Trouble in paradise

Ben and Rosie are here again for the summer. Last summer they got on well with Minnie and Cassie and Máire and I thought they made a nice herd. Recently things have changed and it has made me think about herd dynamics and what makes a group of horses into a herd.

In the wild, there are two types of herds. A typical herd would be a group of mares with colts and fillies. A lead mare, generally an older, experienced mare who knows the area where the horses roam and where all the waterholes are and who gives the herd direction, leads the herd.  The dominant stallion drives the herd from behind and he sets the pace.  Horses in the herd always stay ahead of the stallion and behind the lead mare. The core of this herd will stay the same over the years. They live in harmony and will be deeply bonded.

The second type of herd is a band of males, both mature and immature, who have been evicted from the herd in which they were born and have not yet managed to establish their own herd. Life in one of these all male bands is tough as they compete for dominance, but they still rely on each other for survival.

The basic objectives of both herds are the same. Horses need to find food, water and shelter from the elements. They need company. Solitude is an unnatural state for horses; a lone horse in the wild is at great risk. Horses need to be part of a herd for survival, but also for social interaction. Survival also means reproduction; for the future of the herd it is vital that they can breed successfully. Finally, they need space, so they can survey their surroundings and run away when necessary.

Life is very different for the domestic horse; food, water, shelter, company, space, breeding; their innate natural desires are still the same, but now those things are determined by humans. Most horses have very little or no control over their own lives. They have to live in the human world, often subjected to conditions contrary to their nature. If they live in a herd situation at all, the herd is man made, often put together for convenience and without much consideration to establish a balanced, consistent group based on family ties. A lot of horses spend long hours stabled, or turned out on their own. In Ireland, it is quite normal for a mare and foal to be isolated together in a field. The foal then only has the mare as example and will never learn how to socialise and interact with other horses. Character traits might develop that are less than desirable.

I always wanted to keep my horses as natural as possible. For me that starts with 24 hour turn out and as little interference as possible. In the past, that hasn’t always been possible but now that I have my own land, my horses have access to at least 8 acres at a time. To a certain extend that takes care of most of their requirements, they have space to roam, they can graze at will, there is shelter under trees and they have access to stables if they want them and for water they can either go down to the stream or to the water barrel I provide for them. Company is a problem. I only have two horses and that is not a herd.

Last year, when Ben and Rosie were here, I watched with interest how the four of them interacted. They started out as two pair bonds, but gradually the barriers came down and they began functioning more as a group. They looked like a nice little herd, one gelding and three mares. I expected Ben, as the most dominant horse of the group, to become the leader, but that didn’t happen. In fact, no single leader emerged during the time Ben and Rosie stayed her for their holidays. They seemed to function by consensus and by respecting each other’s space and the feeling I got from them was a sense of balance and easy tolerance. It was idyllic.

When Ben and Rosie went home, Máire and I decided that since the four of them got on so well it would be nice to keep that bond in place. Máire started bringing Rosie whenever we went out for a ride together. It worked really well. When Ben and Rosie arrived in June to come and stay for the summer, all we had to do was turn them out into the field with Minnie and Cassie, they all took it matter-of-factly and were soon grazing in mutual harmony.

Like last year, all went very well. There was very little evidence of the respective pair bonds, it was almost as if they had dissolved entirely. They all respected each other’s space and there was no sign of strife. The only time dominance was an issue was around feeding time. As soon as there was any sign of buckets coming Ben would assert himself and chase the mares off. Initially I fed them in order of dominance: Ben first, then Cassie, followed by Minnie and Rosie last. I thought that that would be the best way to respect the dynamics within the herd, but then Ben kicked Cassie as she came up for her bucket and I realised I had made a mistake. Cassie was used to being fed first by me, but Ben, who is anxious around food, probably thought Cassie was trying to take his bucket away from him. So the next day, I took a driving stick with me, I used it to block Ben and I fed my own horses first in the manner they were used to and then I directed Ben and Rosie to their buckets. That worked very well and they were all able to eat peacefully.

Last week, Máire introduced Ben to in-hand work and that brought out a different side of Ben, which she describes here. The in-hand work pushed Ben out of his comfort zone and it brought up aggression. Unfortunately Ben brought his aggression back into the field and it changed the entire herd dynamics.

The first time I noticed something was wrong was a week ago when I turned Cassie back into the field. I had taken her out for a walk and the other three were on the far side of the first field when we came back. Cassie cantered over to them and stopped near Ben and the next thing I saw was Ben striking at her with his front leg. The following day Cassie’s left foreleg was swollen and when I examined her leg there was a lump and bruising on her cannon bone.

Then, after he had a particular confrontational session, he went into the field and lunged at Minnie. He drove her all the way into the next field, even pursuing her when she galloped off. The following day Minnie was still by herself in a different field. When I went up to check her she had a big bite mark on her flank with a massive contusion around it. I normally wouldn’t interfere with herd behaviour. In the wild, horses get bitten by older mares to discipline them, that is how they learn their social skills and how to interact with other horses in a herd. In this case, Ben was not trying to discipline Minnie, he was venting his own aggression and frustration and I didn’t like it. Minnie was showing signs of stress and I felt I needed to spend more time in the field, to see what was happening and to protect my mares.

