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.

 

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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!

 

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Hershey and his mares

 

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.

 

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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).

 

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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.  

 

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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.

 

Ta-ta,

Casie

 

 

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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6 Responses

  1. AnneMarie says:

    Dear Casie,

    You are so right about this!
    Even though I have an ‘inverted’ herd with 3 geldings and 1 mare, they are one little family together… I will always notice the difference between the 3 boys together though as they were living together for more than 6 years before the mare joined them, but still she will find the time to divide her company with each of them in a row 😉

    My eldest one, who is head of the herd, is now almost 19 and not in very good health, he regularly lets the 3 others to be together while he stays behind… almost as to make them get used to be without him!
    It is amazing how these herd dynamics show between them!

    • Casie says:

      Thanks for sharing, AnneMarie. Isn’t it interesting how they interact with one another? I could watch them all day. 🙂

  2. Mary says:

    Love the article, but there are exceptions to the rule. The alpha horse who disrupts the entire herd constantly. We had a mare who would herd up the mares, force them into a corner of the pasture and wouldn’t let them out of there to graze or go to water at their leisure. They hated her. She would go butt to butt with any challenger and chew them up. We had to keep her separated, but next to the herd pasture. Accidentally one day, she got into the gelding pasture and the geldings wouldn’t tolerate her bossiness. Put her in her place. She buddied up with a former stallion and would “dog” him. Follow him any where and he was plain annoyed by her. She claimed him and would chase away any gelding that came close. Eventually, she was accepted by the herd and wasn’t so bossy. Now she’s so old (32), we worry about putting her in with the younger mares, because they will beat her up. We still separate mares and geldings, because there is such a fuss when one mare claims the geldings or vice versa. If we had more wide open spaces here, we would consider putting them out together. But they are all in small herds and quite happy with the arrangement.

    • Casie says:

      I understand that sometimes there are exceptions. Fences and smaller spaces definitely make things more difficult. I was terrified for many years to turn out any new horse with my gelding, Hershey, who is the dominant horse in the group. But I learned that if I made the transition slowly, things turned out just fine. Having at least one buddy is better than none, but what I love best about keeping all of mine together now is that they move quite a bit more as a herd of four.

  3. Jill O'Brien says:

    Enjoyed your article/s. From a childhood ‘dream’ horse person, and only ever seeing horses in paddocks, I am lucky to have about 60 acres and 6 horses, with a few goats looking after the property. Over the past 15yrs we have had the odd horse come and go, but in each case they were geldings. Things changed when I first introduced a mare, but one of my oldies is a true caring gentleman (always used for introducing new furbabies) always minded how she was treated. Then came a small, and young, gelding that had recently been a working stallion, and, the same time a slightly younger gelding, but big and full of play. Initially, separation was essential, but I introduced each one slowly until they each figured out where they all stood, and giving the young ex-stallion time to realise his new job and it’s taken 2 years but they all now run happily together in a herd. I love watching them interact. Although I do feed a simple ‘treat sized’ meal at night and share varying amounts (according to season and pasture condition) of hay, amongst all 6 and 9 goats. The 3 oldies 20, 27 & 28, regulate the space between the two young frisky ones and the mare stands guard some of the time, but also prefers the comfort of old General – she will most certainly miss him when his time is up.

    • Casie says:

      Thanks for sharing, Jill. There’s nothing I love more than watching my herd interact with each other. 🙂

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