I’ve had enough fosters and rescues come through that I’ve noticed some patterns. We’re starting to understand horses’ emotional states a little better, and starting to recognize that getting moved around is hard on them. A herd animal finds safety and peace in a group. He depends on the group for survival. Getting passed around to different owners, auctions and barns is hard on them, because each time they have to adjust to a new herd, or even worse, being alone. It’s exhausting for them.
When a horse shows up to my barn for the first time, I find that they almost always look to me for emotional support since the herd always rejects the new guy at first. The horse needs a friend and a leader, and I’m that friend for the first few days. The only horses who don’t seek me out for emotional support are the ones that have issues with people and don’t equate people with anything safe or good. “Seeking me out” means meeting me at the gate, coming to stand by me, and coming back over to me when the herd runs them off. I’m better than no one, but they always prefer the herd.
Once they have a friend in the herd, even just one other horse, not the whole herd, they drop me like a hot potato. That’s the point when I have to start working at being their friend. This is usually accomplished through food. I’m the FOOD LADY. When I show up, buckets get filled, hay gets replenished, the buffet is served. The positive association changes from “this is my only friend in the world so she’ll do” to “this chick brings the chow.”
Within a week to ten days, the new horse has become a part of the herd, and is now accepted as a family member. Some horses take longer to warm up to a new guy, but in general after two weeks at the most, everyone is used to the new guy and he’s fitting in. This is the point when the new guy’s real personality begins to shine through.
A horse that comes in on his best behavior starts showing his true colors. You start to see who they really are, and where their gaps in training are, or what their triggers are. For example, a horse that at first was totally willing to be caught and follow me out of the pasture becomes hard to catch because he would much rather stay with his new friends than come with me. A horse that hopped right on the trailer now completely refuses to get near it.
With King, I’m seeing that he is what we call “herd bound.” He attaches himself to one horse in the herd and gets upset when he can’t be with that one horse. He was turned out with Baron at first, and would start to get upset if they were separated. For example, if Baron and King were both in stalls and Baron was let out first, King would have a little meltdown in his stall, pacing and whinnying because he couldn’t immediately follow. To discourage that kind of codependency, I turned him out with Voodoo instead and let him make a new friend. King just attaches himself to whomever he is turned out with. He’s not picky. He just wants a friend.
If I walk him away from the barn, he is so nervous he can’t settle down and graze. He looks back toward his friends and calls to them. You can’t blame him. He’s been through a lot. Who knows how many auctions he went through before he ended up in Sexton’s kill pen in Tennessee?
The other night we had two horses being ridden in the arena, so I took King in there and asked him to do some simple work- step on a pedestal and step over some cavaletti. No big deal, nothing strenuous. What I noticed is that he is well behaved and well trained, and outwardly he will do what he’s asked. He will comply. But inside he’s nervous. Even though he would do what I asked, his attention was only minimally on me.
You can imagine how people wind up in dangerous situations when they’re not taught to read a horse’s emotional state and body language. Had I tried to ride him last night (if he were fat enough to ride, which he’s not, but just hypothetically), it might have ended in disaster.
When another horse left the arena, he would have this big, overblown reaction where he would leap sideways like a big spook to show his distress at being left behind. He never pulled me around or got away from me, but he was in my space a bit and acting a little nutty.
In the past, I would have thought of this as a Training Problem That I Need to Fix. I would have thought there was some magical method or trick to break him of a bad habit. Now I realize he’s just insecure and needs to build confidence, and it’s not a training problem; it’s an emotional stability problem. He needs to calm down and realize he’s not being abandoned every time a horse walks away. That will come with time.
How we will overcome this is by slowly putting him in situations where horses are coming and going and he’s alone with me for short periods. We’ll walk into the yard until he relaxes enough to graze apart from the herd. We’ll go a little further each day. We’ll go into the arena alone. Little by little we’ll ask him to be confident away from the herd, but we won’t overload him and put him into a situation where he feels his only option is to bolt back to his friends. The trick is setting him up for success- asking for tiny tasks at first so that he is successful each time. The goal is not to perform any particular request (like standing on the pedestal) but to RELAX. All I’m looking for is relaxation.
To sum it all up, King is a well trained horse with a great disposition who tries to please his people. He just needs to gain some confidence.