In the beginning…
Since bringing Sunny and Stella home almost a year ago, I’ve learned a great deal about herd dynamics and how horses make friends. In the beginning, I wouldn’t have called them “friends”. In fact, it took Stella a little while to really warm up to Sunny. Stella had quite a bit of “herd” experience – she spent the first six years of her life running with a little band at her breeder’s farm.
She’d also spent the last year and a half as part of a mixed herd over at Slatehill, where I had taken her when she was recovering from her bout with ulcers. While there, she learned a lot about how to work your way up from the bottom of the pecking order.
Sunny, on the other hand, had spent very little time as a member of a herd. Up until she came to me, I’m not sure if she’d been turned out with many other horses at all. She spent a number of years as the paddock-mate for my old gelding, Nico before he passed away, and then had a string of buddies. But in that time she’d never really learned about herd dynamics, and wasn’t savvy to the nuances of herd life.
I remember having this dream that Sunny and Stella would become the best of friends. That they would spend their days grooming one another, or lying down side by side to nap. For the first six months, that didn’t really happen. In fact, for the first two or three months, I spent the majority of my time wondering if Stella was ever going to stop picking on Sunny.
Let me explain.
As I mentioned, Sunny didn’t really understand the intricacies of herd behaviour. It was obvious from the start that Stella would take on the role of “boss mare” – she’s young, fast, and exceedingly watchful. That pony never misses a trick. Sunny, on the other hand, is old, slow, and more keen on her hay than what’s going on outside the paddock. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
But Sunny was desperate for Stella’s friendship. So when she would wander into Stella’s personal space, she didn’t understand the subtle signs to get out, like a tip of the ear or a shake of the head. So Stella would then have to revert to more obvious signals (ie a bite or a kick – never connecting, just threatening), and Sunny would run off.
The entire scene, to the untrained eye, looked as though Stella was bullying. You had to watch very, very closely to see that there had been a ramp-up to the “violence”. Stella would have given Sunny at least three chances before losing her patience and making a point. It took me many, many hours of sitting quietly in the corner of the paddock on an overturned bucket watching them to figure this out.
This behaviour went on for months. Slowly but surely Sunny figured out the signs, and got better at staying on Stella’s good side. Her efforts were eventually rewarded. There was utter jubilation here at the farm the first time we saw the two mares grooming one another (one of the surest signs of what can almost be called “friendship” in horses). Life on the farm became peaceful and orderly. There was rarely a scuffle, and Stella really seemed to be enjoying her role as Sunny’s care-taker. She never left her alone in the stables, always waited for her to make her way out to the fields, and stayed pretty close to her whenever they grazed.
Then we upset the apple cart. Q came home.
Q is a lovely little quarter horse mare I used to ride and show. If people and horses can be soul mates, she’s mine. And when her owner, Sheila, reached out to me to tell me that she needed to find a new situation for Q, I happily said we would take her.
A few things about Q: she’s twenty-six years old, she’s a chestnut mare, and she has never been a fan of other horses. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an absolute sweetheart of a horse and I love her dearly. She’s snuggly, she’s friendly, and she’s always a barn favourite wherever she goes. But she does not tolerate other horses in her space.
We started her out with her own separate part of the dry paddock, opening up into the adjoining small grass field that used to be my riding ring. She was able to sniff and even touch Sunny and Stella over the fence (and they seemed fascinated by her – mind you, they hadn’t seen another horse since they’d moved home almost a year earlier, so maybe they were desperate for some excitement). There was a little squealing and stamping at the fence line, as we had expected, and then everyone settled and went back to grazing, and for a while, all was quiet and well.
Time to open the gates…
A couple days later we decided it was time to let Q out into the fields with Sunny and Stella. We’d taken out all of the temporary fencing that we used to divide up the two acre field for rotation in the summer, so the three would have plenty of room to get away from one another if things went awry. We let Q out through the gate and watched with bated breath.
It was the most anti-climatic introduction I’ve ever seen.
Q wandered out into the field, explored the fence line, and settled in to graze. Sunny and Stella slowly walked over to join her, gave her a few sniffs and started grazing right alongside her. They spent the next few hours hanging out together. They came up into the paddock, had a little munch at the hay feeder, got drinks and had rolls in the stalls, and got along like they’d known each other their whole lives.
We congratulated ourselves and our horses for a successful integration, and went on with our lives.
That is, until the next day.
The next day started out just fine. Morning feeding was uneventful, and it looked like it would be another idyllic day in the pasture until, at one point, I looked out and saw Q nervously walking the fence line and Sunny and Stella standing guard by the gate.
See, along with the big field, we also have two smaller, fenced-in grass paddocks. One was the paddock Q had started out in when she first came, and the other, a little smaller, was fenced off separately from the rest and was used in the paddock rotation plan in the summer. Looking back on things, I should have closed that paddock off because it started to dawn on me in that moment that it was the perfect place for a new horse to get trapped by an overzealous head mare – which is exactly what was happening now.
Sunny and Stella had Q trapped in the paddock, and try as she might, they would not let her by. Out I stomped, lunge whip in hand. To this point, I’d been happy to let them sort things out by themselves, but I was not going to stand for needless bullying. I hollered at Stella (who, above all, knows that I’m the real head mare), and chased her out of the paddock. Sunny soon followed, and poor Q, tired and worried, stuck to me like glue as I sorted out mares and closed off paddocks.
I wanted to separate them at that point, but knew that these scuffles were all a part of figuring out the pecking order. Once everyone had settled (and the gates to the small paddocks had been closed), I left them again to their own devices (keeping a close watch from the house). All seemed well.
Or was it?
Day three is when things really fell apart. Sunny and Stella managed to intimidate Q to the point that she would not even come in from the field to the paddock to have a drink of water or a bite of hay. Enough was enough. The fence went back up separating Q’s paddock area from the rest, and Q seemed content to have her own space back.
We tried one more time over the next couple of weeks to integrate Q into the herd, but it seems it really just wasn’t meant to be. Once Q overcame her fear of Stella, she turned into the boss mare from hell, and became an utter bully to Sunny (and if you know me at all, you know that the last horse in the world that you would ever want to be mean to is my darling Sunny). That was the final straw.
I had fallen into the trap of listening to others instead of my gut. Everything I was seeing told me that Q would be perfectly happy being an “over the fence friend” to Sunny and Stella. She’d never been a herd member, and I truly believe she kind of likes it that way.
But everything I’d read ensured me that horses do best, psychologically speaking, in herd situations. Most of the people I talked to told me to just let them sort it out and eventually everything would be fine. And I did still have that picture in my head of my three mares being a sweet little herd together.
At the end of the day, though, you have to do what you know to be truly best for your horses. And for my horses? That meant giving them each a safe, happy space in which to thrive. There is peace in the paddocks once more, and we all seem to have settled back into a nice, quiet routine.
Peace in the Paddocks.
Last night I went out late to check on the girls. They were dozing sleepily in the paddock, side-by-side. I think I woke them up, and Stella softly nickered to me as I came over to pet them. But for two thin strips of electrified poly-tape, they were a herd. They seemed happy and secure. All was well in their little world, and the fact that a fence was separating them didn’t seem to matter to them at all.
Looks like it’s true after all. Good fences really do make good neighbours.
Do your horses live in a herd? Or, like Q, do they prefer their own space? I’d love to hear about your own experiences with herd dynamics!