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New herd member is herd-bound

From: Deb

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for your wonderful advice about introducing my 5 y.o. thoroughbred to her new herd members. They are getting along fantastically. In fact, I got her on a Wednesday and we had them together in the same pasture for on hour or so on Thursday and alone together (with us not around) by the weekend!! Chamois - 29 palomino QH - is the boss, Queen - 32 y.o. TWH - is second, and Baby - my mare - is third and just happy to have buddies.

That's here my problem arises, however. They are so close that Baby and Queen were sharing hay piles, nose to nose, within the first week! That is not the problem. The problem comes when I try take her away to work with her. Chamois and Queen whinnied up a storm and of course Baby got all stressed out and let some horrible whinnies out calling back to them. I am very touched that she's been so quickly accepted and they can't do without her, but I have a hard time keeping her attention.

She was basically calm, but then she got a little nervous and would whinny loud and get a little pushy (she's not a nervous horse in general and doesn't spook - was letting the dogs lick her face through the fence this weekend!). I am also a chicken right now. I rode her about 5 times before I got her over a month's time and she is a dream to ride.

She was fine being taken away from her herd mates into the indoor ring there. But no one was whinnying to her. But, the first time I took her outside to ride (at her former stable before I bought her) I did a stupid thing. She hadn't been ridden outside since the previous summer/fall (this was late March), she was in heat and there were stallions around in the next paddock over. As soon as we walked outside, she tensed up. At this point I should have either gotten off and lunged her or taken her back in, but I thought "I've handled stubborn/nervous horses before - no problem". Well, the stallion around the corner whinnied and she gave a pathetic whinny back and then bucked. On the third buck, she put her head way down between her legs and I flipped right over her head. I wasn't hurt, but lost my guts! I took her back in the arena got back on and we were fine. I think when I heard her whinny like that again on Sunday (yesterday) I had a little flashback!

There is no where to ride indoors at this place, but she was ridden outside all the time at the other place and had never bucked anyone off. That afternoon that she bucked me, a very experienced teenager with "velcro legs" got on her and Baby tried to buck her. This girl stayed on though and had no more problems with her in or out in the following three weeks before I bought her. She jumped her (which I won't do until she's a little older) and worked on flying lead changes and Baby did fine. I'm also 3 mos. pregnant an don't have the guts I usually do.

I know the best advice is to take it slow and just work on building a good relationship with her. We've got lots of years together still. I just wanted to know what advice you had on getting them used to being separated, since your advice on getting them introduced worked so well!! She is extremely happy at her new home and is very calm. She's even letting me touch and rub her face now...something we weren't able to do before. You could touch her *everywhere* but there (the former owners were a little rough with her).

Thanks, Jessica. You've been wonderful! Deb


Hi Deb! I'm glad that Baby is fitting in so well with her new herd. Separating horses is always a problem, as you are finding out! This is where you have to realize that you are putting a few weeks, months, or perhaps years of training up against millions of years of evolution. Horses know that their safety is in their herd, and they don't want to be separated from the herd.

Don't worry, it isn't permanent. The "talking" may be, but that isn't anything to worry about. Horses often call to each other when you take one away to work in the arena -- but the one that's being worked quickly loses interest in talking back if you keep its attention on YOU, give it things to do and things to think about and keep a conversation going between the two of you.

There's a difference between a nervous horse and a mare in heat talking to a stallion! A horse can't really pay attention to two things at once. This works in your favour when you're training, because a horse that's really paying attention to YOU is less likely to spook at strange things, and when it DOES spook, you get its attention back very quickly - you'll get the one- bounce spook instead of a series of bucks! But this can work AGAINST you when something happens that is guaranteed to COMMAND your horse's attention -- your horse won't have any attention left over for you. That's what happened with Baby and the stallion. For all practical purposes, she forgot that you existed. Here again, we're talking about millions of years of evolution PLUS HORMONES. Trying to ride a young mare in heat when there's a stallion calling her is almost impossible, even if you've owned and ridden the mare for ten years. In fact, trying to get her attention is almost impossible -- her hormones are talking to her a lot louder and more clearly than you are. You're right, you would have done better to get off. But that's all behind you now, and you'll know what to do if the situation arises again.

My advice is that you go VERY easy on the riding. Baby needs a lot of basic work and basic training anyway, and there's no point in asking her to do things that she may not be in physical condition to do (flying changes and jumping, for instance!). There's also no point in getting her "fighting fit" and expecting lots of daily work, since by the time she begins to get truly fit, YOU will be coming home with a brand new baby (congratulations, by the way!). Baby is only five. She needs to learn to know you and trust you, and she needs to build a relationship with you. And you need to build a relationship with -- and confidence in -- her. That takes time -- not just "quality" time, but QUANTITY time! Take her for walks on a leadrope and hand-graze her. It doesn't matter if the grass she's eating is exactly the same grass that's in her pasture; the important thing is that she'll learn to associate your presence with calm, pleasant experiences. Groom her a lot, work with her from the ground, TALK to her all the time.

Right now, she's anxious about leaving the others because she found out that sometimes when she leaves the other horses in her herd, she never comes back and she never sees them again. You have to teach her to accept YOU as part of her herd, and as a consistent presence in her life. The first time you take her out alone to graze, you may have to stay in sight of the other horses -- if you take her where she can't see the others, Baby may spend all her time whinnying and turning in circles. Don't worry, she'll learn. If you take her out often, and every time you take her out, she has a nice time with you before you put her back, she'll be less worried when you take her out the next time.

And don't worry about the calling back and forth -- Baby is young, and it sounds as though the older mares have "adopted" her. The first time you separate a mare and her foal -- let's say the foal is two months old and you're starting to work the mare lightly -- they both yell. The next time you take the mare away, they both yell. The time after that, they both yell -- but not as much, or as loudly. And after a week or two, you notice that you've groomed the mare, and tacked her up, and ridden her for half an hour, and THEN the baby yells, and the mare answers -- or doesn't!

So don't worry about the sound effects. The mares will yell, Baby will yell back, but eventually they'll get bored, or Baby will be too busy having her head groomed with a nice scratchy brush, and she won't answer as quickly, or at all... When they all figure out that the one that goes away WILL come back, the yelling will subside. Keep in mind that the other mares may be calling for another reason, too -- Baby is being taken out for food? grooming? ATTENTION? and they aren't. I have one horse that will scream with total indignation whenever I take her neighbor out -- not because she wants her neighbor back, but because SHE wants to be the one getting the attention. When SHE goes out, she never says a word...

- Jessica

p.s. "Losing your nerve" is VERY common in pregnancy! Don't worry about that, either. Sometimes I've known that one of my student was pregnant before she had told anyone, just because of the way she was riding... this may be nature's way of telling you to slow down.

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