Does Your Horse Feel Safer With the Herd?
This article was originally published in the February 2009 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
Does Your Horse Feel Safer With the Herd?
-by Linda Parelli
In 1989 I watched Pat Parelli trying to load a thirty-one-year-old wiry, wily gray gelding, a rental horse at a Sydney riding stable. It had been many years since they’d gotten this horse into a trailer, and the last time they only managed it using a winch and broomsticks behind him. He had quite a reputation and was now retired from trail rides because he would get to a certain part of the trail, turn around and head home. No one could stop him, so they told riders not to let him turn around. Pretty soon he had that one worked out, too—he simply backed those two miles up and down the rocky trails, all the way back to the barn.
Needless to say, Pat convinced him that he was all right to load in there, but it took a lot of savvy. He didn’t trust anyone.
Some people call it herd bound, buddy sour or barn sour, but in truth they are herd-sweet—they would rather be with the herd than with you.
Annoying as it may seem, when a horse is herd bound he is trying to tell you that he feels safer with the herd than with you. Since he’s a herd animal, this is not hard to understand; but the methods most people use to try to change the behavior are the opposite of what is needed.
As prey animals, horses instinctively know there is safety in numbers and that anytime they leave the herd they are in danger of being singled out, caught and killed. That’s why when horses are afraid they push deep into the herd, crushing their bodies tightly together, which makes it hard for a predator to get to one.
It stands to reason, then, that herd-bound behavior has a Right-Brain or fearful origin, because it’s the insecure horse who is most likely to behave this way. But not all horses are herd bound, buddy sour or barn sour because of a lack of confidence; some of them—like that old grey gelding—are Left-Brain. They know where they would rather be!
So if they would rather be with the barn than you, and feel safer with the herd than with you, what has to change? You!
It’s about the relationship
When your horse would rather be somewhere other than with you, he’s telling you something about the relationship from his perspective. It’s interesting: If you were out with a friend and he or she kept wanting to leave you and go back home, you’d know your friend didn’t want to be with you; but when it comes to horses, the tradition of the horse being wrong is so strong that we immediately think of it as disobedience and give it a label such as “herd bound.” Once you are prepared to accept the fact that it’s all about the relationship, you’re off to a good start to truly solving the so-called problem. In short, there are three important steps involved.
1. Improve the relationship
Learning how to put the relationship first will be a great help in solving your herd-bound issues. This makes the horse’s feelings more important than the task at hand, and once you can prove this to your horse on a consistent basis, he’ll start wanting to be with you more than with the other horses; he’ll be more bonded to you. That’s why most Parelli students find their herd-bound issues are over by Level 2. (Refer to the article on Putting the Relationship First for more details.)
2. Figure out if it is a Right-Brain or Left-Brain behavior
Most herd-bound behaviors are born of fear—the horse doesn’t feel safe if he leaves his friends or the barn or pasture where he lives. But some horses avoid leaving the barn or the herd because they’re going to have to do something they don’t enjoy. Most Left-Brain horses actually like going out on trail rides, but when it comes to doing something at a clinic where they have to leave the others to come out into the middle, they don’t want to do it. This is not so much about fear as it is about an unwillingness to go with you. Either way, punishment is not the answer, because it only makes the horse more afraid or defiant.
(There’s another situation some people have, such as when you take one horse out and leave the other in the pasture. This is much more difficult to solve, because you are not in control of the horse that’s left behind; but if you make it a priority, you can use the same strategies to solve it.)
3. Set it up for success
A horseman doesn’t just do something with a horse; it’s all about the preparation. Before a horseman tries to take the horse away from the barn or from the herd, he makes sure the horse wants to be with him or her. That’s often a big part of the problem—we take the horse before he is ready to go.
The Horsenality™ Key
If you are a student of Horsenality™, you’ll know exactly why your horse is herd bound and what strategies you should use.
In each case, it’s important to have enough rapport and respect. Rapport means connection, and respect is obedience, so you have to constantly measure how much you have compared to what you need for the task at hand. Do you have enough connection and trust? Does he follow your leadership willingly?
Right-Brain horses tend to be more obedient because they are looking for leadership, but gaining rapport can be challenging because they are fearful and distrustful. Left-Brain horses tend to be difficult on both counts because they are not looking for leaders or friends! You have to prove your worthiness to them.
Solving herd-bound issues with Right-Brain horses usually involves matching energy and working the thresholds until they disappear. With Left-Brain horses it’s more about creating the incentive to go with you.
A threshold is an invisible line representing the maximum distance the horse can move away from another horse or the barn before it feels afraid or unwilling to go further.
Some horses hit their thresholds within yards of the barn, while others hit it within a hundred feet or so. Some will not leave another horse’s side, and even an inch is too far. Can you imagine how terrified some of those horses are? And because we are misinformed about horse behavior, people tend to start pushing, coaxing, even forcing horses across thresholds without realizing what they are doing. Pat and I just saw this yesterday at a competition warm-up. As we drove in we saw a lovely white pony with his young rider heading to the practice arena. As the (Right-Brain Introvert) pony hesitated and then froze at his threshold the young girl started kicking and whacking relentlessly until the pony went forward, which he did only because another horse went in front of him. The little girl had no idea her pony was terrified, but someone taught her to behave this way.
Punishing a horse for being afraid does not work. It does not make him braver, and it usually makes him progressively worse. Punishing a horse for being unwilling doesn’t work either! He’ll only dislike you more and become more defiant.
The best way to handle thresholds is to honor them and empathize with your horse. When you feel your horse hesitate as he gets to one, stop and wait until he feels okay before moving forward again. Or if he’s really worried, go back a bit before approaching it again.* This is where the preparation comes in, because when you can consistently prove to your horse that you’re not going to force him over thresholds, he’ll start to have fewer of them, he’ll trust you more and it will become his idea to cross them. Conversely, the more you push the horse over thresholds, the more of them he’ll develop, because he’ll lose trust in your leadership.
Take the time it takes so it takes less time. The better your relationship with the horse, the less herd bound he’ll become. Learn how to put the relationship first in every situation and become the leader your horse admires. Remember, you’re only as good as your horse thinks you are.
*See more details on thresholds in the article on Fear.