Sunday, May 27, 2012

Herd Dynamics - The New Horse

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about herd dynamics during introductions.  In that post I described the typical personality types we see from members of the existing herd.  We can't forget about the newcomers though and how they respond to being part of a new group. 

Some horses make the whole transition so easy it is like they haven't had a transition at all.  These horses can live with almost any group of horses and instantly make friends and become one of the gang.  The chargers don't intimidate and fluster them, they easily and quickly defer to the boss horse, and become instant BFF's with the greeters.  It is like they go out in the pasture, high five everybody, and they are an instant member of the group.  Introductions are officially over.  If only it could always be that easy! Horses with dominant personalities are usually easy as well.  They simply take charge of things and the others accept it with no issues.  However many horses fall in a more gray area. 

The horses that really give you the sleepless nights are the ones that are submissive to an extreme when finding their place in a group.  This often is because they lack social skills as they have not been turned out at all, or have only had solo turnout.  Sometimes it is because they simply need to be allowed to take whatever time they need to find their place in the group.  Even the greeters can intimidate these horses at first.  They are being so submissive that just having another horse who is being nothing but friendly trying to constantly be close to them and in their personal space worries them.  The chargers send them over the edge.  The most common response we see from the super submissive types is they go into stimulus overload and find a place in the pasture where they can hide from everyone.  

Several years ago this response would drive Jason and I around the bend.  We would freak out, start second guessing ourselves and generally have a meltdown.  We would pull the horse from the group.  Finally we got smart and noticed a pattern.  When we would go fetch the horse that was hiding in the pasture well away from the other horses and take them in the barn, the horse didn't act any happier in the barn than they did out in the pasture.  We thought we were "rescuing" them because they were clearly not happy (or so we thought) but we were totally misreading the situation. 

The horses did not want to be taken away, they would pace and call in the barn.  This made no sense to us that they would be hiding in the pasture, but when we took them away and put them in s "safe place" in a  stall to rescue them they were even more miserable.  Often they would call repeatedly to the very horses they were just hiding from.  These horses were not wanting to be separated, but what they did need was time to acclimate to the group at their own pace.  Sometimes we will put these horses in a paddock for awhile with a horse or two from their group, but most of the time leaving them with the group works best. 

Amazingly we found that if we just let things alone, usually within a few days the whole situation was completely different.  As in completely, totally different.  These horses would start integrating themselves into the herd dynamics at a pace they were comfortable with.  They would stay close to the group for awhile and then retreat for awhile.  The time they spent near the group would increase while the time they spent away decreased.  They learned that if they ignored the chargers then they stopped charging.

Often within 2-3 days they are totally past any group separation at all which is a pretty amazing change. Sometimes it has taken a couple of weeks to reach this point. Within a month or two they act like they have been part of the gang forever.  That is quite a dramatic change from hiding off in a corner of the pasture as far away as they can get from the other horses.  Often after they have been in the group for about six months they begin to move up dramatically in the pecking order and can actually become quite bossy. These horses, without fail, become the most herdbound horses.

It still amazes me that a horse that would skitter away from the hay or the water trough if another horse even looked in their direction, or better yet the horses that would not even approach the hay or water if another horse was nearby, can wind up being one of the bossier horses in the group.  However we've seen it happen many times.  Twice we have seen it where horses that were described to us as always being the bottom of the pecking order wind up being the boss horse in their group.  Of course they didn't start there, but six months or a year later there they are telling everyone what to do.  You have to allow these personalities the time to integrate at their own pace. 

Too many people want to react like Jason and I used to react:

"Get him out of there!!"
"He can't handle being with other horses, he is just too submissive."
"He's going to lose too much weight and I won't torture him like this."

In reality most of these horses aren't submissive at all, and even though we interpret their responses as being miserable they want to stay out with the others.  They do need to be allowed to take their time becoming part of the herd dynamics.  Have I mentioned they need to be allowed some time??

I'm glad Jason and I watched and learned.  It has helped us read these situations a lot more accurately.  I also need to mention two very important things:  One is we have very large pastures relative to the number of horses in them so a horse never has to feel - or be - trapped.  Point two is that our pastures have excellent grazing the majority of the year so the horses can eat to their heart's content without having to be in the middle of the group. I can't emphasize enough how important these two points are to the process.  Taking either of them out of the equation would present challenges that would be hard to overcome.

Like most things with horses it is impossible to predict exactly how any horse will react in a given situation.  We've learned to be patient and to do our best to interpret situations based on horse language and behavior and not human responses.  This is much easier said than done, especially for us!  However I think the results speak for themselves, and anyone who visits the farm finds nothing but happy, content and well adjusted horses.  Even the ones that gave us some sleepless nights at first.


Lucky, O'Reilly and Noble

Johnny watching me from the woods (Wiz behind him)

Homer and Levendi

Lotus, Faune, Winston and Titan

Asterik and George

Renny and Fuzzy

Darby, B-Rad and Lighty

Tiny, Johnny and Rampal


Anonymous said...

Love your herd observations/experience. Having grazing and a large turnout makes a huge difference, and I think larger herds, rather than smaller, help too - everyone can find a place.

Melissa-ParadigmFarms said...

Kate you are exactly right. Larger group sizes make transitions and finding a place in the group easier on everyone. This is the opposite of what most people think. Our largest group is by far the easiest on this farm to transition a new horse into.


lytha said...

another wonderful post from paradigm about horse phychology. (on my birthday too, like a present for me!) these insights are gold - and things so many of us wouldn't have the chance to learn otherwise. i'm thinking about my horse being "lunged" by the dominant horse because the pasture was too small and all he had to do was stand in the middle and glare and my horse would canter around the fenceline. and how my horse wouldn't even approach the hay feeder unless everyone else was gone - he only got the scraps. heartwrenching scenarios that won't happen at your place! you guys have got it right, and the transformation of the horses is fascinating!!