Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Help! My horse is herd bound!

I’ve been thinking and reading, reading and thinking, and after five or so years of riding Copper I have finally connected all the dots – my horse is extremely herd bound.

The reason it’s taken me so long to pick this up is because he doesn’t exhibit the typical behaviors you’d expect in a herd bound horse – behaviors that Joey showed.  Copper doesn’t whinny longingly or loudly, he doesn’t refuse to go out on trail rides alone, he doesn’t pace around looking for his herd, or anything like that. 

But last night I had an epiphany – Copper’s herd bound-ness manifests itself in different ways.

1. He always drags his feet when you go to catch him and bring him in from the paddock. He has the slowest walk ever; he’s coming, but he will move like molasses on a cold day. He always has the grumpiest face while you bring him in, groom and saddle – in fact the only time he doesn’t look cranky while you have him out is when you feed him.  Naturally. 

I have checked his bridling, his saddle, his feet – I don’t think he is in pain, and for me, the biggest indicator is that it isn’t pain related is that his gear has been changed and refitted over the years, but his behavior hasn’t changed. It’s gotten worse.

I could be wrong about the pain thing, but I am always looking out for that, and I think the problem is bigger than that.  I think it’s a mental thing. Pain problems are easy to solve, mind problems are not.

2. He races under saddle. He has always been like this. The minute you hop into the saddle he is off, off and away! He doesn’t like standing still for mounting, he wants to run/trot as fast as he can whether you are trail riding with other horses or alone, or schooling in the arena, or jumping – whatever you are doing in the saddle, Copper is fast.

In the past I attributed this speed to his racing history.  He was trained as a trotter for at least six years (he was foaled in Sept, 2000 and his last registered race was 2006), and that sort of conditioning will impact a horse’s personality. So I assumed that he just like racing and running.

Now? I’m not so sure. I think that Copper is simply trying to get the riding over as fast a possible so that he can run back to his herd.

3. He likes to bolt off when you un-halter him in the paddock. This didn’t used to be the case; after I leased him out and got him back unexpectedly, he started this habit. Previously, he’d just amble back to wherever the herd was, but now 90% of the time he’ll take off at a gallop.  I turn him to toward the fence and get him to tuck his nose in and down towards me when I slip the halter off, but he is really good at turning on a dime and – excuse the French – pissing off like a bat outta hell.

These are the three main reasons I have come to the conclusion that he is, in essence, herd bound.

What do I do?

I don’t think it is my riding – I am willing to admit that we have had our share of struggles. I have really had to adjust my riding so that I am not pulling on his face, and I try very hard to control his speed with my seat.

We have been working together a lot better than previously – I have been using lateral work to switch his mind from “Charge! Forwards ho!” to “Oh, I have to think about which foot goes where.”  This has been working really well for calming him down and slowing down his trot and canter without hanging on to his face.

BUT if the underlying problem is not just “Speed is fun!  Whee!” like I thought it was, then all of these techniques aren’t really addressing Copper’s main problem.  He doesn’t feel safe away from his herd and he does NOT enjoy riding, like I thought he did.

Oh help. I guess I’m going to have to do a lot more reading and thinking, because I haven’t the foggiest clue how to go about reaching Copper and changing his mindset.

I don’t know if ground work is the answer, or maybe riding him out on trail rides and dismounting and feeding him in the middle of the ride? I really don’t know what to do at this stage, but I’m not giving up on trying to find a solution.

See, in the end, I think that Joey and Copper actually have/had similar problems. But Joey was at least willing to communicate and reach out, whereas Copper is very shut off. How do you open up lines of communication when your horse doesn’t want to talk to you? How do you begin to show them that work is good and fun and safe?

So many questions that I don’t have the answers too… I think I’m going to write a letter to Mugwump.  I need help.

See ya,


1 comment:

  1. Oof, that's a tough one! My horse gets pretty herd bound in the spring time (he's really into all the pretty mares ...), and it can affect his focus and confidence. I work a lot with him on paying attention to me. Part of that is on the ground: going on long exploratory walks (where he has to rely on me for confidence), working on following my steps, backing, and halting. Part of it is under saddle: Demanding focus from him for short periods of time, then resting and praising.

    It's a long process. Mugwump is a great resource, I'd certainly write to her!


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