Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Herd Dynamics

A long time ago, I was under the impression that horse herds were pretty much set up the same way.  There was an alpha leader (a stallion in the wild or a breeding herd, but otherwise, some really head-strong mare or gelding) and everyone else just followed along.  Most of the horse training advice I was exposed to had to do with making yourself the alpha leader of your horse, so he would respect you and do whatever you asked without question.

Then, I read a book by Mark Rashid.  It was probably Considering the Horse, but it could have been Horses Never Lie or another early book.  He talked about a horse that had what he called Passive Leadership.  The horse didn't bully other horses into doing what he wanted them to do.  Instead, he would wait out the annoying bully of the herd who would pester other horses who got to close to the choice food or water, and go in once the bully was tired or had moved on to other things.  And other horses would follow this passive leader.  It was interesting, but I didn't give it much more thought until I got Nimo (you can read about how he came to be mine here).

Nimo was a yearling and he was a stallion candidate, so he was obviously not gelded.  Because of that, I think he was kept by himself when he was out in the field.  He was also really people-friendly and would often take afternoon naps in his display stall (all the Friesians in the barn were in stalls on a small concrete pad surrounded by steel mesh instead of the more typical wooden walls, so that people could evaluate them for purchase) while kids hung out with him.  Anyway, what I didn't realize was that Nimo felt really comfortable with people, but he maybe didn't understand horse language very well.

The facility I was moving him to was a fairly large boarding stable of 42 horses.  Nimo would be going into a herd of about 12, with a variety of ages of horses, but none quite as young as he was.  The herd stayed in a small sacrifice area (think maybe a quarter of an acre) with a long, downhill chute that opened to another small area at the bottom of the hill.  I was responsible for acclimating Nimo in with the herd, and I made a big mistake.

I put him out in the sacrifice area by himself (with the second area closed off) and then I turned in the alpha horse of the herd.  He was older, probably near 20, and a pretty sweet guy with people.  I regularly did chores at the barn, so I imagined myself knowledgeable about the horses and how they interacted.  None of the horses in that herd were particularly obnoxious, so I honestly didn't expect there to be a problem introducing Nimo, and I figured having him meet the head honcho first without a lot of other horses pestering him would be a good idea.

Yeah, not so much.  The alpha horse almost immediately went after Nimo.  And he chased him and chased him and chased him.  Finally, Nimo broke through the gate that connected to the long chute I mentioned earlier and the horses ran down the hill out of sight.  I was hysterical and screaming some not-very-nice things about the alpha horse and beside myself because I didn't know what to do.

Another, more experienced lady at the barn decided to put a few other horses out, which helped calm things down.  With both sacrifice areas open, Nimo had some room to escape pressure from other horses and it wasn't long before everything was fine.  The lady who helped me out mentioned that if I was ever in another, similar situation, I might consider putting a horse not quite so high on the totem pole in with the new horse first.  At the time, I was so upset, I doubt I was in a listening mood, but looking back on it, I can see that what likely happened was that Nimo didn't demonstrate submissiveness the way he should have.  I actually don't even remember him licking and chewing and lowering his head like most young horses do to avoid confrontation. I think he just didn't learn how because he had too much people time and not enough horse time.

However, over the next year, I was reminded of how Mark Rashid pointed out that sometimes herd dynamics aren't what I thought they were.  Nimo remained at the bottom of the pecking order in the herd.  When it was time to bring the horses in for dinner, he was always the last until he was probably 3 going on 4.  At that point, he started to move up, but he was still toward the bottom.  But, very early on (within days, I think), he was able to eat right next to the tiny, but sprightly Arab, who was widely regarded as the second-in-command of the herd.  I watching Nimo stand behind him when he was eating at the round bale feeder and just hang out.  Sometimes the Arab would swish his tail or flick an ear to let Nimo know that he knew Nimo was behind him, but Nimo would just wait.  And he would gradually inch closer and closer to the feeder.  Until he was happily eating right next to that Arab.  It wasn't long before Nimo didn't have to start from behind, he could just go right to his preferred eating spot.  I was fascinated.  Here the last horse in the herd was eating without a problem with the second horse in the herd.

