The Herd Bound Horse

Here is another great question from the November Webinar.

Gillian Asks:
Dear Dr. Hamilton,
I really enjoyed your excellent webinar presentation, Zen Mind, Zen Horse.  I am only sorry that it couldn’t go on for at least another hour.  I made lots of notes.  Here is my question:
I have a lovely 14-year-old Arab gelding who is my riding horse.  There are two mares and another gelding in his herd.  He is very herd-bound, and will act up when we are away from the others.  He is fine for the first half hour or so, and then begins to call and throw his head around to get back to his girls and his buddy.  He is not paying attention to what I am asking him and it frustrates me.  I realize that frustration is not helpful.  I usually just turn him in the opposite direction from home until he is calmer, at which point I head toward home again.  And then repeat as necessary.  When I get him into the yard, he will do a lovely collected trot and be good as gold.  I sure would appreciate suggestions.

Thanks so much for your wonderful advice.  I plan to buy a copy of your book for me and one for my friend.

Dear Gillian:
Here’s an interesting trick I have used once for a horse that was badly herd bound. It’s sneaky but worked like a charm! You may or may not want to try it but I will share it anyway. I turn the problem upside down, as I said in the webinar.

As I pointed out, it is hard for us to imagine just what a “collective” identity horses have as part of a herd. It is also only natural for a horse to want to “be” with his herd. That’s where he is in his comfort zone and where he feel safest. So we know it’s the herd your horse is yearning for and, in his mind, it is always back at the barn. So he’s dying to get there to get back to them.

But…what if he were wrong? What if he was mistaken and the herd is not back at the barn? You’re probably catching on to my idea. What if the herd were where he never expected it to be? On the trail!

So I had somone trailer two of my horse’s pals way up on the trail. We had pre-planned where we would suddenly–accidentally, on purpose–run into his herd pal on the trail. So he started fussing the farther away from the barn we went.

Just about where I knew he was going to throw a fit, guess what? Wow! There was his herd mate, all saddled up with a rider, just out for a walk on the very same trail we had been on! What a coincidence! My horse did a double-take! Calmed down immediately. My riding mate and I went down the trail…the two horses together. After ten minutes, we split up.

My horse and went down the trail by ourselves for a spell. Wow! Bumped into another member of the family, the herd. Walked for a while with them. Then they peeled off. We did this for a couple of weeks, planting horses along the trail when we went out (mostly weekends). After a while, he got into the habit of figuring he would bump into some he knew on the trail.

Eventually, one day we went for a trail ride and didn’t bump into anyone. Bummer! Then next time we went out, wow, stable mate again. Next trail ride? No one. Just gradually added more trail rides with no buddies, always throwing one in where we could one of his pals. Eventually, he just forgot about figuring out where his buddies might be.

This illustrates precisely what I mean about loving how horses teach us to turn the problem or question upside down: The question is not: What can I do to prevent him from returning to the barn to look for his mates? The real question is: What can I do to convince him to look for what he seeks out on the trail?
Speaking of which, Happy Trails,
Allan Hamilton, MD

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