Last Updated on March 24, 2022 by Allison Price
My ranch has seven geldings, and one mare. Truth, my foster mare, and Truth were immediately drawn to one another like magnets when we brought them in for training. It was very sweet to see how much they loved one another at first. It became clear that their sweet, compliant mares would become fire-breathing dragons if separated.
The mares were so close that even a 10 foot separation would cause them to be in a complete tizzy. We had to have the mares separated and allowed them to communicate only when they were out for training. They were also required to obey protocol and act as trained. The undesirable behavior was stopped and the mares returned to their old cooperative selves.
Although it is a nuisance to humans, horses with gregarious tendencies (or an unyielding desire for others in their herd) are one of the most powerful instinctive drives. A herd-bound horse is often regarded as a problem by its owners. They may exhibit anxious, panicky, and other undesirable behaviors if they are taken from the herd or left behind by other horses.
This is an instinctively driven, natural behavior that horses exhibit. However, most horses can be trained to overcome it. There is no easy way to fix herd-bound behavior. However, horses can be taught to tolerate separation from their herd and remain calm and obeyent despite this. Barbara, a podcast listener, asked me recently how impossible this instinctive behavior could be.
Barbara, this is a great question. It made me realize that there is more to retraining herd-bound horses than just separating them. This ingredient is often overlooked in the recipe for success. Before we get to the secret sauce, let’s first understand your horse’s behavior.
What’s The Big Deal?
Separation from the herd can feel like death for prey animals. Horses can only live in a group setting and are not able to be alone. This is because they rely on their herd to detect predators and defend them. This instinct cannot be cured, but it can be trained to make the horse more resistant to its urges.
Separation anxiety is a condition that causes a horse to become uncooperative. This is often called barn sour. Separation anxiety can also occur when a horse’s companion is removed and it is left to fend for its own.
Barbara, a horse owner, has learned that the horse left behind is often the most difficult to handle. The problem with the horse you take out to ride is often not the same as the one that you leave behind. This is usually a running and pacing around the fence line with an increasing level of panic. Unless intervention is taken, it escalates.
If the horse refuses to cooperate, it is less dramatic but equally frustrating. It can be impatience, fidgeting and head shaking. This can escalate to disobedience and tantrums as well as threats of bucking or rearing the horse.
Horses are not expected to be herd-bound. Horses can only learn to be comfortable being alone, and/or accept humans as a substitute for their herd. This is only possible through experience and training. While younger horses might be more independent and willing to leave the herd, older horses and those who are more mature may be more herd bound. Horses are subject to the same pressures as humans, which can lead to different behavior at different stages in their lives. Security becomes more important as we age.
A horse may not only be reluctant to leave its herd but also fear any physical separation from its friend. Even if the horse is removed from the herd, it could still have separation anxiety. If the buddy is gone and there are no other horses nearby, the horse will experience the most anxiety.
Horses thrive on consistency and predictability. Horses are quick learners, can spot patterns quickly and can learn routines quickly. Herd bound problems are eliminated when a horse is separated from its herd and handled by humans. They have become used to this routine and feel at ease with it.
However, if the horse is kept in the pen day in and out with other horses with no handling or removal for vet or farrier, it becomes the whole herd and is impossible to separate.Is Gradual Desensitization Possible?
You need the secret ingredient to make it work. It is important to remove or separate the horses in order to reprogram them. But that’s only half the story. It doesn’t matter if you have a barn-sour horse who throws fits when asked to leave the barnyard or a horse left behind that runs wild when you take him away. The secret lies in what you do. After The separation.
It is not how long the separation takes that matters. It is the ability to bring the horse back into a calm, compliant, and happy state of mind. Before It is the one that has the most impact, and it is best to return it to the herd or reunite it with its group. You have just reinforced the bad behavior by removing the buddy horse and returning it when the horse is emotional overwrought. Because the left-behind horse believes that the buddy horse’s emotional outbursts have caused it to return, it will likely act in the same way next time.
The horse will do whatever you have trained him to do at the moment that you release the pressure. This universal truth applies to all aspects of horse training: timing is everything. The horse will only feel relief if it has calmed down, taken a deep breathe, and then returned to normal compliance. This is what you are trying to reinforce. To reprogram the horse’s behavior, it must be brought back to calm and thinking after it has been separated.
Unbinding the Herd Bound Horse
You now know that managing the emotions of horses before they are reunited is the key to curing their herd-bound behavior. I will share my method for teaching horses how to manage separation anxiety. Assuming you have a horse who is trained to behave appropriately, I assume that this is what you want. Not Separation anxiety is when you feel that your horse has lost control. This plan will not work if your horse is constantly out of control. You need to give your horse more basic training.
