Monday, May 12, 2014

Herd Meetings

Herd behavior was a concept that I had to get used to.  My horse used to be stabled and turned out with three other horses, in a small, dirt paddock.  He would eagerly await my coming to the barn.  I would walk out to the paddock and he would come right up to the gate for me to get him.  

When I moved him to The Colonies, where they live as they should, things changed a bit. He was in quarantine for a couple days and still trotted up to me when I visited. On the second day, Shayne put Smokey with him, where they instantly liked each other and have become great friends.  Now was the time for him to join the herd.  Sergio ran out--galloping at full speed to the herd and whinnied to them.  He was finally home.  My heart swelled with love and happiness for him.  But I wondered a few things. He didn't really know these horses yet--just Smokey. But he was still so excited. Was it more for the freedom or for the companionship? Why was he so eager to get out there with them? Twenty other horses that were essentially strangers to him? Wasn't he apprehensive? 

Flash forward a few months--Spring to be exact.  The horses had their “Spring Break” on April 16th where they move from their winter enclosure to the huge field.  On Easter afternoon, after spending the day with my parents, I went up to see my beloved Sergio.  I went to get him from the field.  He was as far back as he could possibly be.  When I was about 5 feet from him, he walked up to me--I guess he wanted to save me the extra steps.  I got him and started toward the barn and he started neighing--which at first I thought was cute.  (I used to think that I wanted his neighing as a ring tone on my phone, but that's now NOT the case. Instead--I need a mute button for him.) As were making our way to the barn, he planted all four hooves firmly in the earth and then started to whinny. After asking him nicely he would move forward, but then stop and repeat the process about four times on my way down.  As we got to the barn and I put him on cross ties I could tell he was on high alert. I groomed and tacked him and proceeded to the ring. I attempted to mount him and he circled me around the mounting block. He never does this--something was up. I finally got on and walked him around. I could feel his body, ready to explode at any minute.  He kept looking out towards the field and calling out to his herd. I asked him to trot, but it was very fast---much faster than his canter. What happened to my pokey little Quarter Horse?!?!?! Since I didn't want to ruin Shayne's Easter by having to take me to the hospital, I got off of him when I finally got him to listen to me.  I took him to the round pen and tied up his reins. He galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped some more. He would stop and face the field where is beloved herd was. He even reared up and I thought--oh no this horse is going to try to jump over the round pen walls and hurt himself. (Now I will be ruining the vet's Easter.)  Finally after about 45 minutes of galloping like a nut, he finally slowed down and started to listen to me. 

I didn't understand this. I know he loves his herd, but I thought we had a strong enough bond that he would look to me for protection as "herd leader" when he was away from them. I was crushed. I went home very upset. I looked up articles on what to do. Everything was on how to catch your horse that you can't catch. No problem there. I emailed the expert--Shayne. She assured me it was the spring grass and the new freedom of the big field. Shayne was right and my next couple rides were good and he was back to the horse that I know and love. He does still have a few "herd episode freak outs."  For example, we were working and he was being perfect. A few of his herd members came up from the back forty, for a drink of water. He lost it. He started calling them and pranced around. They walked back and he got more upset. What happened to progress?!?! He calmed down eventually, but I was still aghast. Another day Starfire separated himself from the herd and started incessantly calling to Sergio and Sergio was answering him. These two never seem to interact in the field.  But Starfire came running up to us in the ring and was calling to him. What was the urgency? Was a horse hurt and Starfire was trying to tell Sergio? Was there a lion lurking? Was there a herd meeting and they were waiting for Sergio? I never found out the answer. 

We all know that all of our horses race out as fast as their hooves can carry them back out to the herd when we are done riding them. They do this even if we are all riding together and let them loose together. But why?

These instances have made me really think....what's with the herd?  I found a plethora of articles on herd attachments, herd behavior, etc. This article is from Equine Wellness Magazine and discusses herd dynamics. It really helped me understand a lot of these issues that I have been having. It is hard wired in our horses to feel the need to be with the herd. The herd provides protection, companionship, socialization and stimulation. 

Has anyone else had these issues with their horse? Have you come up with any solutions to this? If you do, please share in the comments section. 

Below are pictures of our horses living happily in a herd.

Procession out to the back field
Horses in the fog and mist 
A very content horse.

Some herd members on watch, while others sleep.

Looking longingly for his herd. 

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