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Ask the Expert: How Do I Deal With a Herd Bound Horse?

Q:

My question has a bit of a back story. I have one mare and one gelding. They’ve been together for four years. I had the gelding first (he is 16 and my mare is 9).  I bought the mare as a four-year-old. They’ve never been apart. I show jump both horses. My mare started bucking and kicking out while jumping. I lost my confidence, so I sent her to a trainer. Since being at the trainer they’ve found that one of her main issues is being separated from other horses, which causes her to not focus. This causes her to be unbalanced and trip which causes the bucking/kicking out because she isn’t focused. She calls out (screams) for other horses when being worked and going in and out to the paddock etc.

My question is when she comes home from the trainer how do I handle the separation issue? Do I get another horse or pony, so she doesn’t attach herself to just my gelding? (I would rather not do this because of the cost.) Do I send her away to different grazing? If I just have the two of them should I take her out by herself more? Do I sell her? There are so many things to consider, I don’t really know what to do or where to start…. HELP!     – Ruth

 


A:

Hi Ruth:

Separation anxiety, also known as herd-bound, can be a frustrating problem. I think it’s important to think of the situation from your horse’s point of view.  Horses, being herd animals, feel that their lives are at risk if they’re not in a herd. This is especially true of more insecure individuals.

Think for a moment of the most frightening thing you can imagine…perhaps being in an out of control airplane that’s plummeting towards the ground…and being asked by the person next to you to focus on a math problem. You just couldn’t do it, and you might even lash out at the idiot.  Once fear has taken over us (or our horses) learning won’t happen. Horses need to be “happy” and relaxed in order to advance in their training. It’s our job to make it so.

That being said, what can we do?  The best way I’ve found is to become a member of your horse’s herd.  And not just any herd member, but the best one!  There are many ways to do this.

Yes, you should be working with your mare often (better to think of it as playing). The more time you spend with her the better. You can even do several short “works” per day. Start with just a few minutes and keep her close to your gelding, maybe do the work in the field with the gelding right there, but he’s not allowed to interfere with what you’re doing. Bring a lunge whip to flick at him if he interferes; or if you have a safe place to tie him close to where you’re working her, you can do that, but it’s important your mare isn’t anxious at all, so keep the gelding close. If she comes into a stall at night, work with her in her stall. Or take her just to the other side of the fence from the gelding and work her.

Begin by teaching her something fairly easy: maybe to ground tie and then groom her and scratch her itchy places (this might take minutes or days to teach her.) From there, do some in-hand work such as turns-on-the-forehand or haunches, backing, side-passing, or even some kind of trick. Teach her something that you can reward her for, so she can feel good about herself.  Be fair, ask little, and reward greatly.

Eventually your mare should start looking forward to seeing you and, one day, will go with you happily and forget about the gelding. Please understand, this is a long, long process and you will need much patience. It should have started when you first got her, and probably before that. Horses need to bond with people at a very young age. Those that never have developed a bond with a person have a hard time doing it later in life, but it can be done. They need to respect you too, but not fear you, so don’t allow her to do anything to you that your gelding wouldn’t permit. (You can move her feet, but she’s not allowed to move yours.)

It’s important to not try and bribe your horse with treats. Remember – your gelding doesn’t feed her, but she wants to be with him more than anything.

Another caution: Avoid separating her from all horses and expecting her “to get over it”.  It might work for a little while, but she will renew her separation anxiety as soon as she’s around another horse. This technique is called learned helplessness and is something many trainers still employ in horse training. It’s an abusive form of training caused by people who don’t really understand horses. (It’s worth googling to read more about it and the long-term consequences.)

Three final thoughts:

First, be sure your mare is in good health. Pain of any kind increases a horse’s insecurity.  Check for ulcers, dental pain, back pain, hock pain – anything your veterinarian can think of that would cause anxiety in your mare.

Second, it might be a good idea to separate your mare from your gelding with just a fence for a while. They should still be able to touch noses and see each other, but this would cause her to begin to crave physical touch (a basic need in horses). Then you can supply this through grooming and massage and developing the bond might be quicker.  A good body worker can make a huge difference in a horse’s attitude. Learn some massage techniques and your mare might just swoon when she sees you.

Third, find a good, thoughtful trainer to help. Liberty work is really beneficial for this kind of thing.  Stop the jumping (or any advanced training) until your mare is able to focus and stay calm. Training should never advance at a rate that pleases us humans; it must advance only as fast as your horse can handle it. Remember, as soon as she’s anxious, learning can’t happen.  Back up to a spot where she’s calm and work there.

Good luck!

Kim

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