Step 1: Create a new routine
You’ll have to take the horse out of the herd every day and perform the same tasks with it each day. This might include some groundwork, grooming, and finally some time being tied up. Although the first day is the most difficult and emotional, it will also be the most rewarding. With each day, the horse learns the next step and accepts the routine. Consistency is the key. Horses learn quickly when they are consistent and do it every day in the same manner, at least 5-6 times per week.
Step 2: Manage your emotions
Reminding your horse how relaxed it is is key to your success. The primary emotions you will be managing are anxiety, anger, and frustration. You must maintain a steady and calm attitude towards your emotions. The best thing for the horse is to treat its emotional state as a mental issue and not a training issue. My first goal is to decrease the horse’s anxiety. I ask it to lower his head to the ground, and then cue it to take one of my deep breaths.
To get the horse to relax I exaggerate how my body and breathing sound (shoulders round, energy low, averted gazes, deep sighs). To show that relaxation is better than anxiety, I will stroke the horse and calm it down. Although it is easy to get anxious horses to become calmer, you will need to show them how. Lower your head and take deep breaths. In an effort to self-medicate, the horse may begin to lower its head after a few days.
Many horses, particularly the more flighty horses, find movement soothing. However, it can also cause a horse to become agitated, such as the left-behind horse running up and down the fence. Sometimes, a horse can be calmed by being allowed to walk quietly and turning left, right, and left. It is difficult to calm a horse if it moves in a hurry, abruptly, or with harsh transitions and changes.
If I have a problem horse left behind that panics when it is left in the pen, rather than allowing the horse pace frantically, wounding itself up, or potentially hurting itself, my solution is to tie it up in a safe, comfortable place. If you remove the horse’s ability to pace frantically, and if it is taught to stand tied, it will often settle down. Even if they aren’t riding the horses, my horses like to be tied up and caught when we take them out. It makes them feel more involved and is better than being left behind.
Step 3: Engage your Mind and Regain Focus
After you have addressed the horse’s out-of-control emotions, it is time to get the horse thinking and engaging its mind. It can seem like the herd-bound horse has forgotten all of its training. But horses don’t forget. Give the horse cues, and wait for a response.
I will use the simplest commands I know to engage the horse’s mind. Stop, go, turn right, turn left. Slow down, speed up. All I ask is that the horse listens, thinks, and responds as it is trained. It almost always has a soothing effect on horses as their minds become engaged and they return to the comfort of what they know.
It is not the right time to ask for difficult things or learn something new. This is the time to remind your horse how to behave and respond. This is the time I want to reconnect with my horse. I want my horse to respond to me in the simplest way possible so I can give it praises and remind it of how great it is to be back to normal.
When a horse feels anxious, it is best to engage its mind by giving it cues and waiting for the response. Then release the horse and praise him. This should be done with the horse left behind, as it will not respond to your commands.
Step 4: Reimpose the Known Rules for Behavior
Your horse should have established the behavior and manners you expect from your horse. The horse might temporarily ignore these rules or become unresponsive during times of emotional stress. As the leader, your job is to redirect the horse’s behavior and remind it about your expectations.
You can engage the horse’s mind and ask it to follow simple commands. This will allow you to reimpose the rules for behavior (manners). This is where you have to take responsibility. You can quickly retrieve your horse if you have good manners with your horse. How can you expect the horse to follow your lead in difficult situations if you don’t have good communication skills with them?
Normaly, my horses must stand still when I ask them. They must stand tied for a certain amount of time every day. I teach them ground tie and practice it frequently. I also reinforce the requirement to stay still after asking. When the horse is acting wildly, or temporarily loses control, I can remind the horse of the skills and expectations it has and ask it to obey. You don’t have anything to fall back on if the horse is overwrought if you haven’t done the foundational work. It’s your fault.
It’s time well spent
Although herd-bound behavior can be a constant presence in horses’ lives, it can be managed with the right training and handling. Although all horses can become herd-bound, most horses who ride them have learned how to deal with it. It is not a condition of the horse; it’s normal behavior.
Herd-bound behavior is a problem when it becomes problematic. Manufactured insufficient Training and handling Inadequat Training and handling. Horse training is not easy. If You make the time and effort required to train your horse. If I could offer a quick fix, I would be the richest horse trainer in history.
It is impossible to fix a herd-bound horse in one day. This requires your total commitment and unwavering consistency. Your horse must feel at ease with you and be able to accept your leadership before it can let go of anxiety about being apart from other horses. You are ultimately the key ingredient and responsible party.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!