What Humans Can’t Teach: The Importance of Herd Socialization for the Performance Horse

Written by Allison Nicole Shultz

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.27

For most performance horses, the bulk of life is spent indoors to avoid risking accidents and mishaps that would postpone a show career.

As a precautionary effort, life in a stall with daily turnout in a run or paddock alone is enough to give prized show horses a safe place for mental and physical release from the rigors of workouts. Turnout for stall-bound horses lets them be running, rolling and grazing horses the way nature intended. However, turnout as a lone horse denies a horse important herd dynamics and the lessons that can be taught by socializing with other horses. Although this may not always be possible or ideal with older, experienced and highly valued show stock, allowing a future performance horse to be raised in a herd structure proves beneficial to his development as a herd-savvy horse for the lessons and experiences that the herd can impart for all future encounters in and out of the pasture.

At the Diamond Double T Ranch in Longmont, Colorado, a ranch devoted to breeding and raising solid performance horses, 50 plus horses of all ages live on the 80 acres of pastureland in herd situations. Owner Janiejill Tointon feels lucky to have the privilege of witnessing the herd dynamics in her own pastures between the foals, mares, geldings and her stallion, Blue. Most of all, she realizes that “what the herd teaches, we can’t always teach as humans.”

For Tointon, this idea hit home as she was watching horses work in the warm-up arena at a past horse event. Here, she saw some very talented show horses acting up in the presence of the mass of working horses in the warm-up pen, horses that were nervous and afraid of other horses and some that were reacting dangerously by bolting. She feels, “The lack of the herd experience creates not only the problems caused by stall-bound horses not allowed to ‘be horses’—cribbing, weaving, insecurity and overaggressiveness—but it also creates performance horses who can’t perform. So what I want to do here is take that performance horse and raise it in the herd from day one.”

Raising horses that are “OK” in the world is important to Janiejill.  “People who come to the ranch say that these are some of the happiest and friendliest horses they have ever seen.” She compares the horses she raises to those that weren’t brought up on the ranch. Her show mare, Marilyn, has a tendency to be cranky and kick her stall to the point of hurting herself, but is much better when let out. Another horse, Dapper, has been primarily a stall horse his entire life, but when given the chance to get out with the herd of other show horses, he lets his social side show as he goes around to groom the other horses. Janiejill, believes “The non-desired behaviors of some show horses wouldn’t happen if these horses were socialized. Without herd socialization they are more apt to get hurt and harm others.”

Interestingly, a horse’s behaviors within the herd dynamic and herd relationships can also give insight to a horse’s peculiar personality issues. Oftentimes these are issues that we work on in the saddle, that also become apparent while the horse interacts within the herd. Tointon can recall one horse especially who benefited from being put in the herd. She once took in a Shire sport horse named David who was not only a big boy, but also spoiled and dangerous. After working with him for a while, she eventually just put him out in the herd and let the herd teach him some manners. She remembers that David was so insecure in himself that he was overly aggressive not only toward people but to the other horses as well. He raced out in the pasture and knocked down her husband’s cow horse, among other belligerent displays which allowed Tointon to see his internal problems brought out in the herd. David’s insecurity showed in his need to bully the other horses for confidence. It took no time for the other horses to crack down on David’s behavior, and give him a good whoopin’.  Eventually, David learned the “rules” of the social structure of the herd. Along with his herd lessons, his human lessons came along as well. And within a couple of years, David was a very solid, brilliantly talented riding horse.

Herd lessons manifest within herd dynamics, and herd dynamics depend on the social structure and “order” of the herd hierarchy. Such dynamics are as numerous as the possible combinations of horses in any given herd due to relationships among the individual horses and their ranking in the pecking order. This is seen in most turnout situations, in which there is one dominant horse, one horse that always gets picked on, and the spectrum of horse-powers in-between.

One difference at the Diamond Double T Ranch is that the ranch’s stallion, Blue, is turned out with the herd to breed the mares naturally. This natural breeding program allows Tointon to witness a set of herd dynamics that is not often seen in most pasture-board situations. In this situation one can see an intricate web of herd dynamics between Blue, the mares, and the foals.

During the breeding season, Blue stays in the field with the mares and new foals. In the early spring, when the mares start coming into heat, Blue exhibits the protective poise and tenacity with his band of mares. As commander in chief of his brood, he will snake through the mares that are grazing and round them up into a group while he will graze nearby and maintain that all the mares stay where he put them. Although it would seem to be every man’s dream to have an entire herd of mares all to himself, Blue doesn’t let it go too much to his head. The lessons of respect and manners go both ways as the mares keep him in his place and demand that he be a gentlemanly and considerate lover.

Through the spring and summer months many lessons and manners are handed down to the foals from the mares, but also from Blue. Blue plays with the foals throughout the day, either with the entire group or with a just a couple of foals at once. He will often “play” with the colts as males tend to “play” with each other without getting overly aggressive so as to let the little guys play in the motions of their instinctual herd behaviors.

There is much to be said about the bond between mare and foal, but also much to be said for the village that raises the foals. As the new foals enter the pasture in the spring by their mother’s side, they encounter other foals next to their mothers and open mares in the pasture to be bred. As soon as the mares with new foals become comfortable with the other mares, it is not strange to see an open mare acting as an “auntie” or another mother “babysitting” a group of foals.

This past spring, the Tointon’s mare Faith had colicked after giving birth and had undergone colic surgery with her foal at her side. After brief stall recovery, Faith and Peyton reentered the herd. Faith was one of the mares that often let other foals nurse from her. Not long after being outside, Faith coliced again, and this time with no recourse. Faith was put down and buried in the pasture, with Peyton and the rest of the herd nearby. The Tointons worried about Peyton’s well-being, but had faith that one of the mares would take him on as her own. Within a couple of days, their palomino mare Cowgirl had let Peyton nurse from her, and now the mare has two foals by her side.

Janiejill feels strongly that this is a testament to the strength of herd relationships. “If Peyton had not been being raised in a herd situation, we would have had to have found a surrogate mare,” she says. “In this case, nature just intervened and took the stress out of what could have been a very stressful situation.”  Familiarity with the herd also takes the stress out of weaning. Blue stays with the weanlings, while the mares are put in a pasture with other mares and yearlings. The babies stay relatively relaxed through the process.

Herd-1As athletes, horses need room to grow and develop. The opportunity of growing up on ample pasture within a herd structure offers many striking benefits for future performance horses. Foals learn early on about balance over terrain and “obstacles” such as streams, fallen logs, holes and rocks. This course in balance subsequently builds good bone, strong feet, athletic ability and a brave character. Horses growing outside get their grazing instincts met and are constantly allowed to move about, perhaps contributing to fewer instances of colic. Being in a herd allows them to build relationships and learn how to be secure, horse-savvy horses. All of this lends itself not only to better athletes, but also to happier horses.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.27

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