Tactile Herd Response
When horses co-exist in a peaceful herd, they use many various methods to work with each other to maintain each other’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. It is beneficial for the entire herd’s survival and success that each member be as strong and durable as possible in all states of being. As humans, when we work with horses, it is our goal to integrate ourselves into our horses’ herds to coexist amongst them for common goals such as training goals, competitive goals etc.; therefore it would be to our benefit to understand how the horses work with each other so that we can allow them to also help us “fit in” to their herd.
When we approach their herd, we are coming in with a certain state of physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. You may have certain areas of your body that is carrying pain and injury for example. If you were joining a herd of horses in the wild, this may make you a liability to the herd, as a predator may sense your injuries and choose you as a likely “weak link” to hunt. You may be carrying emotions that make you a liability as well, which the horses will recognize and respond to in order to help you ground yourself and balance your emotional state. Lacking in self confidence, carrying anxiety, and toying with self-doubt would not be very conducive to herd safety, for example. They will also respond to your mental wellbeing to help you to reach a point of relaxation and help you focus on the “here and now”, as we often observe that horses do in their natural environment. That helps to conserve energy and keep your nervous system healthy.
It’s important that a herd has enough resources for them to be able to balance themselves, to start. This means adequate space, adequate forage (spread out enough that all members can have easy, stress-free access), and adequate shelter. You will notice that herds that lack any or all of these will fight more and are likely injured more often. You will also notice that horses in smaller herds, or on individual turnout, may lack some of the responses that you see below, or may overuse some of the responses, as they are over-seeking herd companionship.
A horse meeting a human will use their muzzle to explore their body. It is important that they have their whiskers to do this, as their whiskers have sensitive nerve supply that pick up on small traces of heat and stress patterns in the body. Horses will focus on areas where they sense heat and pain (physical and emotional pain). They can even do this through thick layers of winter clothes, or through blankets on each other. Along with this, they are reading body language, so it is important to try to interact with them without sunglasses on. Horses interact best with each other when they are not wearing fly-masks for this reason. You might notice more bites happen on the neck during seasons where horses wear fly masks, because they cannot read each others’ facial expressions.
Test of Boundaries and Responses
Horses may push, nip, pull and overcrowd to test responses from humans. Humans have clear choices in how they respond and set boundaries, which often reflect how they respond to other people in true-life relationships. They can choose to lack boundaries and allow themselves to be “run over”, or they can respond explosively and overreact, or they can set clear and healthy boundaries which the horses often respond to well. Horses seek clear and confident leadership, and when this lacks they will continue to push and test as a way to point out to people that they need to figure out who they are as a person in relation to others.
Mutual grooming has many various roles. Not only is it a simply “feel-good” bonding activity, but two horses will mutually groom each other to relieve inflammation and heat around injured areas and to stimulate the nervous system to respond and heal injuries that the body has stopped responding to. Areas of the body that carry physical pain often translate into emotional pain if they are held onto long-term. Allow the horses to nuzzle and groom you but remind them to be gentle and not to use their teeth – just use your voice or gentle pushes away from them when they get too rough. They’ll understand.
If you watch a herd interact with each other, you will see them do small things that balance each other’s emotions, as well as with you. A horse may smell or touch a part of you, then close their eyes and nod their head off while they blink and twitch for a few moments, then they’ll lick and chew. This is a nervous system response. They may take a step towards you, then away from you. They may nip for apparently no reason, but if you pay close attention to your thoughts, feelings or actions, you will likely figure out why. Nipping is usually a hard and firm push to make a decision or a change. They also graze all day to keep their nervous system stimulated in a relaxed mode until there is a reason to react. All these micromovements have reasons behind them, and if you watch them interact with each other you will see a stronger member move a vulnerable or unstable member around until they are ready to balance, and then they will stand still with each other and release with licking and chewing, yawning, or sighing.
By being with a herd and spending time with all members together for prolonged periods of time, horses teach a lot about social structure, and utilize it very intentionally. They give every member, including visiting humans, a sense of belonging, no matter who you are and what you have to contribute. Spending time with a herd gives you a place to explore who you are in relation to others, and as you see what the horses pick up on about yourself, you may be able to make choices about how to relate, respond, or react differently in your life with other humans in your relationships in order to make changes and achieve goals that you’ve felt held back from.