I met up with a friend I'd not seen for a while over the weekend. She was grumbling that now summer is finally here and she's able to turn her horse out 24/7, she's having terrible trouble catching him. During the winter time and in bad weather the horse lives inside most of the time with just a couple of hours each day spent out in a small paddock with one companion. When the weather is better more turn out is available and the horses live out in a small herd of eight or so. There isn't a huge amount of grass on the fields and the horses are all given a small, supporting amount of hard feed when they come in to be groomed together with a small haynet.
Another of my friends is a natural horsemanship practitioner and she offered an explanation for turn out troubles. The secret lies in the horse's inbuilt herd instinct. Wild horses are prey animals. They spend their whole lives living in a herd environment with the safety of others around them. The only time they will be separated from their herd is when they become injured or are too weak or slow to keep up through natural ageing. Sometimes a stroppy young colt may be driven away for a short period by the dominant stallion until he learns his place. Modern domesticated horses can only find true relaxation and peace of mind when they are part of a safe, well-established group of horses and unfortunately this happens all too infrequently.
We do peculiar things to our horses. We stable them for long periods of time or turn them out alone in small paddocks; no wonder anxiety sets in and health issues result (see my article on equine gastric ulcer syndrome). Wild horses do not exhibit behaviours such as crib biting, weaving or windsucking; only "captive" horses do this which in itself speaks volumes.
In the herd, each horse has a different place in the pecking order. Each member of the herd has his or her own personality, just like we do. Some enjoy being sociable and often have one special friend with whom they spend the majority of their time, virtually grazing on the same blade of grass! Others are more aloof and solitary; some are bad tempered and inclined to fight whilst many just want to get their heads down and graze as soon as they reach the field gate. Many owners complain that their horses become overexcited and drag them out to the field; hardly surprising when you consider that their happiest place is within their herd.
Horses who trust their human and see them as herd leader are the easiest to catch. They feel just as safe with their owner as they do with the herd. Many horses who have had a bad experience in the stable will probably always be difficult to catch. Horses have good memories and unfortunately always remember the bad experiences rather than the good. As prey animals, this is perfectly natural as in the wild it helps them to survive. New horses bring learnt behaviours with them and this can be a pain if one of those behaviours is galloping around the field until you give up trying to catch them. It may take a couple of months to bond with your new horse and you must be methodical and stick to a routine. Horses are very much creatures of habit. If your horse knows exactly when he will be turned out with his chums each day, he will feel confident and relaxed. If his turn out time varies daily and sometimes he doesn't go out at all, his anxiety levels may rise and problems catching him may well appear. If you have to have your horse stabled for long periods, try to ensure that he has company he can see. When the farrier or vet is due it's a good idea to make sure he's not the only horse waiting inside in the barn. Try to arrange for another horse to be stabled opposite so that he has a friend to look at. When it's time to go out again, turn them out together rather than leaving one behind to wait his turn.
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