Herd Behavior Makes for Interesting Viewing

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COCHRANEEAGLE.COM — NOV. 21, 2012 — recently had the opportunity to observe herd behavior with a changing herd dynamic — introduction of a filly into a herd of geldings!

I purchased the filly as she is a great match for one of the geldings that I already have — they are destined to be a driving pair if all goes well.

In the past, I have been reluctant to mix males and females but, as I have a new filly to add to my six geldings, management issues dictated that they all be together in one herd.

After an introductory period over the course of two weeks where I introduced the filly to each of the geldings individually, the time arrived when I wanted to let the entire herd be together in the common grazing pasture. I began the introduction gradually by letting the filly and one gelding out together then gradually adding additional geldings until the entire herd was out.

All went well until the gelding that is supposed to be the filly’s driving match chased her, grabbed her at the base of the tail and would not let go. The filly was not going to take that behavior. She commenced a barrage of kicking with both hind feet while running with this darned gelding attached to her like a flag waving out behind. He was taking solid hits to the chest, neck and even the jaw (heard that clunk.).

I had visions of big vet bills dancing before my eyes. I ran out in to the field waving a whip with a plastic bag on the end – got the geldings attention and he released the filly. She quietly moved off and commenced eating.

After some chasing around, I captured that badly behaved gelding and put him back in his pen for a time out. He was uninjured and not the least bit remorseful. He had to stay in his pen for the day while the rest of the herd enjoyed grazing in a large, open field — bad boy.

I am happy to report that now all seven horses can graze peacefully in the big field with no more incidents like that. There is still a very interesting herd dynamic in evidence. This group of seven horses is comprised of very different personalities. Probably the most interesting observation is the “bully” of the bunch is not the leader.

While he is a trouble maker and tends to move horses around because they were grazing on the “better” grass, he is not the horse the herd looks to for leadership. The leader is a quiet gelding whom the other horses (except the bully) tend to follow — whether it is moving to another area for grazing or coming in from the pasture to their night pens.

Even the aloof gelding who remains away from the main herd will generally follow when the quiet gelding initiates a change.

The communication within the group is very subtle. A flick of an ear, twitch of a tail, a “dirty look” is sufficient to elicit a response by another horse. If the initial signal was ignored, the communication is escalated slightly by pinned ears, switching of the tail, movement of the body.

Occasionally, a swinging butt with hind feet kicking out is required to make a strong point — often accompanied by a squeal from the offender although these kicks seldom connect. I did watch a rather vocal “discussion” between two of the geldings where they were moving, kicking with the hind feet and squealing all at once — one of the two was galloping backwards to keep kicking at the offender who was trying to gallop away and kickback at the same time. If I had not seen it, I would not have believed a horse could gallop backwards like that and kick at the same time — wish I had my camera handy.

The incident was short lived and both horses returned to their grazing — there must have been a territorial infringement to cause the short, firm communication!

If you get a chance, just go out and observe equine herd behaviour — it really is quite interesting. It might even influence how you communicate with your horse.