Herd Dynamics

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently with different clients who are finding that their horses are very tired and lethargic when they bring them in. One mare keeps falling asleep on the yard!

We discussed the management side of things. The change in the weather as we head into winter can mean that some horses start to get a bit chilly at night, and the change in the nutritional level of the grass can mean some horses start to get a bit hungry. Both these reasons can cause horses to become a bit flat in their personality.

An increase in workload can also make a horse become a bit flat as they improve their fitness.

None of these reasons really explained why the two horses were lacking enthusiasm for life. Both had recently had their saddles checked and were sound so pain was unlikely to be causing the tiredness.

Then we realised what it was. Both horses, at different yards and different times over the last month, had moved fields. One mare had moved in with two other mares who, whilst not bullies, were definitely above her in the pecking order and hassled her in the field. The other had just moved in with quite a dominant gelding, who was a little territorial over his hay, and generally pushed them about a bit.

As a result of this new herd dynamics, neither horse was resting properly. They might snatch ten minutes here and there, but they’d constantly have one eye open in case their field buddies came over.

Horses devote between five and seven hours a day to resting. They can achieve slow wave sleep whilst standing up, but must lie down to enter the REM phase of sleep, which is the restorative phase of sleep. A horse can become sleep deprived if they don’t have at least thirty minutes of recumbency to fulfil their R.E.M. requirements.

I found a really interesting study by Kentucky Equine Research which found that horses at the lower end of the pecking order could suffer from sleep deprivation. Check it out in the link above.

I suggested to my clients that they tried giving their horses a bit of down time. Perhaps bringing them in to their stable for a few hours so they could get some rest, or separating them in the field if they were more likely to rest in the field than in the stable. Since then the mare has been moved into an individual paddock adjacent to the others and seems to have picked up a bit. Well, she’s not falling asleep on the yard any more!

As horses spend so much of their time in the field it’s worth ensuring that the herd dynamics are right. It’s easy to see a dominant horse when you’re giving hay in the field or when they have a new patch of grass, but the small nudging and hassling of the bottom of the pack is easy to overlook. Take some time to observe the herd to see the subtle social dynamics which are occurring, which could have an impact on your horse’s health and well being. Then you can take appropriate measures to help ensure all the horses are able to rest sufficiently.

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