Herd Bound Behavior- Resistance between Human and Horse

Many of us have experienced varying degrees of resistance from a horse due to their strong desire to be with another horse.  Scenarios may arise when leaving stablemates at the barn area, during competitions with constant calling to a buddy horse who is out of sight, to not wanting to be ridden in a different spot on a group ride or when attempting to leave another horse on a trail ride, etc. Whatever the case, the herd bound horse’s behavior is frustrating, can be dangerous and does not lead to a satisfying ride for either the rider or the horse.

The behavior itself is not the issue, but rather is a symptom of an underlying issue.  With a herd bound horse, my question is, “Why does my horse feel more confident and comfortable being with other horses rather than me?”  The desire to “be with the herd” is based on survival instinct; if the horse feels better being with other horses rather than people, he is going to do everything he can to get back to the herd.  I view the horse’s physical behavior as a reflection of his mental and emotional state.

People tend not to believe a horse’s emotions when he is displaying subtle concern, insecure or worried behaviors.  As a solution, folks try to “persuade” (whether gently or aggressively, through using strong aids and/or equipment, etc.) and push the horse physically through his concern, versus considering why the behavior continues to re-appear.  A horse that is “forced” through enough scenarios will progressively show more resistance with each future occurrence and his actions will evolve into other unwanted behaviors; it will not just “go away” unless the underlying issue is addressed.

My philosophy is to create a mentally available horse that asks, “What would you like?” versus most horses that “tell” a person the limitations of their willingness to participate.  If you teach your horse to "think" their way through something (whether it is how slow the steps are, stepping in a specific spot, teaching them to stand and wait, etc.,) their body will stay far more relaxed and compliant. Their mental availability will allow an opportunity for you to influence their thoughts, creating safer and positive physical changes.

Misinterpretation of dramatic behavior leaves the person unable to recognize that the horse only has so many ways of asking for help.  At the peak of a horse’s severe stress, he can appear defensive towards what the person is offering as guidance.  Rather than waiting until things completely fall apart to initiate leadership, or approaching a scenario with a “let’s see what will happen today” feeling, which is a passive and reactive approach, there are proactive tools a person can establish to support the horse through his concern. This will decrease the dramatic behavior as moments of stress arise, such as when trying to get back to the herd. 

For me, the initial step is creating short, quality sessions assessing what the horse is offering. Behaviors such as how quickly the horse displays resistance towards the human, (not wanting to be caught, hanging on the lead rope if walking away from the herd or barn, excessive movement while tied, groomed, tacked and mounted, etc.) gives an honest overview as to what I’ll encounter the more “independent” I ask the horse to be.

The goal then is to encourage the horse’s brain to stay with me.  It takes time to create opportunities to gain and build his confidence.  Consider that every time you work with your horse, you are teaching him something; whether it is to ignore you, offer minimal effort, or your lack of initiative as his leader. Every moment, every step, every thought matters.

I find that working with a horse at liberty in a safe place such as a round pen, can create opportunities for the horse to express his opinions and learn how to mentally narrow down his options to remain with me, without having to be physically constrained.

It can be an ideal place for an initial mental conversation, not a place to run or physically wear down the horse. The goal is to get the horse to “think, and then move.” (There are other options if you do not have a round pen, to get the same results.) The liberty sessions evolve from the round pen into the horse being loose in the pasture and offering the same willingness to be with me, irrelevant of other horses around him.

The conversation continues with the lead rope and evolves to when I use the rein from the saddle to direct his thought. To create successful and confidence building rides, I start in small increments. I will ride within the vicinities of other activities and horses, and practice working with the horse to get his thought away from wherever it may drift.  The easier and faster he can “let his thoughts go” of his buddies, the farther the distance away I will ride. 

I will often come and go multiple times, rather than teaching the horse to anticipate a pattern of where I ride and what I’ll ask.  Eventually the horse learns that regardless of the other horses, his brain and emotions can stay with me, he can feel emotionally quiet and stay physically relaxed, creating the opportunity for a rewarding ride.