Using Herd Dynamics in Horse Training


Guest post by Virginia Slachman.

Understanding horse herd behavior can help you make good training choices, rather than ones that will send your horse running for the hills.

There’s a lot to discuss about herd behavior and how that relates to our relationship with horses, but here I’m going to focus on one: Leadership.

Leadership is tightly linked to trust. We all know that horses are prey animals; herds are one means of helping them survive. Like any social organization, herd members have to get along and they need a leader—a horse they can trust to let them know when a predator is close so they can flee to safety.

So that’s where we come in. If you look at horse anatomy, you’ll see they’re literally built for survival—eyes at the sides of their heads positioned to see nearly 360 degrees, ears that can pivot individually to detect threatening sounds anywhere around them; an acute sense of smell; hoof floors that are convex to feel the vibrations of what might be approaching, and so on.

Now look at how we’re built—eyes facing forward, for instance. Like predators.

And that’s how horses view us, which means we somehow have to overcome that and convince them that we can be trusted and, more importantly, that we can be trusted to be their leader.

Photo Credit: D & Me

The two most important things to know about how being a prey animal and how horses exist in herds is

  1. Your horse must have a leader.
  2. Your horse will not form a relationship with you if you act in a predatory way.

A few words about this notion of “relationship.” There’s no doubt you can aggressively dominate your horse and get a compliant “dead head” in return—a horse who is clear that you are not interested in him expressing his opinion or acting in any way contrary to your wishes. Punishment and aggression can certainly create a compliant horse.

But that’s not the sort of horse I want, so if you’re more interested in a partnership then read on.

How to be a Leader

That’s job number one for us—we have to make sure we’re the herd leader in our little band of two. If we don’t, our horse will determine she needs to be the leader and you won’t get much done. And, you could well put yourself in danger.

So how do you gain the respect of your horse, establish yourself as the leader while not being severe or aggressive?

It’s pretty simple, really. Let’s start with two basic suggestions:

  1. Get to know your horse.

Hanging out with him without any agenda at all is a great way to start building a relationship, or re-establishing one if you two have gone off track.

You can do this in a round pen, an arena, the stall, or the pasture. It doesn’t matter—the point is to send the message that you’re not a threat, you’re not going to always insist on something from him, and you respect his identity and what he wants to do.

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Similar in function to this is massaging your horse. You’ll need to learn the safe way to do this, of course, because you can harm your horse if you don’t know what you’re doing. But laying your hands on your horse in a comforting, healing, loving way helps establish a trusting bond.

I’ve used massage on my horse, Dorian, to great effect. In fact, he worked through some incredible and buried trauma as a direct result of it. You can read about that here.

Take a look at the Masterson Method; it doesn’t take strength and it’s highly effective (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lNF3A7fqRU&t=291s). 

“T-Touch” is also a helpful way to interact on the ground (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SoOfVpYXFo).

2. Ground work.

I’m going to talk about three things here, and they’re rather interchangeable in terms of when you do what: partnership, desensitizing, helping your horse choose you as the leader.

Whatever order to you do these in I can’t stress enough how important groundwork is, both before and during your interactions under saddle.

Everything you do around your horse, to your horse, or with your horse sends her a very clear message.

Horses are incredibly intuitive; they can pick up how you’re feeling and thinking as well as what your intention is (see https://www.d-and-me.com/post/close-calm-contact for some research about this).

Because of this, you always want to send two messages simultaneously:

Respect and Expect

1) you respect who your horse is

2) you expect her to comply to your requests.

So how do you accomplish both?

Here are a few questions that will help answer that question.

When you lead your horse, do you stand at his shoulder and ask him to move forward or do you walk briskly ahead, lugging him behind?

One is partnering, while the other is an attempt to dominate. At least that’s how the horse will view it.

When you ask him to back up, do you whip the lead rope back and forth or sock him on the chest with your longe rope?

Or do you start with the smallest gesture and move forward with aids only as there is a need?

When you’re teaching a new skill—for example, asking your horse to come forward to you—do you stop and reward each attempt she makes? I mean even, at first, if she leans in your direction? Or do you yank on the lead rope until she complies?

You get the picture.

To establish a partnership with a horse that then moves  to become mutual respect resulting in you as the leader, requires that we put aside our own agenda, our own timing, our own insistence that our horses do what we want now.

To gain their respect, we first have to offer ours to them.

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And, if you try this out, you’ll see that your horse will chose to act as you wish, rather than plod mindlessly through whatever the task is.

That’s the “respect” part. The flip side of this coin is the “expect” part. You won’t truly get anywhere with your horse if you let them get away with what I call “faking the try.”

In other words, if you want your horse to back up, yes, definitely start with the least assertive gesture (coupled with your internal expectation that he do as you say), but in the event he refuses to back up, don’t be a wimp and let him get away with it.

