Horses have to work all this out on their own and there isn't much we humans can do about the final hierarchy. However, regardless of how the horses sort themselves out, the human involved has to be the herd leader. If you aren't, you are going to get hurt. Here is where novice horse owners so often get in terrible trouble. I can't count the number of times I have been contacted by someone who bought a wonderful, sweet, well-trained horse and a few months later the horse is aggressive, pushy and downright scary.
Here's what happens when a new horse comes home:
- Days 1-3, the horse is unsure of his new surroundings and is on his best behavior. He will follow any lead.
- Days 4-7, the horse gets more familiar and comfortable in his new home and begins to test his new herd-mates (INCLUDING HUMANS) to figure out where in the herd he will be. If there is a strong alpha in the group, that horse will establish dominance and may run-off the new horse until she feels the new horse is not a threat to the others
- Days 7-30, the herd will explore and test each other and will eventually fall into an intricate yet stable dynamic. (The time involved will depend on the personalities. Really, this can happen in an hour or take several months but, usually happens in the time-frame I've listed.)
- The new owner seeks expert help and learns to reestablish her leadership role. Through hard work and training the horse once again becomes the sweet, obedient horse the new owner was expecting. They both move forward into the never-ending journey that is horse ownership.
- The horse becomes progressively hard to handle. He also becomes more unkempt and out of condition as the owner becomes ever more disillusioned and unhappy with horse ownership. This horse often ends up being shipped to an auction where his unruly temper and poor condition gain him a one-way trip to a meat-packing plant in Canada or Mexico. The owner may have been lucky enough to have avoided serious injury but no longer wants anything to do with horses.
Once I had finished spreading the hay I walked up to Gabe, he politley moved one step out of my way and I scratched his neck and retrieved my sled. Test over. I'm in charge, we both win.