Modern breeding practices mean many foals are improperly socialized and unfamiliar with herd etiquette. Here’s how to help an unsocialized horse integrate comfortably into a herd environment.
The first few years of a child’s family life help shape the person he or she will become. In the same way, the first few years in a herd are important for the education and well being of a foal.
The foal’s mother first teaches him respect and body language – pushing, nudging and showing by example the language and customs of the hierarchy. Very quickly, the foal learns to be respectful not only of his mother, but of all higher-ranking members as well. He very quickly develops friendships with other foals, yearlings and even two-year-olds. The family unit is tight, with siblings and other geldings playing a role as teachers and babysitters.
In my herd of 16, there are two matriarchs who are sisters, and both have large family groups of four generations. Ties are strong, and the horses will eat and sleep together, even sharing treats. These family groups are also part of the greater family of the herd, and friends visit back and forth, each following the herd hierarchy.
Occasionally, new horses join my herd for a period of time. It immediately becomes obvious whether or not these horses have been schooled in herd etiquette. If they don’t understand herd language, submissive horses will stand at the edge ignoring instruction, while dominant ones run roughshod through the herd, kicking and biting, a danger to all.
How It Should Be
Last summer, I introduced a new horse who was to stay with us for a few months. It was obvious she clearly understood herd language. The herd was in the barn paddock and the new horse was introduced to the adjacent pasture. As herd members became interested and asked to meet the new horse, I let them out. The herd had already determined the newcomer was not a threat, and the introduction became an opportunity to train the younger members.
Family groups of two came to the gate. When I let them out, the mothers stood back. One by one, the younger horses chased the new horse for a few strides. When the new mare stopped and went back to grazing, the members were satisfied that she was respectful of both themselves and the herd language.
This went on for just over an hour. By then, all but the matriarchs and their two daughters were happily grazing alongside the new mare. When the matriarch mares asked to be let out, they stood back, allowing their daughters to put the run on the new horse. When all went well, they looked around at the happily grazing herd, strolled close to the new horse and began grazing. It was the highest compliment to the new horse; she had done so well that she was accepted without a chase. It was obvious this mare had been well schooled in herd etiquette and was therefore not a threat.
The Reason For Herd Language
Herd language is all about the safety and well being of the herd. If there is a threat, then all must listen and be ready to move when requested. A look and a step in the direction of a lesser-ranking horse should elicit an instant reaction. Like a school of fish or a flock of birds, the connection is seamless. Horses need time in their birth herd to learn this connection. The business of breeding has stolen this important time from a horse’s education, forcing many to become social misfits who have difficulties for life. If we give a young horse time to grow up with friends, family and freedom, the result will be a well-adjusted, wise, confident and happy animal.
Poor Socialization Means Problems
Often, an unsocialized horse is put into a new herd without being given enough time to develop a safe connection with others over a fence. It doesn’t help that fences are often electric and don’t allow bonding. Problem horses and those that don’t know how to “play nice” do not have the skills to interact in a herd; they must develop these skills slowly, in the company of one horse at a time. Otherwise, when placed in a new situation, they will feel threatened and unable to cope.
Take It Slowly
• The safest route with an unsocialized horse is to provide him with his own pasture and introduce other horses to him one by one. A horse with no social skills needs to appreciate that friends are fun and non-threatening.
• You can speed up the friendship by taking the new horse out for a walk or a pleasant graze with one of your existing equines, or to share lunging exercises at either end of a ring.
• Afterwards, return the horses to adjacent paddocks or pastures for a while.
• A trailer ride is also a good way to break the ice.
• Always talk to, praise, groom and offer treats to your horse at the end of an outing. This way, he will associate the presence of other horses with a good experience.
• After awhile, I will introduce a community hay pile under the fence; grazing together means acceptance language.
• When I see the horses grooming over the fence, I know it is time to allow them in the same field. When the horses are together, I will offer separate hay piles for awhile so there is no competition.
• I go through this process again with the other horses, starting with ones that are easygoing and friends with the new horse, and saving my higher-ranking horses until the end. Just as in our “how it should be” story, when the higher-ups see their herd is happy they will introduce more easily.
When we interfere with a horse’s early schooling in the herd, repairing the damage can be complicated and take a long time. It is very important for a horse’s health and well being to be able to enjoy life in the pasture with friends and freedom.
Liz Mitten Ryan and the Herd, co-authors of four books and winners of nine independent publishing awards share their life changing message. At 320-Acre Gateway 2 Ranch in Kamloops, BC, Canada, the magical land and its herd of free-roaming equines teach and heal participants from all over the world. Crystals and Vortices and time on healing tables with equine healers, raise energy to resonate on the highest levels! Participants enjoy an incomparable journey to connect with their higher selves, the earth, and learn new ways to communicate with horses without diminishing them. For more information on Liz, the Herd, methods and retreats please visit: lizmittenryan.com, equinisity.com and naturalhorsefriendship.com.