Thursday, July 23, 2009


Chance with his other herd boss.

Mom, how do I look?


Are you sure--this shirt's not too baggy?

Looks great.

Are you just saying that....did you even look?

Life with a teenager is never dull. Besides amusing and frustrating, parenting a teen can be quite enlightening. It's given me opportunity to reflect on my own teenage years (much of which I've tried to forget, actually). In my son I remember my own battle with insecurity and self-esteem at a time when my body seemed to betray me (I would learn this was only the first time; more betrayal was to come). While I have grown out of much of the youthful angst and drama the deep need to be accepted, to be thought well of, follows me into adulthood--"Herd dynamics."
As I've mentioned before, horses are never apathetic about The Herd. They live and die obsessed with this social structure. It's really more necessary to their health than food and water. In the wild the safety of a horse hinges on his place in a herd situation. This makes perfect sense. An attacking cougar, say, is best fended off with the help of a few friends. Especially when one is lower on the food chain. But domestic horses have a different reality, right? It is the faithful Master who feeds, waters, blankets in cold, fly sprays in heat, tends to tender tootsies, trains, loves, and otherwise is obsessed, exhausted, or bankrupt on any given day. But enough about me. This fact should have some relevance for even the most dim-witted equid, right? Wrong. Herd dynamics are no less critical for a backyard pony then they are for a Mustang surviving on the plains. At least from the horse's point of view.
I have found the greatest satisfaction as a trainer when I can affect this equine trait on a deep level; change the horses natural tendency. When the horse and I reach a place where we are first, last, and always our own herd of two. Regardless of whether I ride past a field of attractive horses nickering for attention, ask my horse to leave his best buddy for a few hours, or even trailer to a strange location. The horse remains okay--ixnay on the whinnying hysterically. My horse Tango is this way. He seems to understand, at some level, that I "have his back." This is quite literally true--how could I forget about him when I'm sitting on him! Eli is also coming along nicely in this respect. We aren't totally there yet but he looks to me more and more for direction. In time I feel his trust in me will be complete. Chance is another story. Life with human beings has taken its toll on him. For all the progress we have made this horse's trust remains fragile. And that's on a good day. On a bad day forget about it. His bond to the rider disappears like dust in the wind. In short, the herd--what "they" think and are doing at any particular moment--is a near constant obsession for this horse. When Chance is in this place mentally he can be dangerous. An example of this last occurred last weekend when I took him on a trail ride in the hills near my home. I knew the ride might be interesting but decided it would be good for him.
I was pleased that after some initial whinnying and postering amidst the 30 or so other horses milling around, Chance settled down--Look at me; I'm the man; You like me?; Check this out; Hey, nobody cares.....We left with the first large group and I put Chance in the back, behind a big Tennessee Walker. He was a tad nervous--I wonder what that horse thinks of me; Am I dominant here?--but willing to walk. Then he began hearing the sounds of the other group, just out of sight in the trees behind us. He began to get jiggy, pulling on the bit, jumping in the bushes and mostly ignoring the fact that there was a rider on his back. I waited until the single track trail opened onto a wider road and pulled him out of the ride. At that moment I believe I saw his small brain sprout wings and fly off into the blazing sun overhead. We entered full meltdown as he watched his new "best friends" disappear into the trees again. I wondered how it was that so quickly he could forget entirely about me--his rider and faithful buyer of premium hay, veterinary care and horse treats. Did he recall the hours I spent working on his trailer loading so he could become confidant and not utterly terrified? Did he remember how I quite literally plucked him out of a field neglected and starving? Not a chance, for this Chance.
Summoning what was left of my last nerve, I focused on regaining his attention. Eventually (with much sweat on both our parts) I got obedience and a bit of his brain back. We were able to rejoin a party of riders and finish the ride without further tantrums.
Being herd bound, or herd "sour," is not just annoying it potentially life-threatening for the horse and/or rider. A good friend found this out recently when her herd bound gelding tore out of the trailer she was attempting to load him into, nearly running over her. On his mad dash to get back to his "friends" he ran down a busy highway. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
A person can live their entire life a slave to herd dynamics--hoping to gain favor, respect, acceptance, self-esteem and purpose solely from other human beings. Personally, I'd like to find all that with the Master. A herd of two is security enough for me.
A note to followers and lurkers (I appreciate each and every one of you that bother to read my random ramblings): I am leaving for Maui and will happily neglect this blog for the next two weeks. After which I'll be back, fresh with Aloha and(hopefully) tales of horse culture in Hawaii.


Jonna said...

Hi Catherine- That's funny that both our blogs were on this subject! SOunds like you have a challenging one on your hands. I am working on Maggie and gaining her trust. She isn't very hed bound , which is surprising for a mare but definitely hasn't had to look to the person for comfort yet. I found that during our round pen work, we starting building some bridges in that direction.Now, we have moved on to waking long walks together, in hand , grazing and grooming along the way. She really seems to enjoy it.Good luck with your horse. I am sure you will get there

Jonna said...

Oh- I almost forgot. I thought I would link up to your site on my site, if you don't mind.

Catherine said...

Hi Jonna. Thanks for reading! Yes, i also thought it was funny that we both posted on herd dynamics. Chance was a rescue and his emotional/training issues have been extensive. He retains some issues related (I think) to isolation and neglect/improper handling exacerbated by being a stud most of his life(he's been a gelding for a year and a half). I have hope he will get beyond this. Good luck with you mare; she's a beauty. Btw, I would love to have you link to my blog. Thanks.