This is the art of horse training—knowing when to reward and be patient, and when to assert your authority and back him up. If you’ve instilled in him that you do respect him, he’ll interpret this as leadership rather than predatory aggression.

Photo Credit: D & Me

So the question in the back of your mind is likely, “Yeah but they’re big animals so how can we make sure we’re both safe in the process?”

Desensitizing is, of course, a necessity. Horses can be startled by any number of things and their “flee” response can be dangerous if you’re in the path.

You can’t control for everything of course, but you can get them through their fear of your aids. And in doing that—in helping them see that they don’t have to be afraid of a long longe line whirling about them, for instance—you can help them take a step forward in trusting you, too.

This, though, I suggest, can only be done after you’ve established at least an initial, respectful partnership.

People do lots of things to desensitize horses. Flags or flapping plastic bags tied to the end of a longe rope. A lead line flung around the back legs, front legs, and back. There’s a ton of things you can do, any of them with respect and any of them rather aggressively.

Which approach do you think, in the long run, will be more productive?

My suggestion in terms of what you elect to do here is—again—know your horse. My guy, Dorian, for example, can’t tolerate a flapping flag on the end of a stick. He’s an ex-racehorse and pretty sensitive, so it just isn’t a productive way to train him.

But because I took my time in desensitizing him, and took very small steps, I can now whirl a rope in a circle over his head, flash a plastic bag to and fro in front or above him, thrash a lead rope into the dirt all around him, gently circle his legs and back with a rope, and any number of other exercises he doesn’t blink an eye at.

And to boot, he now loves encountering new things on trails or in obstacle courses.

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So see how sensitive your horse is. What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another.

And again, I’ve found a huge amount of praise for even the least moment of aids’ toleration at the beginning does wonders and speeds up the whole process.

After you’ve established a respectful partnership and maybe done some desensitizing, you’ve gone a long way down the road to becoming the leader.

The essential part of your horse choosing to be with you, and choosing you as the leader—can be effected in a lot of ways, some of which I’ve noted already. Pirelli games are another thing you might investigate if your horse is smart and gets bored easily.

To use a round pen to do this, essentially you stand in the center quietly and drive your horse around the enclosure by your mental intention and use of aids, turn him, and get him to continue moving, until he stops and turns to you.

Then you turn a shoulder away from him (non-predatory), and wait.

He should eventually decide you are worth trusting as the leader and walk up to stand respectfully at your back or shoulder. That, essentially, is what the exercise looks like. Monty Rogers has a ton of videos about this if it appeals to you.

Remember, in the wild, horses use their speed to flee from predators. In the round pen, a horse will usually have about a quarter of a mile “flee distance” before he stops (Dorian’s distance is longer because he’s a Thoroughbred, and there are other breeds that also have different flee distances). 

You running him around the round pen can mimic this flee response, rather than normal herd behavior where the leader moves the follower horses. At least that’s my take on this exercise.

You want to be the herd leader, not the predator, so I would stress to be really aware of the message you’re sending when you drive your horse.

For example, don’t charge him if he doesn’t comply with your request. Don’t thwap him with a longe whip on the rump.

Rather, send a serious mental intention while perhaps snapping a longe line behind him. Urge him forward as the lead mare might do, and expect and insist he comply—but don’t act like you’re going to eat him alive.

It’s true, what I’ve outlined here takes a lot longer, a lot more finesse, and a lot more patience than other means of using herd dynamics to establish leadership. But I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to have a partnership with Dorian, and the other horses I’ve worked with, rather than establishing aggressive dominance that leaves little room for the true individuality of the horse to shine through

But that’s just my two cents.

Whatever you chose to do, the main thing to remember about herd behavior is that horses have very different psyches than we do because they’re prey animals. They want a leader, they need a leader, and they will choose you to lead them.

But only if you earn it.

Virginia Slachman is a devoted advocated for retired racehorses; read about her journey with her own OTTB Corredor dela Isla (Dorian) here. She’s worked for years with ex-racehorses in one way or another—caring for them, rehabbing or retraining them for new careers, and writing about them for equine magazines. She’s also the author of a murder mystery set on a Thoroughbred breeding farm (see https://www.virginiaslachman.com/novel) with a second mystery in the series coming out soon.


3 Comments

  1. Reese
    June 13, 2019 / 4:03 pm

    This was a great post! It was all inclusive and just what I needed to hear! Thanks Virginia

  2. July 11, 2019 / 8:01 am

    This is so awesome because I was talking to a client about this yesterday. I was explaining that in the horse world, the most violent or aggressive horse is not necessarily the leader. People who gain their horse’s submission by fear tend to lose their horse as soon as something else is more scary to the horse than their rider. But riders who gain their horse’s partnership through trust are able to ask anything of their horse in any situation because the horse believes that their leader would never put them in a dangerous situation. You did a great job of explaining this concept! Thank you.

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