Herd Dynamics – Lessons from Feeding Hay along the Fenceline

We’ve been trying to feed big bales out in the pasture, but this week we got too much snow to be able to drive the pickup through, much less pull a bale, so we’re back to forking hay over the fence.

I don’t mind feeding the hay this way — it goes a little further than free-feeding, and as long as it’s not windy, there’s not much waste. It also gives me a great way to check up on fluctuating herd dynamics.

Over the past three years, a few things have not changed:

Quixote gets hay first in the spot along the fence where I first feed. Dante eats by his side, usually on his right. All of the other horses stay back and let them get to the hay first.

Senorita takes the spot where I feed second. Sometimes she allows Sienna or Witch to have a mouthful, but they don’t stay, because Witch gets the third fork of hay and Sienna takes the fourth. George usually settles for the fifth.

After the fifth spot, I need to hurry to get hay out along the far sides because the other horses don’t dare come in near the first five. Gabby, whose appetite is insatiable, gets impatient and tries to butt in. She snatches a mouthful here and there, and runs down to either end of the line to try to get more. Her mother, Daisy, holds back and worriedly paces until there’s enough hay forked out that Gabby settles down, and then Daisy joins her.

Meanwhile, Breeze looks for hay out at the edge one the side of the line where Sienna is. For some reason, Breeze find Sienna’s presence comforting. They’re not friends, exactly, but Breeze seems to prefer to stand on the “Sienna” side of the herd.

Charlie has been joining Breeze lately whereever she is. Willow holds back until George is busy eating and she joins him.

Then, just when everyone is settled — Witch upsets the cart. Wherever she is in the middle, she starts moving others off their hay. If she’s really hungry, she only moves two or three places and she usually moves to the right. But if she’s not all that hungry, or if she doesn’t like the hay, she will literally move everyone (except for Quixote and Senorita) off their spot, and then I have to be sure that there are even more extra spots on the ends because Witch will not let the others come back into the spots she’s claimed.

This is only one of the reasons she’s called “Witch”.

Today I witnessed a few subtle shifts in the herd’s dynamics. Today Sienna was in line after Senorita — not Witch. Instead, Witch took the opposite side of Quixote from Sienna, so maybe there’s something going on between those two.

Also, today Willow tried to come up along George, but George sent her away. He fed with Witch for awhile, then went to where Gabby was feeding and took her spot. This left a large opening in the middle of the line: about twelve feet between Quixote and George. Gabby and Daisy held off in the back, trying to decide where in the line to start feeding, and the large gap with lots of hay looked too promising not to try. Gabby nosed in there, nervously watching Quixote, and Daisy took the spot between her and George.

At that point, Witch did her musical-chairs thing on the far end and Senorita had enough of her. Senorita quietly slipped past Quixote and nosed in beside Gabby. Gabby didn’t move, so Senorita made the “snarly” face and bobbed her head. Gabby still didn’t move, so Senorita gave her a light nip and more bobbing head, and Gabby moved down the fence. But Daisy stayed — Senorita didn’t drive her away — and Senorita happily shared her hay with the older mare.

I’ve long wondered exactly when it was that Senorita took over the top mare role, and I think it was when Daisy left the herd for a few years. Breeze’s mother, Belle, used to be top mare before that, but when Belle got about 20 years old, Daisy took over. Breeze never had a high role because she was dependent on her mother’s status just like Dante is dependent on Quixote’s status. Neither will ever be a leader. It’s kind of interesting that Dante is Breeze’s grandson and that same dynamic happened with his mother, too. She picked fights, so she was never given the respect Daisy had or Senorita has gained.

When I hear clinicians talk about showing a horse dominance, I think of Senorita and how much those clinicians could learn from her. I honestly have never seen Senorita fight. She doesn’t kick and she’s always calm. I don’t put it past her to lay her teeth on a misbehaving upstart, but I haven’t seen her have to do it. Today’s nip was the most I’ve seen her do in a long time. Gabby can be obtuse at times — Senorita wouldn’t have had to nip anyone else.

Instead, there’s something about Senorita’s self-confidence which has made her the one to follow. She doesn’t spook easily. She moves with self-assurance. She’s a dream to ride — always sensitive to cues and willing to move out. Witch might be the first through a gate or the first to get to the food. But you can tell the other horses trust Senorita more.

Last summer, Senorita hurt her leg and favored it for a few days. She stood in one corner of the pasture where the water was and the whole herd stayed there with her. I tried to call them over to the other end of the pasture and Witch, George, Quixote, and Dante came, but as soon as he got to me, Quixote turned and went back. Witch, George, and Dante stayed until they’d eaten what I had to give them, and then they returned, too.

Observational lessons like these are critical to understanding your horses. If I were packing them in the mountains, Senorita and Witch would be good choices for lead horses. Quixote would do well towards the end because he tends to “herd” the others. No matter where Quixote goes, Dante follows, so Dante could be at the end. Charlie would be nervous and unpredictable at any place in the string, but he would be fine going out with Breeze if it were just the two of them.

I also like to know which horses pair well with each other. The pairing I did last year has changed. George has left Gabby and now opts for Willow or Sienna. Witch has become more independent and doesn’t really care if she’s with the others, except she’ll still follow Senorita. Gabby is also becoming more independent (a good thing.) She’ll leave her mother, and be content to follow Witch or Sienna.

Quixote and Dante are still pairs. So are Senorita and Sienna. George can train with Willow, and Charlie with Breeze.

At least, that’s how they are for now. Who knows what summer brings? A horse herd is a dynamic relationship. I don’t believe it’s a linear pecking order because relationships in a large herd are more complicated than a simple line.