The life of a horse living naturally revolves around his herd. The herd teaches the foal how to be a horse. The herd provides playmates and sparing partners. The herd gives direction and protection to all itís members. To a wild horse, the herd is his whole world, and his place within that herd, his most important concern.
Protection of each individual within the herd is the highest calling of a herd group. The dominant, self-assured members of the herd move along in the front of the group. They are the main sentries whoís job it is to detect danger. The young healthy, but not so assured members follow close behind, knowing that they will be forewarned of approaching danger by the leaders. The weak, sick, lame and infirm hold up the rear, where they are easy targets for the waiting predators. Of course, being alone is the most dangerous place of all. For a lone horse will not have the benefit of the warning of danger from the leaders and will be the only target for a hungry predator. Horses donít know this intellectually. They know it physically. They donít think about well being or danger, they feel it.
While being bound to a herd is in the best interest of a wild horse, being herd bound can be a serious problem for a domestic horse. While his human caretakers have assumed the responsibility for protection, a horse does not necessarily understand this. Like a foal grows up in a herd and learns to depend upon it, a domestic horse must learn to depend on itís human associates. When presented with a choice, the natural herd will always win out.
Among the least herd bound of domestic horses are show horses. If you consider their life style from birth, this is easy to understand. A foal intended for the show ring spends only its infancy, if that, in a herd environment. Early on in its life, the show horse is relegated to a stall with human directed exercise and eating habits. Living virtually alone, a horse learns to be his own sentry, and never experiencing a close call with a cougar, becomes fairly confident in himself. His experience with other horses occurs primarily while under the direction of a human. The human "dominant" character guides the horse through the "herd" in a show ring, and the horse learns that this human is his most important concern . . .not what the other horses are doing. While deprived of a totally "natural" horse life experience, the show horse is not psychotic as a rule, unless his human mentor is less than humane. But the experience of herd deprivation does not seem to have an adverse effect on the horse as a whole. In fact, removing the element of herd bound is usually an advantage.
Among the most herd bound horses are those that are owned by pleasure riders. They live in a pasture with one or more other horses, and all of the herd elements flourish. Even in a herd of two animals, all of the herd dynamics are present. If the "alpha" or lead horse is taken away, the horse remaining behind usually experiences near panic. His protector is gone. He is alone and therefore the "target" of any predator who might happen by. His fear is real. Fear that escalates into panic can and often does cause the horse to do bodily harm to himself, such as run through a fence or kick a barn wall. The stronger the herd instinct, the more difficulty a rider will experience when riding with a group of horses, even horses that donít live together and have no herd history between them. There will be the horse that has to be in front on the trail, trusting only himself to act as sentry. There will be horses that, when forced to follow when they themselves would rather lead, will prance and whinny. As they jig down the trail, they find themselves left behind and their agitation increases, for now they are in the back of the herd, the most vulnerable position! This is not a problem with training. It is a problem with instinct!
The best way to deal with herd bound horses is to not allow it to occur at all. A lesson can be learned from observing the upbringing of the life long show horse. If herd bound is not allowed to form during those early years, it is less likely to be a problem later, so long as the horse is not given an opportunity to bond with a group. While many horse owners feel uncomfortable themselves when considering the options to diminish herd bound problems, depriving a horse of a herd experience is, in fact, the only way to prevent it or deal with it. Horse owners want to be kind to their beloved equine friends and feel a sense of well being themselves at watching the group of horses grazing together in a pasture, as nature intended. However, they pay for this generosity of spirit when they try to have a quiet trail ride, or take a pair of bonded horses to the same show, only to have them constantly scream and cry for one another!
Horses living in stalls with private turn out are unlikely to become herd bound. Horses can share neighboring pastures and actually "talk" to each other over a fence without necessarily becoming bonded. However, once they run together, a herd exists, the behavior is learned, and the problems can and often do develop.
As with anything a horse learns, the younger they are at the time they learn something, the better they learn it. An older horse that started his life on his own in a barn can often live with a herd in later life without becoming unduly attached. A horse that has once been solidly herd bound, will become so again with any opportunity.
While it may be difficult for the horse owner to get used to, horses are highly adaptable. Breaking the herd bound ties will be hard at first. Except lots of crying and fence running. But in time, the horse will adjust to his new situation and will probably become more focused on his human companion. After all, in the absence of an equine preferred associate and protector, human companionship becomes a much more important element in the horseís existence. A herd is as small a number as two. And a herd can be just your horse and you!