Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Herd Dynamics During Introductions

Transitioning new horses into a group is always an event that owners worry about. We stress over it as well although for different reasons. The owners worry about the social aspects while we worry about someone getting hurt. Through the year and with a lot of horses we've never actually had an injury happen during group introductions but you never know when the streak will end. We are talking about horses after all.


When introducing horses to a group the concept that he horses have reinforced to us repeatedly through the years is introducing a horse into a small group has the potential for a lot more drama than introducing a horse to a large group. The dynamics I like the least are introducing a third horse to a group of two, or a fourth horse to a group of three. It is almost guaranteed big drama for awhile because the herd dynamics are being changed so drastically. I'm not saying always and never here, obviously sometimes introducing a third horse is super easy, but if I'm strictly looking at the odds I'm going to be a lot more nervous about the small group introductions.


On the other hand we find that the easiest introductions are with a larger group. For as playful, active and rowdy as the Big Boys can be at times they are, without question, the easiest group on our farm for a new resident to join. Why is that? Because they function in a manner that comes a lot closer to resembling a true herd dynamic than a small group of 2,3 or 4 horses. When we've had occasion to introduce a new guy to the Big Boys the drama usually lasts about 3 minutes. There is some nose sniffing and squealing, but everyone doesn't even bother to participate. They lift their heads to see what is going on and then flick an ear as if shrugging and saying "oh it's just some horse, not all that interesting," and go back to what they were doing. The net effects on the herd dynamic is minimal with them so the drama tends to be minimal as well.

When we introduce new horses the existing members of the group typically respond to the new horse in one of four ways:


-The "chargers" are the ones who tend to dart aggressively towards a newcomer in an effort to run them off. They are acting like a kid on the playground saying "these are MY friends and you can't have them." Charging does not come out of dominance but because they are insecure. Some of the chargers are more serious about it than others. We've got our own form of profiling going on around here as the chargers typically have a common background. They are the ones that usually had very minimal or no turnout prior to living with us. The more serious chargers are usually the horses that had limited turnout and hadn't been turned out with other horses in a long time. They are extremely possessive of their friends and are still insecure about keeping them. Usually the chargers only stay this way for a couple of years. After a couple of years these horses typically move out of the charger group and into one of the other groups. The chargers also tend to be the most strongly herdbound horses.


-Then we have the "greeters." These are the horses that never miss any of the action, be it running and playing or meeting a new horse. There is nothing aggressive or negative about their response to a new horse. They just view the newcomer as an instant friend and want to get to know them and become best friends immediately. New horses usually latch onto a greeter for obvious reasons for the first day or two while they get to know everyone and then they start to branch out. I've yet to see the top horse in the pecking order be a greeter. They are friendly enough once their superiority is established but not in the same way as a true greeter.


-The "indifferents" are pretty self explanatory. They don't feel the need to be a charger, nor do they feel the need to have a meet and greet session with a newcomer. Their response to a new horse is basically neutral. After the first day or so of sticking closely with the greeters new horses often like to pair up with one of the indifferents for awhile. It is a low stress horse for them to be around as they aren't being pressured to interact constantly by a greeter and it lets them step back and take things in for awhile in a more neutral relationship.


-Finally we have the "boss" horses. These horses may also be a greeter or indifferent, but it is also very important to them that a newcomer understand that they have the power. Boss horses are not chargers, they aren't insecure like the chargers. Once the newcomer acknowledges their high ranking in the group they drop it quickly and move onto being indifferent or a modified version of a greeter.

Next I was going to write about how the newcomers to the group tend to act but I'm out of time for now so it will have to wait until another post!

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I took this picture in the Big Boy's pasture. From where this picture was taken I was a mile from the road. The run-in shed to the left is where Rampal, Clayton, Rocky and friends live. The run-in shed in the middle is for the Big Boys, and the shed to the far right is where the mares, Norman and Cuffie live.

Leo, Grand and Chance
Faune and Gus grooming each other

Hemi, Thomas and Tony

Dutch and Wiz

Gus and George having a grooming session

Johnny and Sam

3 comments:

Bif said...

Very interesting post. :~)

Kate said...

All very true. I also dislike small herds - like we had at the old barn - much more drama in general. Large herds are just, well, more "social".

Wendy Treadaway said...

I agree with you. I just moved to a new barn where my mare is now in a mixed herd of 10, has a cute little gelding for a best friend (they are joined at the hip!), and is doing way better than before where she was 1 of 4 mares and always on the "outskirts."