Is Your Horse ‘Herd Sour’ or ‘Buddy Bound’?

Is Your Horse ‘Herd Sour’ or ‘Buddy Bound’?

Is Your Horse ‘Herd Sour’ or ‘Buddy Bound’?

Horses are herd animals by nature. They will always choose to be with ‘their herd’ when they feel uncomfortable or worried about something. And this can become a big problem for riders. This is partially due to training and development requiring both horse and rider to ‘get out of their comfort zone’. Your horse’s past training or experiences can also play a big role in how he responds or feels about leaving his ‘herd’…

And whether you need to build your horse’s confidence in himself and you, or focus on retraining him regarding his expectations and yours, it will require time, patience, and consistency to overcome.

And a ‘herd’ does not have to mean a whole field full of horses frolicking and running wild in open pastures. It can mean this, but it doesn’t have to! Your horse’s ‘herd’ can be him, his horse friend, and the donkey they share the field with. It can be the one horse he lives ‘beside’ most of the time, in the neighbouring stable or paddock. Or, your horse’s ‘herd’ can also be the two goats he lives with full-time in the small paddock.

Horses, being social creatures, will ‘bond’ with whoever they spend most of their time with. And once your horse has bonded, it can become quite the performance when you try to separate him from his ‘herd’…

What’s Triggering the ‘Herd Sour’ & ‘Buddy Bound’ Feelings?

The first thing to do is to recognize when this is predominately happening. Is it the moment you take him out of the paddock and he realizes his ‘buddy’ is not joining him? Or is it when other horses are ridden away from him and he’s left alone on the trail or the track? It could be when he is asked to leave the other horses, such as going into an arena on his own while others stay at the stables or in the practice area.

The clearer you can get on defining when exactly your horse begins to act up or become anxious, the more direct you can be in your approach to helping your horse overcome this.

One of the most important things you can do for both of you is to identify potential triggers. This way you can plan ahead so that you are doing all you can to remain safe. And your horse is as supported or corrected at the times he needs this most. I say supported or corrected because, sometimes, this can develop when a horse realizes that if he ‘performs’ a little, he will be allowed to return home, no questions asked.

As a rider, it’s your responsibility to figure out if your horse is truly worried and anxious, or if he has just found an easy way to get back to his friends and not have to ‘work’…

Past Experience and Training

Most of the things your horse does, or doesn’t do, are learned. The thing with being herd sour or buddy bound is that it can both be learned – and something can also be naturally instinctual for your horse. Both will require your time and attention to remedy. But, before you begin, consider your horse’s history and experiences up to this point…

Many horses that are bred for a specific purpose will have similar experiences, like thoroughbreds that raced for example. Most are bred at stud farms where they spend their earlier years with other horses around the same age. As they move into pre-training, the same will apply. They often get ridden out together, turned out together, put on the walker or exerciser together, etc. And then, if they make it to an actual trainer, this becomes even more true. Their ‘job’ requires them to ‘keep up with the herd’…

In these situations, slow and specific planned retraining needs to happen to help your horse understand the new expectations – and feel confident about meeting them.

It can be a bit of a culture shock if they find themselves starting their 2nd career as a ‘pleasure horse’ and are suddenly expected to see their rider as their confidant..! The rider is the one they should trust and want to be with all of the time, right? Well, that is how the rider sees it – but more often than not, their horse does not agree!
This is also true for horses who have had little to no handling either recently or ever! They must learn how to build a partnership with a human where they feel confident and happy – even in more tricky situations.

Developing the Bond or Partnership

A good solid relationship requires trust – and trust can take time to build. Trust is knowing what to expect and having that happen, again and again. Get clear on your expectations first. How are you expecting your horse to behave or respond? Once you’re clear on your expectations, the next responsibility is effectively and clearly communicating them to your horse.

Keep in mind, that your horse also has certain expectations of his own behaviour and his responses as well. This is even before we consider what he expects from you!

I think that groundwork is really essential here in this part of the training for you and your horse. But not just random ambling around the yard and grooming. Specific exercises that focus on specific outcomes for both of you. Later, when there is a stronger bond, I am all for ‘ambling’ together. But if your horse has been showing signs of being herd sour or buddy-bound, this might not be the safest way to connect initially.

