Monday, December 26, 2011

Herd Dynamics

Getting a  new horse is always a major adjustment for both horses and humans.  The first couple of weeks are always the most critical since the patterns and boundaries established now will impact the herd dynamics for as long as the herd exists.  The herd hierarchy is perhaps the most important thing to a horse.  And, here's the thing, most horses don't really care where they fall in the hierarchy as long as they know.  Their individual personality will generally determine where in the pecking order they wind up.  Some horses are natural born leaders and will be the alpha in any herd  (my old mare Suki is like that, she is the queen and every horse she has ever met acknowledges it) some horses are followers and get really stressed if forced into a leadership role. 

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.) 
Here is where trouble can start (and this is assuming that the horse actually is suitable for a novice, so often they aren't).  The initial tests a horse will offer to a new owner are very subtle and often go overlooked.  It usually starts as a very small invasion of space or ears slightly turned back.  The horse will move into the person (maybe just an inch) and the person steps back (just an inch) and the horse has just established that he is dominant.  Every subsequent test is more aggressive and eventually, the horse is treating the person as a subordinate.  At this point, there are two likely scenarios:
  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
Fortunately, I was expecting a bit of testing from Gabriel so I was ready for it when it showed up last week (on day five).  I use a little plastic sled to drag hay out into the pasture.  As I was spreading the hay out into many little piles for the horses, Gabe approached me with his ears laid back trying to push me away from the food.  I pushed back.  I made myself very tall, stared hard and walked toward him with intent (my ears would have been back if they could've been).  He veered off to another hay pile but, he did it with ill grace.  I pushed him off that hay pile, he moved but flicked his tail at me and tossed his head on the way to the next pile.  I kept pushing him off until he did it without argument and finally lowered his head, relaxed his ears and worked his jaw on his way to the next pile.  I immediately relaxed my posture, unpinned my ears and moved off to finish my job.  During this exchange, I never moved at anything other than a deliberate walk, did not raise a hand or say a word.

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.  


  1. That's true layout. As a owner of horse farm I know and highly supposed with your mentioned view. Its really pretty nice from all side. Thanks mate.

  2. Good for you for standing up for yourself right from the start.
    Just don't forget you can never let your guard down. Even the most well-trained, sweetest, trust worthy horses will continually try to test their dominance and see if they can move up a notch. And some horses will get a little more serious about their attempts at dominance and threaten to kick or run at you, so be careful. You've got to always be aware of those subtle and not so subtle signs every. single. day.


  3. Gosh, what a great blog and especially this post; I'm a new horse owner and I think I've experienced my horse do this to me at various points in the last few months. Any suggestions on how to re-balance the hierarchy after mistakes have beene made & the dynamic has been improperly set?