Juliane Dykiel's Horsemanship Blog

Archive for the tag “herd”

Rocío’s Quiet Transformation From Subordinate to Alpha Mare

First of all, I’d like your input on turnout preferences. I’d love to see how the horse community feels about this issue.

While most things we have introduced Rocío to since her arrival have been new to her, turning her out with another horse was not. She had spent 5 years in a holding pen full of other mustangs, and, for this reason, we were sure that turning her out with another horse at Windflower would be a smooth process.

We chose Tica, Ainslie’s calmest mare, to be the first horse to turn Rocío out with.

“Patriotica,” Ainslie’s Andalusian mare.

We waited until the two had been properly introduced through the fence before introducing them. Additionally, the two had bonded from going out on trail walks together, where Ainslie would lead Tica and Rocío and I would follow.

One of Tica and Rocío’s first interactions.

One of Tica and Rocío’s first interactions, courtesy of Sheridan Studio.

However, it turned out that Rocío’s interaction with Tica was one of the most fascinating bits of herd dynamics I have ever observed.

When we were picking up Rocío from Orange on April 10th, we noticed that she was at the bottom of the pecking order. The other mares pushed her around. As a result, Rocío had gotten used to eating old, muddy scraps of hay because she usually couldn’t reach the good hay. We theorized that this was one of the reasons she had been so skinny when she arrived.

To observe this for yourself, you can take a peek at the pick-up video here. If you skip ahead to 0:27, you’ll see how shy she is compared to the other mares.

This is why we wanted her to be out with Tica specifically. Ainslie’s mare is very aloof in a herd and has “adopted” several of Ainslie’s young horses throughout the seventeen years Ainslie has owned her. She usually dominates but is not aggressive.

Tica establishing her role as herd leader early on. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

Tica establishing her role as herd leader early on. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

As soon as we were out together, the mares behaved just as we had predicted. Tica, the flashy Andalusian, pranced around the paddock, shooting warning faces at Rocío while Rocío tried to follow her around. In these first few minutes, Rocío accepted her place as subordinate mare very quickly.


Tica bossing Rocío around. Photo by Waxler Imagery.

Then, Tica settled down and ate some hay, while Rocío circled her for a few minutes. Tica wasn’t letting her approach the hay, and Rocío’s behavior was odd. She seemed to be approaching and retreating Tica from different angles.

All of a sudden, minutes later, Rocío backed up into Tica and kicked her! With a squeal, Tica backed off from the hay, and before we knew it, Rocío was chasing her around!

Rocío changing her place in the herd rather suddenly. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

Rocío changing her place in the herd rather suddenly. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

We were shocked at this quick transformation, and Rocío’s methodical, quiet, relatively drama-free way of switching the dynamic. I’ve seen horses fight for dominance before, and sometimes those fights escalate. Usually, a complete switch from subordinate to alpha mare could be very explosive, but Rocío proved to be extremely calculated.

Both mares were at peace very quickly. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

Both mares were at peace very quickly. Photo by Sheridan Studio.

The fact that she had been out with her herd in Orange, MA for days and stayed at the bottom of the pecking order told me that she has gained a lot of confidence at Windflower since she has arrived. She became the bold lead mare within twenty minutes or less.

Both girls trotting around in harmony. Photo by Waxler Imagery.

Both girls trotting around in harmony. Photo by Waxler Imagery.

This made me feel very happy for her, as well as reinforcing my opinion of how intelligent and sensible this little mare is.

Photo by Anne Dykiel.

Photo by Anne Dykiel.

If you like these updates, and haven’t already, please consider donating to our cause so that we can give this mare the best care possible.

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As usual, I’d like to thank Sheridan Studio and Waxler Imagery for capturing all of these important moments. These photographers are truly gifted.


Why Should a Horse Always Have a Companion?

By guest blogger Juliane Dykiel

When most of us think about why our horses need companions, we think of the obvious…horses are herd animals, right? It seems like isolating one would be similar to isolating a human. As attached as we feel to our horses, most of us understand that our company is not enough for them (and, as often as I insist that I love horses more than people, I understand that it works vice versa as well).

However, when I dug into Margit Zeitler-Feicht’s Horse Behavior Explained once again, I found some facts about horse companionship that I would never have guessed simply from observing their behavior.

Who would have guessed that isolation actually impairs a horse’s ability to rest? In Zeitler-Feicht’s words, “In domestic horses, individual animals staying awake while others sleep” is very common. Horses actually feel more secure sleeping while others keep watch. Can you imagine the life of a solitary prey animal, such as the horse, lacking sleep because it always feels like it has to be on its guard? This seems so unpleasant. Zeitler-Feicht goes on to say that “It can therefore be concluded that management of horses without sufficient visual, olfactory, and auditory contact with other companions will impair their ability to relax and reinvigorate”(72).

Horses Mutual Grooming

Photo by Anna Spach

Another surprise is that in Germany, it is actually a violation of the Animal Welfare Act to keep “a horse without companions of the same species”( 42).

Who knew that some horses can also bond to goats and dogs when they lack a partner of the same species? To me, this is proof of how dependent they are on having a companion other than a human, with whom “the daily contact is typically very short” as opposed to “full members of a horse group” who spend “day and night united with their band”(43). Zeitler-Feicht believes that “keeping a horse with animals of a different species,” while helpful, “must only be considered as a temporary solution”(42).

How about the common excuse, “I’m afraid that a companion horse might hurt mine”? Well, it’s a fairly valid one: I ride a horse that was, at her old barn, turned out with another horse that beat her up, causing two breaks in her hind leg. While we were lucky and she’s doing well now, it’s definitely a risk. However, all herds have a set rank order, and this must be established when a horse is first turned out with others. Scuffles are usually short and limited to first exposure to a new horse. After all, “as soon as a hierarchy is established, it remains relatively stable”(32). If this is performed under supervision, further risk is low. This behavior is also extremely natural.

While some risk remains, I suppose that we have to pick our battles, and at least the horse is happier. The longer a horse has been turned out with another, the more solid the hierarchy and the less likely it is that one will hurt the other, so if you can find one horse that yours gets along with, you could create a long-lasting bond!

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