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Bad Love. The problem and how to solve it.

Published: 9/22/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

It seems like every barn has a pair; a dynamic duo, an equine “power couple” who can't be separated. They eat together. They get their trims together. They spend every waking moment together. Life for these love birds is comfort and peace, rainbows and sunshine....Until you separate them.

At first glance, their relationship may seem sweet, even idyllic. But the underlying truth is that these horses have developed an unnatural co-dependency. Throw horses like these into a group of other horses and you may discover some interesting behaviors. The lovebirds may stay to themselves completely, go after the rest of the herd, or get pushed out altogether by the herd. Another interesting side effect of this bad love is that one of these horses may flourish while the other wanes, losing weight along with herd status. Often, one horse stands guarding their pile of hay or grain while the submissive one stands by. The lack of interaction with a healthy herd dynamic and their secluded lives together lead to some interesting dynamics.

Sometimes horses get this way by people choosing the route of convenience, time and time again. They have two horses to ride, so they ride one and pony the other. Or, they lead them both to and from the barn to save a trip. Pretty soon they have a vet appointment for one, and rather than listen to one whinny while they have the other treated, they just bring them both together. In no time at all, they have a serious problem and the horses can't be separated. They can't focus on you, your ride, your handling, because they are relying on each other completely for leadership, companionship, and safety.

What can you do?

Scenario 1:
Keep these horses together, separated from any others; the way they're used to, and the way they like. Expect major trauma if separating these horses for riding or handling. Don't expect their attention to be on you; it'll be on one another. You can also usually expect any change in their lives to create stress, which I've seen in some cases lead to colic.

Scenario 2: Add a third horse into the mix. Sometimes, they'll integrate, but usually not. They often stay together in their own subherd and are generally aggressive toward any other horses. (I equate it to high school cheerleaders.)

Scenario 3: Add them into a bigger herd where they are outnumbered. Sometimes, this works and they'll integrate. Other times, they stay in their own little subherd.

Scenario 4: (the most successful strategy, in my view): Separate them and put each in a separate herd. This forces them to integrate to find security from the herd. In one instance, the health of the submissive horse improved dramatically when he was separated from his buddy. He found a new identity within his new herd. His eating habits improved. His interest in an equine society made him happier and more vibrant. I've found this way has led to a more mentally-balanced horse, and one that I think will stay healthier as well as easier for everybody to deal with.

If you don't have a “herd,” here are some other options:

-- Take time to ride each separately. Work at keeping each horse’s mind with you. Give them things to do and think about along the way to help focus their attention.

-- Have a friend join you for a ride and practice riding away for a bit, coming back for a bit, going a little further apart each time until the horses can relax. Read what the situation and your ability calls for. Just go far enough to keep everybody out of trouble, but work toward riding out alone comfortably.

-- Take one out and groom it while you feed the other.

-- Compromise and make progress at the same time: Give the horse you're riding a job to do by working his buddy from the saddle. Pony him with lightness, stop, turn, and speed up. Yield the hindquarters of your pony horse, and then the front quarters. Your saddle horse gets to be with his buddy, but he also has to focus on you to get a job done. Everybody wins.

There are plenty of ways to help these horses if you're creative. It's important to think of this process not as “separating friends” but as creating a more adjustable, focused, and balanced horse. I believe a horse who can find this state is a happier and healthier horse.

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9/25/2015 Christina Rajala
Dear Amy, Thank you for the generosity of this reflection on horse behavior! The wealth of observation here can alleviate much suffering. Thank you, thank you. If I was a horse, I would thank you. Even horses want to have their fulfillment, and co-dependency is not fulfillment.

"Nothing on four legs is quicker than a horse heading back to the barn" - Pamela C. Biddle/Joel E. Fishman