Horses Living as a Herd
As a child, I grew up on a small acreage which most of my suburban friends referred to as a ‘farm’. I knew it wasn’t a farm in the real sense of the word, but we did have horses–everyone’s favorite farm animal. We had a number of different horses over the years, but we always kept them as a herd, with 24/7 turnout.
Herd. I never really thought much about that word back then. They were just horses living in a pasture. . . (And life with horses sure seemed simple then too!)
When my husband and I got married nearly sixteen years ago, it was our dream to buy some land out in the country–maybe even have a real ‘farm’. I was hoping for maybe ten acres, but we ended up with thirty! It was bare land when we bought it–no fences, no house, no barns. As we started our planning, I quickly realized that 30 acres was too much for the two horses I had at the time. So we fenced off about a five acre section and turned the horses out.
As the years went on, the number of horses grew. Naturally, with so much land available, I decided I needed two pastures! I neatly divided my horses up–usually putting the mares in one pasture and the geldings in the other. This seemed to work well and every horse always had at least one buddy to live with.
Then, about a year and a half ago, after reading Joe Camp’s book, The Soul of a Horse, I was once again reminded of that term I’d thought very little about in recent years–herd. I wondered, why couldn’t my horses live all together as a herd?
Of course, I knew the real reason this word made me nervous–Hershey. He hasn’t always been known for being a friendly fellow (with other horses, anyways). Would the other horses be safe living with Hershey? I wanted to at least give it a try though.
I didn’t throw them together all at once–it was a slow process– but as it turned out, I had worried for nothing. My two mares and two geldings got along perfectly fine.
They all seemed quite happy about their new living arrangements and it became a joy to watch my little herd move and play together out in the pasture.
When I lost Bob in December of 2013, I worried how the rest of the herd would react. It was now just Hershey and the two mares, Lee Lee and Kady. They banded together though and continued to live happily as a herd of three. (I do know that Hershey would likely have been terribly distraught if Bob had died when it was just the two of them pastured together.)
And of course, as many of you know, I bought a new horse in the fall of last year. I was careful to introduce McCoy slowly (over a period of about 2 weeks), but the others accepted her without much commotion. I now have a happy herd of four once again!
When keeping horses as a herd, many of their natural instincts take over. There is, of course, a natural pecking order. Hershey is the dominant horse (no surprise there!) He’s followed by Lee Lee, McCoy, and then Kady (my eldest). I find it fascinating to watch them interact though.
To some of you, keeping horses in a herd is just a no-brainer, I’m sure. It’s how many old-times have always kept their horses. But this may be a foreign concept to others and I know it’s not always possible in boarding situations. But if it’s within your means, and you haven’t thought of keeping your horses as a herd, here are some good reasons to reconsider. . .
Movement: When living in a group, horses tend to move more. The dominant horse will usually set the pace for movement and the others will either be herded or will move to keep up with him or her. (I’ve observed this to be true both in a paddock paradise track system and in the pasture.) When I had just two horses living together in a pasture, they moved some, but not nearly as much as they do now.
Security: We know that horses are prey animals. This is why they naturally live in groups in the wild. Even though our domestic horses may not face the same dangers that a feral herd would, all horses feel more secure in a group. A horse that doesn’t feel secure in his environment will be stressed (and have elevated cortisol levels). This has been documented in numerous studies. And stressed horses are more prone to health issues such as ulcers and colic, not to mention stable vices such as cribbing (which leads to my next topic–health).
Health: A few years ago, I wrote an article about stabled horses being more likely to experience colic. As stated before, horses living outside in a herd tend to move more and they also eat in a more natural fashion–so again, they are less likely to suffer from some of the same issues that plague their stabled counterparts. Even on large pastures, I believe herd dynamics help to prevent problems such as laminitis. This is not to say it never happens–there can be other factors involved, but here are just a couple of examples of healthy horse herds that back up this theory:
Natural Sleeping Patterns: Horses only need about 2 or 3 hours of sleep per day. They often ‘doze’ while standing for short periods throughout the day, but in order to reach REM sleep, they must lie down. A horse will only lie down if it feels safe–and again, this goes back to security. In a herd, you may often notice that all the horses will lie down together except one. This, too, is a natural behavior and that horse who is standing acts as a ‘sentinel’ horse, keeping guard.
Of course, all of the topics I’ve listed above are really intertwined and they all ultimately lead back to health. I really feel that letting our horses live as a herd is an important component in keeping them healthy and happy.
I know there will be arguments against allowing domesticated horses to live as a herd. Many people don’t have the space and others worry that their performance horse will get injured if allowed to live this way. Still some don’t have enough horses to make a herd! It’s a personal choice. But it’s one I think deserves consideration, especially if you are interested in giving your horses the most natural lifestyle that you can.
For more information on the importance of the horse herd, I recommend this article.