When Nimo was four, I moved him to a new barn, where he ended up in a paddock by himself.  At first, it was because the farm was new, so there was only one other horse.  Over time, more horses came, and soon I was faced with the choice of keeping Nimo by himself in a paddock close to the barn (and paying more money) or turning him out with a group of about 10 horses in a very large field with a long fence near a busy road.  Because I mostly came out to the barn at night and there were no lights, I opted to keep Nimo by himself.  And he seemed perfectly happy.

Eventually, things stopped working well at that barn, so I moved Nimo to a place where he would be in a herd of five.  That didn't last long because (I think) he was still playful and learning to respect the space of humans.  The boarders was mostly older ladies who were, ahem, perhaps a little less brave than a person should be if one regularly gets on top of a 1,000-1,500 animal.  There was some sort of behind-the-scenes conflict that I thankfully didn't learn about until later, and Nimo was by himself again.  I should say that I never saw Nimo do anything bad out in the field except for climb with all four feet into the water trough...a lot.

As it turned out, there was another horse at the barn who was also by himself because he was "bad" with other horses.  But it was easy to see that he was miserable by himself.  The barn manager, being pretty good at problem-solving, decided to put the two together, and it was a match made in heaven.  The other horse settled down quickly and after a brief, but fruitless challenge of Nimo's authority, the two got along really well.  So well, that when the time came for me to move to a new barn, I delayed it until I learned that the other lady would be moving her horse as well.

At the next barn, Nimo was with either one or two other horses most of the time, although for the last few months he was there, he was by himself (the mass evacuation of borders should have alerted me a little before it did that there was a problem).  And he was great.  He was absolutely always in charge, but I never saw him be mean about it.  A flick of an ear or a squint from the corner of his eye was all it took to keep the other horses from getting in his space.

Finally, I moved him to the barn he's at now.  He's with a herd of 4-5 horses that has changed  a couple of times, but is mostly stable.  The barn owner told me when I moved Nimo there that the herd's leader had been in charge for 4 years and would never give up his position.  Within a month, Nimo was in the top position.  As far as I know, it was a fairly painless transition.  Nimo had a few scrapes, but nothing serious, and I think the other horse was fine as well.

I have to admit that I love that Nimo is the top horse in the herd.  I got in the middle of a terrible attack on my horse when getting her out in the field and I ended up with 5 hoof-sized hematomas on one leg that took almost 2 years to fully heal.  Now, I never worry.  Nimo is good at keeping the other horses at a reasonable distance from me when I go to get him. 

However, I've noticed that the last horse in the pecking order hangs out with Nimo a lot.  They groom each other and they eat next to each other, and Nimo will even play with him a bit if he's pestered enough.  The other horse is a big, goofy gelding, and I think he might be doing to Nimo what Nimo did so many years ago as a yearling.  He gradually desensitized Nimo to his prescence and Nimo lets him in closer than he does the other two horses he is with.  Although, I will say that I have never seen Nimo strike or bite another horse, and the four horses in the herd seem to get along without any drama.  They eat at the same round bale and at feeding time, there is a close, but clear, order to how they stand.

I don't think Nimo is necessarily a passive leader - I think his leadership is more clear and he will get after a horse who doesn't respond to his initial signal to move away.  But, now that I've started paying attention, I can see how small those signals are.  They are literally a flick of an ear, a slight tilt to his head, or even a shift of weight.  And I really don't see any bullying, although I don't get a chance to truly see the herd in action much, because Nimo can't help himself but come up to me if he sees me (unless he also sees the trailer and the field is a giant swamp, then he likes watching me struggle through the mud to get him).  I'm told by the barn staff, though, that Nimo is very respectful of human space and is easily one of the best-behaved horses at the barn.

The whole experience with Nimo has lead me to understand that horse social behavior is a little more complicated than I first thought.  I even learned recently that it isn't the stallion who is in charge of wild horse herds, it is the alpha mare.  The stallion is around for reproduction and protection, but the mare chooses the direction and pace of the herd.  And I've read that the relationship between and among horses in the herd may change depending on what is going on.  I can see that with Nimo, that does seem to be true.

Now that we're in the process of building a barn, I'm interested to see how Nimo handles the transition and how "my" herd works once more than one horse belongs to me.  I do believe Nimo will be respectful of what I ask him to do, even if it means retrieving a horse other than him for the first time in his life, but I'm a bit curious to see how the dynamics work.