 It is in horses’ nature to be affected by each other’s moods. Their bodies express how they feel and this is picked up by other horses. During our hacks together Máire and I have often experienced this. A steady horse can calm a nervous horse, but the reverse is also true: a panicky horse can set off its companion. The changes in Ben’s mood and behaviour were affecting the other three horses. When I spent time in the field I found that Ben was basically bullying the others by encroaching agressively upon their personal space. Rosie was nowhere to be seen, she wisely took herself out of the vicinity, Minnie got chased and Cassie got pushed off her space again and again. As long as I was in the field my mares stuck to me like glue.

Feeding time became stressful too. Ben would patrol the fence line, strutting around and not letting the others come near. I increased the distance between Minnie and Cassie and Ben and Rosie. On two occasions Rosie didn’t turn up until the others were finished. Then I had to stand over her to make sure that she could eat in peace. Minnie also wouldn’t eat unless I stood between her and Ben.

Minnie is now very anxious about Ben. Earlier today I was leading her out of the field. Ben was by the gate, but not so close that we couldn’t pass him without having to enter his space. Minnie’s head was up high and she stayed behind me, almost as if she was hiding behind my back. Once we got past Ben and out through the gate, she relaxed and moved up beside me, her head down at wither height.

This situation has thrown up a lot of questions for me. You buy a horse, and as a rule you don’t really know a lot about their lives before they come to you. I know nothing about Minnie’s life before she got to her previous owner, who didn’t have her for more than a few months. A lot of horses will have grown up in isolation without interacting in a herd environment and may be lacking in equine social skills. I wonder if the fact that there is no real leader in this little group has caused a lack of cohesion that gave Ben an opening for bullying. Certainly, they function less as a herd than I had thought. I have no idea why Ben picks on Minnie, Cassie is much less affected. She is also the least herd bound. Perhaps Ben is picking on Minnie because he can sense her insecurity. Bullying is often a sign of insecurity and judging by how easy it is for me to drive Ben away, he is a bit of a coward. I just hope that they will soon settle again.

Here they are in June, on a rare sunny day, nicely spaced out and grazing peacefully.

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4 thoughts on “Trouble in paradise

  1. I agree with your theory about insecure horses. Out of my three, my big Walker mare is the most insecure–and she is also the one who will repeatedly go after anyone new in the herd, and sometimes for no evident reason (protecting food or water or herdmates). She is also the biggest coward of the bunch.

    I wonder if some of the behavior is genetic, as her half-brother has the same issue.

    I remember Carolyn Resnick writing about the wild horses she observed growing up and how there was a mare who tried to chase her away at first–she said there is an “ambassador” in every herd, and it’s the horse that tries to chase everyone away. Interesting way to look at it–that the horse that chases is also the one (at least in wild-horse bands) who allows the new horse a shot at joining up with the herd.

    I know herd behavior is supposedly natural, but as you point out, most horses don’t have the 24/7 turnout with a herd, and a lot of them aren’t raised in a herd situation. But it’s very interesting to watch–as long as nobody gets hurt too bad!

    • I read Carolyn Resnick’s book too and I remember that, but in this case Ben and Rosie are the visitors and they are not in their own territory, so I suppose you could say they are the ones new to the herd. I wonder if he would have behaved any differently if he had been on his own, or if there had been more horses here to confront him. Whatever it is, Ben and Rosie had already been here for almost 6 weeks before this behaviour started.

  2. Like Fetlock, I agree with your theory of insecurity. I’ve watched our herd grow from two horses to around twenty now, including our landlord’s horses. When there was just two of them, a mare and a gelding, there was no obvious dominant one. They didn’t have bite marks on them and they got along well. A few years later we added two more young geldings to the mix. The young guys were chased by the older two for weeks, but eventually they sorted themselves out. My mare came out as the most dominant one, with our older gelding acting as a second in command. Only a few months later, we added a second mare to the mix and that’s when who was the most dominant and who was the most insecure really became clear.

    As more horses came into the herd, the herd dynamics became more of a problem. Some horses weren’t being allowed to eat by others. They were being chased constantly by some of the other horses. It became dangerous to stand around them because they would punish and bite each other, ignoring the human standing in between them. This might be really harsh, but to protect ourselves and to allow all of them to eat in peace, we came up with the rule that they are not horses when we are around. Their herd dynamics do not exist when we are with them. They are not allowed to push each other off of feed or go at each other. When we are not around, they are allowed to fall back to their instincts and normal herd dynamics.

    It is interesting to watch. Our horses have diveded themselves into three groups. The young geldings tend to hang out together, on the fringe of the biggest “herd”, nearby but far enough away that they wouldn’t upset the “herd stallion”. This one gelding has claimed several of the mares for himself. Two of the other geldings kind of share another herd of mares. These three herds tend to hang in the same area, but not quite together.

    • Your young geldings seem to have organised themselves in a classic bachelor band and it is very interesting that the three herds respect each other’s space. I suppose with more horses they can sort themselves better to their liking.

      My mares get along well together when there is just the two of them. Cassie is more dominant, but I have never seen her drive Minnie around or chase her. I use the same technique as you at the moment: when I go into the field, I’m the one who determines who goes where and they all accept that. When I bring one of my mares back to the field, I walk them well into the field before I take the head collar off. That way they don’t get trapped in the gate area and with plenty of space around them accidents are less likely to happen.

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