Working with a herd
My first experience with horses living in herds was during my stay in Mongolia. I was following herds of Prezwalski horses or Tahki’s ,as they are called over there. We were staying in a base camp in the Hustai Nuruu nature reserve. Every day we would track down a herd and just follow it around and note down their behaviour. Although sometimes I would walk all day without finding any of the herds.
The oldest of the herds was quite used to people following it around and had their patterns: they would drink in the morning from a stream in the valley and then they would move to some “pancake rocks” higher up where they would hang out during midday, breezy and shaded. This was a big herd, with several mares and foals and a very scarred stallion ‘Kahn’, always standing alone and alert. Scarred from the many fights he had been in over the years.
The herd of ‘Patron’ was also well established in their territory, but not always easy to track down. This was a smaller herd and this year the only foal had died and the yearling of that mare did not have play companions. So one day I observed him trying to play with his grazing mother. She sort of ignored him jumping against her or biting her legs. But after 15 minutes she got fed up with this behaviour and told him off, teeth bared and half rearing up against him. She actually knocked him over and he ended up in a bit of a dip in the land. Both got really worried then and when he got himself out of his predicament he turned from bolshie boy into a foal and started drinking from her. Having just lost a foal meant she did have milk. For me it was just fantastic to see how the behaviour changed in the young one and also how the mother dealt with the bolshie boy.
Northern Ireland (2022)
To have the opportunity to not only observe but to work with a herd is so lovely. You really have to become one of them, still and in tune with all the horses. First I introduce myself to the heard leader and make clear what my intentions are: I am not taking one of his herd members away, I will not harm anybody, I do have my personal space he/she needs to respect. How long it takes to establish this, to gain the trust that I am OK depends. Depends on the horses in the herd, depends on what is going on around us. Most importantly it is not something I can direct or speed up, not if I want to integrate.
Here in Northern Ireland I just worked with a herd of two horses: Lady and Mollie. Lady is a coloured horse who has appointed herself as the leader and protector over Molly, the chestnut. Molly is totally fine with this arrangement. Molly knows me well from the ground work and bodywork I do with her. So I start out with observing them and move into the field. Both are curious and approach me and I extend my fist so they can sniff while I keep my distance. After the introduction Lady goes into her protector role and pins her ears at me, I immediately flick a rope I am carrying at her, to explain my space and that I will not be herded around by her. So she backs away taking Molly with her in a trot/gallop down the field.
I give them some time before I stroll down the field into their vicinity. Showing I am not going to catch or chase anybody. We move around a bit and I end up close to Molly. For a while Lady stands guard, but after 10 minutes decides I am OK, and starts grazing a few steps away. Up till now I needed to keep an eye on both horses, reading their body language, to stay safe. Now I can fully focus on Molly. She has had a bout of laminitis and has very stiff and sore shoulders. Her being so sore and with her reactive background I just hang the end of the rope over her neck for my safety. Also I started from a distance doing energy work before I actually put a hand on her. Now when my hand goes to her chest there is lots of teeth barring, but she does not move her feet! Then finally she lets go of loads of tension, becomes soft and starts to yawn big time. I stay with my hand in place and she takes a deep breath. So I step way, leaving a much happier horse. Together with vet, farrier and herbal medicines she will get through this.