The most important thing about watching Nimo grow up in a herd is that I started questioning the whole idea of Human Must Be in Charge All the Time and Get After the Horse if He Doesn't Listen.  I used to really get after Nimo if he got in my space or did something inappropriate, but I stopped doing that because it never seemed to make much difference.  Nimo is too big to be much impacted by someone yelling at him.  Instead, I typically ignore behavior that isn't what I want and praise behavior that is.  He isn't perfect, but he is a pretty good boy except if he is really worried about something or really hungry, in which case he can forget about how much space I need.

Part of me hates that I had to learn the hard way on a real horse, but another part of me realizes that direct experience is the only way to truly understand something, especially with horses.  And I'm excited that there is a young horse in my future who will hopefully benefit from what Nimo has taught me.


  1. Nice blog, love your detailed observations and your writing style. I also have a heavy breed horse (draft cross) that I've done a little endurance with (LD30s), and I've picked up several nifty ideas from your blog.

    Just to offer another perspective on herd leaders...Horses sort themselves into a hierarchy based on relative dominance, which is based in part on personality and in part on limited resources. This is why it appears to shift depending on circumstances. In the wild, breeding rights is a limited resource (mares in estrus only in spring, guarded by herd stallion, etc) so horses (stallions) fight over which mares they can breed. In domestic circumstances, food (hay and feed) is typically a limited resource (horses fed on a set schedule vs having unlimited access--in some circumstances even horses on pasture will fight over food, particularly when the pasture is overgrazed or in a limited area). So what people often believe to be "leadership" behavior is really horses fighting over/guarding limited resources (food, access to companions they prefer, etc). Lots of observational research on feral and domestic horses to support this.

    1. Thanks for your nice comment, Liz:) And your point about dominance being impacted by availability of resources makes a lot of sense. That may explain why Nimo's herd is relatively drama free - there are round bales out for over half the year. Your point reminds me of something I saw a couple of months ago. The barn had delayed putting out round bales even thought the grass was just stubble. The staff had been putting a few flakes of hay out for the horses to eat each night, but about a week before the round bales went out, the barn owner insisted that no hay be put out for the horses, so the staff stopped putting it out. I strongly believed that there was not enough grass in the field, so I continued to put out supplemental hay for Nimo's herd, some of which I bought myself. There was one night, though, when some drama meant that I could only put hay out for Nimo. The thinking was that because he was the alpha horse, he would chase the other horses off and eat the hay. What actually happened is that he shared it with the lowest ranked horse in the herd. I was astounded, to say the least. And it made me realize how complex horse behavior can be.

  2. Hi, belated comments on all of the cool observations about herd dominance. I used to think herd dynamics were only relevant to what horses do and with each other out in the pasture... and then with horse-human relationships, it was only about being the boss mare and having your horse respect you so they wouldn't walk all over you and that was the end of it. Oooops, my bad! My horse, Ranger's, herd position was a big influence on my early experiences riding him. He is super low on the herd pecking order. As in maybe a couple notches below the grasshoppers! The thing that really improved our relationship and all of our riding experiences was when I stepped up to be the leader for him... whether out in the woods, in the arena, or anywhere else we were riding. When I didn't step up, he felt leaderless and would flat out panic and bad things happened. When he got scared and felt leaderless, I got scared and panicked, shut down, and ceased being a leader even more.... you can imagine the vicious cycle that ensued. One of those vicious cycle moments led to a monstrous wreck. My wonderful riding instructor has helped me understand what Ranger needs. Once I could communicate "it's okay, I GOT THIS" to him, things improved by many orders of magnitude. Of course, it took me a while to gain confidence in the saddle to where I could communicate that. And it wasn't like thumping on him or putting leg on (maybe a little bit of leg)... it was a whole lot of little things that I had to do to let him know that I was in the driver's seat, I was watching out, I would take care of stuff... and after I stepped up, then Ranger stepped up big time. Along the way, maybe I had to prove myself worthy of being a leader. Hmmm, I need to think some one that...

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jo. And it brings up something that I hadn't considered - horses at different places in the pecking order of their herd may need different things from their riders. Interesting and something for me to remember:)