Everyone talks about how wonderful it is to watch herd dynamics and of course, it’s true. We are blessed to be able to observe many different horses and see what works for them. What works for one doesn’t always work for another, and a good herd combo in Field A doesn’t always jive when moved to Field B.
Case in point;
Awhile back in our history, (maybe 18 months ago!) we were creating a band in a large, borrowed, 15 acre field. There were three geldings in this band; Jack, our 17 hh OTTB who has underdeveloped herd skills; Whisper, our 14.2 hh wild mustang with few people skills but excellent herd abilities’ and Finn, at the time was an 18 month old gelding in training with everyone. Jack had been the ‘de facto’ herd leader until Whisper came along and promptly took over. There was minimal chasing and no actual contact, because Jack is a thoroughbred and they are the equivalent of ‘english gentlemen’, and don’t come to blows if at all avoidable. Jack would rather sit down to tea and watch old episodes of Mr. Ed. So when Whisper arrived, thrilled to be with horses again, he established himself as the leader and began training Finn, who was kept on the edge of the band, which also included a few mares. This tale isn’t about the mares (sorry girls) but their presence is important. Just before Whisper moved in, Jack was desperately in love with the supermodel-of-the-fields, a tall drink of water we called Bella. That romance ended when the short fierce mustang entered the picture and won her away within a few hours. Jack was very ‘english’ about it and returned to his old companion, Ginger, who forgave his dalliance and grazed at his side again.
Things were peaceful in the field for the summer, and Jack seemed to enjoy being second in command; if I approached the herd, Whisper would flick his eye and send Jack back to intercept, sort of like stopping me at the door. If I persisted in wanting to speak to the boss, Jack would block my way long enough to allow Whisper and Bella to trot off. It was a very efficient team, really. As summer shifted to fall, our time in the field was up, and I needed to move the herd to our barn across the road and down the hill. Some new fencing was completed and ready for them down there. Since Whisper still wasn’t copacetic to being haltered, I set up simple rope ‘chutes’ to cross the band to a 1/2 acre fenced field, where I intended to then move them from the other side of that down the hill. We’d done this move a number of times so I anticipated an easy success. With the ropes set up, I crossed the band quietly into the smaller field, and locked up that entry, when I heard commotion.
Behind me, an uproar had begun. Apparently the field wasn’t big enough for other geldings, and Whisper had begun to chase his former first lieutenant around the perimeter of the field. Jack was scared and running; usually when horse is driving off another, they let up once dominance is established, but Whisper wanted Jack out of the field. I was trying to intercept and cut Whisper off (yes I realize now this wasn’t the brightest plan but Whisper’s fear of humans was great and I wanted to protect Jack). Whisper wasn’t breaking stride, and I could not catch either of them as Jack headed back for the closed gate he had come from. I watched helplessly as Whisper angled to drive Jack out and Jack, poor boy, with no alternative, leapt the wood fence.
It was a glorious site, or it would have been under different circumstances, the huge white thoroughbred soaring up and over 4′ of wood; and Jack nearly cleared it, escaping Whisper, he nearly pulled off the jump. But his back hock caught on the fence upright, the angled wood edge, and pulled Jack down, and he skidded instead of landing, on his knees on the road.
It was awful. I ran to him as he got up, cursing and mumbling, scared and angry, bleeding from scrapes and cuts, and I tried in futility to comfort him. Off he marched down the road, fuming in embarrassment, away from the house and field. I walked beside him, hardly able to keep up, agreeing with his insults about Whisper, waiting until I could get him to calm down a bit, and we marched all the way to a neighbors front lawn, and I was able to distract Jack by pointing out the grass, and we slowed and diverged off the road. And breathe. We were both shaking. Jack’s wounds didn’t appear deep but he was soo upset, that was the bigger concern. After several minutes I was able to slip a rope around Jack’s neck and then move to quietly halter him. We had to go back.
Together we began walking down the road, my hand on his shoulder. He wanted to return to the big field, but it was borrowed and our time was up. As we came within site of the small field, still with Whisper and the mares, Jack balked. I mean, balked big time. I tried walking him on the opposite side of the street but that wasn’t going to work. I was able to take him across and up into the neighbors field but things were becoming precarious. Jack was soo upset and so wanted to leave, and I was trying to help get him around and down to our barn to safety but he didn’t understand! Anyone who has tried calming a 17 hh injured panicky horse knows how scary it was for us, as I kept gaining and losing control of his direction, trying to spin him safely away and up into the other fields. Finally we had some small progress, as distance increased so did his quietness.
But we had a dilemma; the only way now to get home was to continue to cross into another neighbors field, and no one was home. Jack walked willingly with me now, and together we climbed a stone wall and into the back area behind their barn, me praying that the dogs didn’t come out. All was quiet; we walked together down their driveway, now well past the field and our house, and when Jack saw that I was taking him down thru the gate to our barn, he sped up joyfully. Whew. So we made it down behind our old barn and Jack saw some familiar faces in some mares that had moved earlier. I watched his face as he brightened, began to rush to them, then paused, a shadow crossing his eyes, as he scanned for Whisper among them. Poor guy. I told him it was safe, and we moved forward again, and Jack was reunited with some friends.
His physical wounds were doctored, the scrapes healed quickly, the fetlock longer. But his mental wounds have taken a much longer time to heal. At Jack’s request, I attempted to reunite Jack and Whisper again in the big field about a month later. I stood at the gate and let Jack out and watched him wander up. One smoldering look from Whisper was all it took and I welcomed Jack back out of that field and back down to the barn, with a different group. His ego was badly damaged.
The boys wintered apart that year with different mares, and by spring, in a new large herd, and under new management, we tried again. It was going to be important for Jack’s health that he face this, safely, and important for our herd management that we be able to have them interact. By this time Finn had taken over the main herd. Finn trained with both Whisper and Jack, and he retains a respect for Jack that is invaluable. Jack is the quiet elder, and Finn protects him. Whisper was de-throned by his young strong pupil and took it graciously, and is a valued member of the herd, usually assigned to outlying security detail. He is a proud member of the herd. When they met again, it was under this new herd structure, and in the field that Jack had called home all winter. With enough space to move and increased confidence, Jack was able to face his adversary. And with increased awareness on my part, I could discretely help ‘move’ Whisper before Jack became trapped anywhere. As Jack’s fear lessened, Whisper pursued him less. He can ‘move’ Jack but usually they do their own thing. Jack is inside with Finn and the mares if he is with the herd, but Jack as also been assigned special duty elsewhere. Jack has found new confidence in spending time with the ‘baby band’ and as we continue to improve his health, his strength returns. Both horses are loved members of the herd.
This recounting is not in any way to blame Whisper for anything; the only blame lays with me and my faulty judgement. I learned a valuable lesson at Jack’s expense. Sometimes when people decide that horses ‘can’t get along’ it may be that they need more space and time to work it out. Horses are herd animals and hierarchal animals, and that is how they survive. In order to allow that to work, they need the space to do it in. Whisper is being the mustang he was born to be, and Jack is being the horse that man made him and in between, we are all learning slowly to find some harmony.