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Fixing the Herd-Bound Horse

Most horses start out being "herd-bound". That is, they're uncomfortable being away from their herd. This is because it's instinctual and they know they're safer when in a herd. And let's face it, wild herds have survived without humans through the ages because of that instinct.

On the trail, being alone can be frightening to a horse. Yes, we're with him, but unless you've already established that you're his leader, your company may not be enough. So first, you need to establish that you're the alpha of his herd of two: you and him. Consult a trainer for help with this. Establishing you as the alpha means a lot to your horse. It primarily tells him that you're strong and will protect him, so just establishing this relationship goes a long way to replacing herd protection with your protection.

On the trail, horses move together like a school of fish or a flock of birds. As soon as the lead horse breaks into a trot or canter, the others do the same in a fraction of a second. That's why we always need to be paying attention or we can quickly find ourselves on the ground. But, it's more fun and much safer if your horse responds to your signals rather than that of the herd, and every rider should work toward that goal for safety's sake.

To wean your horse off of herd behavior when trail riding, don't always follow the horse directly in front of you. When an opportunity presents itself to take an alternate trail that is only 20 - 50 feet apart for a short stretch, take it and this short distance will let him keep the other horses in sight. Your horse will initially be concerned that he's slightly separated from the herd, but as soon as you rejoin the herd in 50 - 100 feet or so, he'll feel calm again. The next time you do it, he'll be concerned again, but slightly less so. After doing this a number of times, he'll come to realize that he's safe not always being right with the herd. Keep increasing the distance in small amounts. As your horse gets comfortable with these short sojourns from the herd, you can then start taking short alternate paths where you and he can't see the other horses for 10 seconds, then for 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, five minutes, etc. In time, your horse will not need to be with the herd and will trust that when it's just the two of you, he's still safe because you're his protector and you always bring him back home safely.

If you try this and find that your horse is really uncomfortable, you've tried to go too far or for too long from the other horses. Return to them immediately and start again with smaller "away distances" and shorter "away times". Don't try to do too much, too soon. The key is to move away just enough for your horse to have a slight concern and then to learn it was an unnecessary concern because you kept him safe and returned him to the herd.

So, don't rush this process! The fastest way to do this is to take the time to use small and slowly increasing distances and spates of time comfortable for your horse. The increases vary with each horse and you'll quickly learn what size increments are comfortable to your particular horse. (HINT: It will depend a lot on whether or not he sees you as his alpha and protector, or not — establish that first.)

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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