Start with grounding and really getting clear on your own actions and intentions. From here, begin to notice how your horse responds to you and your different aids.

Curiosity is essential in all good relationships, so get curious about your horse! What does he understand? What is he unsure of. Which aids does he seem to prefer or work better with? And how can you use what he already knows, either learned or instinctual, to better explain different or new things to him?

Who Do You Trust?

Thinking that you can spend an hour a week ‘working on this’ and then revert back to your usual self the rest of the time won’t work! In fact, this way of showing up is not just unrealistic, it’s madness! Think about people you trust and feel confident to both be with and follow if necessary. I can bet that they all have a few traits in common. Things like being reliable, consistent, even-tempered, and available. They ‘show up’ in a certain way, even when it seems and feels like everything has the potential to go completely sideways!

Think about how you can begin showing up for your horse as a partner he can trust and rely on, even when the situation becomes uncomfortable or downright scary.

Part of being reliable and consistent is that even when things don’t go to plan, you remain steady. You remain aligned with your original intention and then focus on getting there. Rather than being drawn into the drama that your horse is either experiencing or creating. Your job is to remain focused, steady, consistent, and ready to lead you both where you want to go.

Another thing about ‘trust’ and reliability is that you know where to stand. Solid boundaries are a must for good relationships. And like expectations, you need to know yours before you begin working with your horse.

Plan Your Work and Your Progress

So, once you have decided on what you’re happy with, what is a no-no, and also have gotten clear on the potentially ‘greyish’ areas, you can begin working with your horse. All of this will depend on your horse; is he being genuinely anxious about leaving his herd or buddy? Or is he potentially trying to use this as a way to cut the ride short and get home ASAP?

The plan you create to work on his herd sour or buddy-bound behaviour will depend on his true feelings about it… And your commitment to showing up consistently.

I would definitely suggest only working on one thing at a time. So, if he is reluctant to leave his friend behind in the paddock while you go on the trail, but you can tell it’s more of a tantrum than anxiety, push on! And if you can’t or don’t feel confident enough to ‘push on’, ask someone to ride him who will do that.

Very often in this scenario, two or three days of being sent forward and not getting his own way are enough to nip this in the bud and turn a new leaf. And it will require some serious commitment and reinforcement of your boundaries.

On the other hand, if he is genuinely anxious and worried about being away from his friends, slow and steady work usually gets the best results.

The key here is to focus on becoming someone he initially enjoys being with for short periods… And later feels confident being around for longer periods. In my experience, these types of horses, when they meet the right person who is all of the things mentioned above, become true partners. They really do give 100% of themselves in the relationship and are a pleasure to work with. But it does often take that initial commitment of time, and the intentional ‘showing up’ for them.

Choose Your Riding Partners Carefully

The final piece of advice I have for this situation is to choose your company wisely. Initially, whether your horse is throwing a tantrum or filled with anxiety, often the support of another horse and rider combination can help. Especially if they are the model of calm, cool, and confident.

Horses learn from the horses around them, so choose wisely who you spend your riding time with.

In my experience, especially with OTTBs who are herd bound, we spend a lot of time in the arena initially. We will pair the horse up with another 1 or 2 horses and let them walk together around the arena at first. Then, slowly, we will begin to put a little space between them. But always making sure to come back ‘together’ after 20 or 30 seconds. Then we stretch that time. And we work it both ways; the anxious horse is either held back from the others or vice versa.

Over time – and sometimes this can be done in a single session, but usually a little longer – we are trotting and canter past the original horse with the others while he stays in a walk. Obviously the other horses and riders are carefully choosen to make this as much of a ‘non-event’ as possible.

The key is to help your horse move away from the others without fussing. And once he is happy and relaxed riding ‘alone’ in the arena, we take it out to the trails or fields.

Herd Bound to Rider Happy

The important thing is to keep the end in mind and to keep yourself safe as you work through this with your horse. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated or angry, remind yourself that he has either been thought to do this or been allowed. And sometimes old habits, or ways of thinking, die hard!

Don’t ask for too much too soon, hold your boundaries, be clear with your expectations, and remain calm, consistent, and steady in your approach. Be the leader your horse is asking you to be!

Happy Riding

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