herd dynamics

Strategies for managing the dynamics of your small herd.

Have you ever experienced that feeling of fear when your horse appears to lose it? She whinnies for the other horses and becomes uncontrollable. All you wanted was to go for a ride, right? You thought, “What’s the big deal?” I hate to tell you this, but it is a big deal to your horse. The herd is her world.

A common struggle equine guardians often encounter is difficulty managing the dynamics of their small herd. Herd dynamics can be either harmonious or disastrous. Although you want harmony, encountering disturbance in your herd comes with the territory of having horses. Why? Because horses possess instinctive qualities that most humans don’t take time to understand.

Herd Disharmony Can Be Dangerous

When disharmony in your herd is ongoing, dangerous situations are common. Examples of when disharmony occurs are at feeding time, when you want to go for a ride, or when you introduce new herd members. When disruptive situations arise, most horse guardians become frustrated or afraid. That’s an indicator it’s time to seek more knowledge. This is when I’ll suggest in a calm but firm voice, “Step away from the horse.”

True “herd harmony” is obtainable and can be consistent once you understand how horses tick. Disharmony in the herd happens for a variety of reasons. The number one culprit is your horse’s domesticated habitat. The second culprit is that most humans don’t understand that horses are social creatures and are dependent on their herd. Safety is number one on a horse’s priority list. In a horse’s world, the herd provides safety and is vitally important for this simple reason – they’re prey animals. Horses have a strong sense of self-preservation. Once you understand these priorities and needs, you can interrupt the ongoing pattern of disharmony in your herd.

Managing Herd Dynamics

Learning how to manage herd dynamics is a requirement for every horse guardian. If you choose to ignore this area of horsemanship, you’re likely to get hurt. No one wants that.

Below are a few strategies I’d recommend you explore:

• Understand that horses are feeling, breathing beings. Don’t just understand it, believe it. Be considerate and empathetic of your horse’s needs. Something happens when you become more aware of this principle and you act on this advice. I’ve encountered almost magical things happen as it relates to herd dynamics, just by me shifting my thoughts. Interactions with my horses changed and I experienced positive results that are ongoing. I attribute this to my horses feeling my real intentions. Intention is a powerful concept, but you have to feel it, and think like a horse.

• Provide your horse a natural habitat that allows for plenty of movement. I’ve been keeping my herd of horses on a track system since 2006. This type of habitat promotes natural, harmonious herd dynamics. I’ve had no problems with putting my mare in with my geldings and life on the track is peaceful. The reason? It works with their true nature. It allows them to consistently move on track and be partof a herd. There are a lot of advantages to this set-up including increased soundness. Keeping horses in confined pens or stalls is not ideal. Nor is allowing them to have 24/7 access to lush, green, improved pasture grasses. Those types of habitats are not the best for your horse and will cause soundness problems over time as well as disruption in herd dynamics.

• Positive patterns are powerful. I already mentioned that a horse’s number one priority is safety. Since horses are pattern animals, one strategy that helps a horse feel safe is you being consistent. One way to do this is to establish patterns in most anything you do with your horse. This provides reassurance and less guesswork on their part, which results in your horse feeling safer and trusting in you. For example, you can use this strategy during feeding time, when asking for your horse to pick up her hoof, haltering, and so on. Don’t forget to add balance to that strategy. Nothing to the extreme is good.

• Put yourself in your horse’s hooves. Think for a moment how you’d feel if you were your horse. For example, what if you were a new mother? You raised, loved, and nurtured your baby for four months and then someone said, “Sorry, it’s time to take her away.” They may not even say “Sorry.” There was no gradual separation or warning that this abrupt change was going to happen. Instead, it’s done cold turkey. Think how devastating that would be. Horses are not any different. They have strong social bonds (stronger than we do) and they also experience love. In any situation with your horse, you have to be mindful of the stress and heartache put on them as a result of their domesticated life and how we affect it.

• With the herd bound horse, there are two things you have to be aware of:
1) She needs you to prepare her for being away from the herd, and
2) She has to understand that you are part of the herd and that you are her safety when she’s not with the other horses. The first step, if possible, is to make sure the horse being left behind has a buddy. The horse you’re taking with you will be in your herd of two. If your horse is herd bound, give her the opportunity and gift of gradual separation. Don’t use the cold turkey approach. If your horse can see her buddy during this gradual separation, it eases stress. Ideally, you want your horse to look to you for safety and comfort. You want to prove to her beyond a shadow of a doubt that she can always trust you. Never violate that trust. Examples of violation are: getting frustrated, being unfair, forcing separation from the herd too abruptly, or having feelings of anger or negativity. Developing your emotional fitness is necessary. It’s also important that you learn how to more accurately problem-solve your way out of less than ideal situations.

It’s a Process

Over time, as you develop more confidence and skills, your horse is more likely to look to you for safety when it’s just the two of you. This is ultimately what you want, but this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. However, I know you’ll be fine with taking your time, because you love your horse and you want what’s best for her. You also want to work toward the goal of true “herd harmony.” To me that means your horse is happy with you or with the rest of her herd. She sees her equine herd buddies as safety, but when she’s with you she believes you are her world. The real question is this – who do you have to become for that to happen?

Only you can answer that question, but here’s what I’ve experienced. My personal herd has developed great harmony over the years, but it wasn’t because they changed, it was because I learned the essence of horse behavior and I developed strategies that work with their true nature. I’ve also developed the confidence and experience that I feel I can handle most any herd related situation. I want you to be able to feel that. It’s an empowering, yet peaceful feeling. Remember this premise – nurture your horse’s true nature, understand horse behavior, and enjoy the process.

Stephanie Krahl is a natural horse care specialist, co-founder and CEO of Soulful Equine® and author of the book Guiding Principles of Natural Horse Care. She teaches horse guardians about natural concepts that help their horses thrive. When she’s not with horses Stephanie loves watching movies, reading, and going to the gun range. Connect with her at: soulfulequine.com