Horses with herd bound behaviors can be frustrating and dangerous. Lindsey Partridge offers advice on how to develop a horse’s self-confidence and work through the behavior.
I’ve started working with my Thoroughbred for the 2021 RRP makeover, Señor Louie. He retired at age 12 with 104 starts. He’s a solid war horse.
His biggest challenge has been being herd bound. Calling, not able to stand still, breaking cross ties, not able to focus and sometimes being dangerous.
Louie desperately needed to learn some self-confidence — he was way too reliant on his herd to help him feel safe.
Don’t Take Herd Bound Behavior Personally
I haven’t had a lot of time to spend with Louie. I don’t blame him for not being connected to me and instead getting very attached to his buddies.
It definitely escalated to where he was screaming and calling, to the point that he could not stand still at all. Even if a horse was in the indoor arena with him, he would call and have to look at them. There was no way he was going to stand quietly for his hooves to be done.
Normally when I get a new horse, I spend a fair amount of time with them (3-4 sessions/week). The issue with Louie was that after he got home, I started back to work full-time as a registered nurse, we didn’t have daycare over the holidays for my toddler and I am pregnant in my first trimester — which was extremely exhausting, and I was sleeping sometimes up to 14 hours a day. So there really wasn’t any time for Louie. I think I went out to visit him twice over three weeks.
He was in a brand-new home, looking for comfort and I wasn’t there. Instead, he bonded with his herd mates. It’s not personal; it’s safety and security.
Change is Scary – We Seek Comfort
Prior to being at our farm, Louie was kept in a stall with turn out for a few hours a day while he was on let down from the track. He would happily be in the stall and eat his grain and had no issues.
Once he came home to my place, he went outside 24/7 with his buddies.
After a couple weeks he couldn’t handle being in a stall or being away from his buddies. Even to the point that if we brought him in for his dinner and the other horses were in the barn eating, too, he didn’t want to finish dinner because he was too stressed.
There are many different ways that you can deal with a herd bound situation and some of the options are going to depend on how much time you have and what your facility setup is.
Solving Herd Bound Behavior
The good news about a horse developing very deep bonds with other horses is that they can also develop those same bonds with you. It usually means an investment of time. More important than time is ensuring the horse feels relaxed and safe in your presence so that you can start to develop some of those good feelings and bond with your horse.
There are a few things I did with Louie to help him find self-confidence (these are just some options):
- Calm connection exercises such as Square and S pattern, which helped Louie realize we could move together and to focus on me.
- I asked for his attention. If I noticed he was looking off, I insisted he give me an ear flick to pay some attention to me. I rewarded him for ignoring the outside world and being calm or connected.
- Lower his head, which helps a horse find endorphins instead of flying high on adrenaline. Sometimes Louie would be so upset, though, that asking for a low head posture just wasn’t going to happen.
- Private turnout: I put Louie by himself for a few days in a positive reinforcement set up so he could develop his own self-confidence.
In the private pen, Louie could see other horses, have his own shelter, have space to move, have his own water and hay feeder. The tricky part is that the hay feeder and the water trough are positioned where he cannot see other horses. It is a positive reinforcement set up where he gets to eat premium hay as long as he’s ok with not seeing his buddies. He can look at his buddies, but he has to stand in the corner.
It is a situation that provides him with everything that he needs and allows him to choose when he needs to see his buddies, while providing an incentive to leave them.
At first he wouldn’t leave the corner, but after an hour or so he would leave and get a bite of hay and then come back to the corner to see his friends. Eventually he built up enough self-confidence to allow him to stay at the hay feeder for long periods of time and didn’t feel the need to rush to the corner to see his friends.
After a couple of days he is a changed horse. We finally had a calm session where he did not feel the need to call to the other horses and we were able to work on standing still in a positive way.
Sometimes when a horse is very herd bound it can be frustrating and easy for tensions to escalate as the human gets mad at the horse, which scares the horse and makes them want their buddies more, and then aggravates the human even more. It can create a negative cycle.
These are just some of the exercises and techniques to help. In a few days a horse can develop self-confidence. We need to remember it’s about building up our horse to feel relaxed and secure, not about punishing them or causing them to fear us in submission.
The best partnerships are built on mutual trust and feeling safe with each other. That starts with being confident in ourselves.