The Lord of the Flies was a terrifying novel about what happened when a group of children was shipwrecked on an island without adult supervision and guidance. For anyone not familiar with it, we won’t ruin the ending, but it wasn’t pretty!
Turns out that if you have a pushy horse, one that can’t get along in groups, or your weanlings are acting about as domesticated as mountain lions cornered in a canyon, there may be a corollary. The old trick of keeping an older horse around when weaning or when introducing something new to a green horse may have effects that are more far reaching than just a role model.
Horses are highly social creatures, but young ones, like the young of all species, are high-energy, self-centered and don’t take kindly to not doing what they want to do or not getting what they want, when they want it.
A study performed in France and published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology looked at the effects of dividing one- and two-year-old horses into groups by age and sex, as is usually done, versus keeping two same sex but adult horses in with the youngsters.
They found that when there were adults in the groups the young horses sorted themselves out into ”best buddy” small groups and there was much less fighting overall. They functioned much better as a group. While young horses may be pushy, they’re not stupid, and they instinctively know when another horse is their equal or superior. Even the threat of retaliation for acting up from a clearly larger horse is enough to defuse bad behavior in a young one.
There are important carryover messages here for working with young horses — or older ones that don’t know their place. The feral horse lives in a structured social situation. Knowing who is who keeps the peace.
When working with horses, there must be no confusion over who is in charge. This isn’t about physical force or aggression, it’s about confidence. Horses learn to read people very well. Your tone of voice says as much as a bite from another horse. Your body language and eye contact can be as clear as a horse’s arched neck, feigned kick or a friendly withers scratch. Demand respect and you’ll usually get it.
Once that issue is answered, you can move on to a mutually satisfying relationship with your horse where he will also take his cues from you on when to relax, what is safe, what is fun.