.
So here’s the catch. Just like humans, our horses are designed by nature to feel more relaxed and confident when the individual they perceive to be in the leadership role is present, especially when in unfamiliar situations. Most of us are extremely uncomfortable at gatherings where we don’t know anyone else. Many women will cancel their plans if their friends are suddenly unable to go with them somewhere, because of a lifetime of conditioning of “safety in numbers” – just like horses!
Taking a Leadership
role This brings us to the final stage that’s most challenging yet most rewarding – adapting our behavior to earn the leadership position in the horse’s mind. I agree this is easier said than done, and I wish this was where our love of horses would automatically be reflected in our skills with horses. But the process of changing the mind of a horse is ongoing, just like raising children or managing employees. We all wish kids, employees and horses would just do what needs to be done without question, but this is our opportunity to guide others toward a greater good, even (or especially) when they are unable to see what that greater good might be!
The basis of leadership is about making little decisions so that when big decisions arise, the horse is patterned to defer leadership to us. This is why someone can go along very well with a horse under certain conditions, but when those conditions change – even if it’s something as simple as riding away from another horse on a trail – the opinion of who’s making the big decisions will be instantly revealed.
Surrender or Submission?
It’s important to be very specific when defining leadership. We cannot gain trust and respect from a horse (or a child or employee) by using the term “dominant”. The best way I can describe it is that leadership invites surrender, while dominance demands submission. Most people have worked for bosses with these two very different styles, and can imagine how a horse would trust, respect and appreciate one more than the other. Though it may not be second nature to us now, we can learn to be assertive without being aggressive, and to be kind without being a wimp.
While there are many qualities of leadership, there is one skill that makes them all work, and that’s effective communication. It’s very difficult to trust and respect someone who speaks a different language than we do. That’s why we have interpreters, yet how much gets lost in translation? Remember playing the “telephone game”? And that’s using the same language!
I find the easiest way for a horse to become clear about what’s being asked of him is to use the kind of communication familiar between horses – posture, pressure and physical touch. Horses don’t have to take communication classes to understand each other because they learn what-means-what from day one. A good dam will use a fair but firm approach to raise a well-mannered youngster. She knows her role is to respond fairly, effectively and immediately to the behavior of her playful foal. She never worries whether the foal is going to like her or make any attempt to be friends – that’s simply not her role.
As with people, the occasional dam will let her foal run wild without any discipline. In a herd, other individuals will respond appropriately to the young horse, just as I would kindly and directly ask a child to go sit down in a restaurant if the parents are letting him wander around to visit other tables! Every foal has his own nature, but it’s these types of horses (and kids) that end up in serious trouble when in environments necessitating guidance from others. I like to say that horses are just like teenagers – they’re great until you ask them to do something they don’t want to do!
With a greater understanding of leadership as a key ingredient for herd dynamics, the next part of this article on responding to herd bound behavior will provide more details on how to build confidence with and gain the ultimate trust of even the most herd bound horse.
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.