Q. My horse is turned out with seven other horses. Sometimes when I go to bring him in, the other horses are all gathered around the gate. It makes me nervous to walk him past them and try to get him out of the field without letting other horses out by mistake or, even worse, getting kicked or knocked over. Do you have any suggestions for doing this safely?
CAMIE HELESKI, PhD
A. This is one of the most dangerous situations horse people face, because horse-to-horse interactions can be so unpredictable. Horses rarely hurt humans intentionally, but they don’t understand how much smaller and more vulnerable we are than them. So when they interact with one another, we can easily get caught in the crossfire—with potentially serious consequences. In this gate scenario, not only are you at risk of getting kicked or trampled, but you could also suffer from rope burns or an arm injury if your horse suddenly pulls away from you to avoid another horse lunging at him.
Several factors make the gate area particularly dangerous. Horses see humans as a resource, so when we enter a pasture they tend to gather around to see if we have grain or treats—or just to beg for a scratch on the neck. Grain is an especially big motivator. If someone feeds horses grain in the pasture one day, they’ll expect it the next day, too. How interested they are in you also depends on the pasture size and quality. If they’re in a relatively small paddock with very little grass and less to do, they’ll probably pay more attention to you than they would in a large field with lush grass.
Another major factor is herd dynamics. Horses compete with one another for resources with varying degrees of aggressiveness. If your horse tends to be submissive toward others—if, for example, they frequently push him away from hay, grain, shelter, etc.—he’s going to be far more nervous walking past them with you. No matter how well-mannered he is on the lead line, he’ll be less worried about you than about being bitten or kicked by the other horses. On the other hand, if your horse is one of the more dominant ones in the crowd, he’ll be much calmer in these circumstances, knowing that the others will likely leave him alone.
Either way, there are several things you can do to minimize the danger. First, make it an absolute rule to not feed other horses in the pasture, so they never associate you with food. If your horse is hard to catch, it’s OK to feed him treats—just try to do it in a subtle way that doesn’t attract the other horses’ attention.
Second, if at all possible, ask an experienced horse person to help you through the process for a while, until you grow more confident. Have her shoo the other horses away and stand guard in front of them while you take the time to negotiate the gate carefully with your horse. Never rush him through the gate. Doing so can make him even more nervous and difficult to manage, especially if you accidentally bop him on the rump with the gate once or twice.
If you don’t have the luxury of a helper, use a shooing gesture with your free arm to disperse the herd as you approach the gate. Avoid raising your voice, as this could upset your own horse. Carry a crop or dressage whip and be prepared to tap any harassers on the chest if they crowd you. (Normally I don’t advocate punishing horses with whips, but your safety is paramount in these moments and a well-timed tap can be highly effective.)
Keep a close eye on all of the horses around you. More often than not, dominant horses will threaten submissive horses with bites rather than kicks. To stay on the safe side, though, if any horse turns his tail toward you, immediately back your horse away and approach the gate from a different direction.
If there is one particularly difficult horse in the herd, another solution is to remove that horse from the pasture first and put him in an empty paddock or stall temporarily while you retrieve your horse. Although time-consuming, this can alleviate much of the danger and stress at the gate.
If leading your horse out of the pasture continues to be challenging, consider asking the barn owner if she might be open to adding a second gate elsewhere along the fence line, away from where the horses tend to congregate. Another solution is to build a “catch pen”—a small pen attached to the entrance of the pasture, which can safely contain any horses who sneak through the gate. This makes the process safer and less nerve-wracking for everyone involved.
Equine program instructor Dr. Camie Heleski taught at Michigan State University for 25 years before accepting her current role as a senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Her research focuses primarily on equine welfare and behavior. She is also the president of the International Society for Equitation Science, which encourages “ethical equitation” by promoting scientific research designed to study the most humane ways to train and care for horses. (For more information on this organization and to read its position statements on various issues, go to equitationscience.com.) A lifelong rider, Camie has shown Arabians, hunt seat, Western and saddle seat and now enjoys practicing lower-level dressage.