A Helping Hand (or Hoof) from the Herd

by Laurie Loveman

      Leading a herds-worth of horses in and out of a barn is a time-consuming task that can be streamlined with the help of your horses and the use of gates to form a runway between your barn and pasture.
Horses living in herds have their own society and their own rules, which is why it’s normal for a new horse to spend its first week or so nursing bruises and bite marks until it finds its place in the ranks.  This is not something humans have much control over, but training an entire herd can make life easier for everyone, and once the herd leader is trained for a particular purpose, the rest of the herd usually follows suit.  On our farm, our big gelding, Blackie, was the undisputed leader of our eight-horse herd.  No job was too tough for Blackie–he threw his heart and muscle into everything he did.  His “word” was law, whether it was playing “ha-ha-you-can’t-catch-us” in the pasture, to “stop-the-world-it’s-time-for-dinner.”  In fact, Blackie’s supreme enjoyment of each and every meal made it easy for me to train the herd.

Helping Hand Diagram
Diagram
(Click image for full size version)

During winter and spring (weather permitting), the horses who weren’t working each day went out to pasture after breakfast and came in for dinner.  We had an easy layout to set up for a runway because our barn, riding ring and round pen (which opened onto the pasture) were only ten feet apart.  We formed the east side of the runway by hanging a ten-foot galvanized gate on a riding ring fence post directly opposite the corner of the barn.  We latched this gate to a heavy-duty eye-screw on the barn.  On the west side, we hinged the gate on a post that was at an angle to the corner of the barn, making a distance of about sixteen feet.  Here we used two eight-foot gates, one hinged to the fence post, the other hinged at the corner of t he barn.  They were closed with a vinyl-covered chain.  All three gates swung flush against either the barn or the fences so we had vehicle access to the barn.
Once the runway was “constructed,” it took less than a week for the horses and me to work out a time-saving system for entering and leaving the barn.  With the runway gates closed and the pen gate open to the runway, each horse walked into the barn on its own.  I trained them into keeping to a walk by leading them in during the first few days and not letting them increase their speed beyond a normal walk.  Anyone trying to jog was turned around, taken back into the round pen and led in again until he or she agreed to walk.  Nevertheless, even at a walk they came in fairly fast, one right after the other, so there was no time for daydreaming between arrivals.  I had to keep up with opening and closing stall doors.  Since the horses always stayed in the same
order, when I closed the stall door behind one, I knew which stall door to open next.  It went very fast, saving time I once spent leading each horse inside, going back for the next horse, leading that one inside, and so on.
The horses also associated leaving the barn as being pleasant so I used the runway to my advantage to send them to the pasture. For going outside, I taught the horses that if I opened their stall door and I was IN the doorway or entered the stall, they were to remain quietly inside.  But, if I opened the stall door completely and was NOT in the doorway, the horse could leave the stall and go out to pasture via the runway.  This allowed me to walk along the aisleway, opening stall doors as I went.  The horses weren’t let out in their herd rank, but it didn’t matter since they knew where they were going.  Though I never– fortunately–had to put it to the test, it is possible that in the event of emergency evacuation, having the horses accustomed to leaving the barn on their own and going directly into their pasture could save lives, but I would not recommend trying to evacuate a barn this way unless runway behavior was already well- established and the situation was critical.
In the summertime the horses lived in the pasture when they weren’t working.  I grained them morning and night in order to check each horse for cuts and bruises.  Since feeding was a regularly-scheduled event, the horses usually ambled on down early and grazed near the barn, in the pasture adjoining the round pen, where their feed buckets were hung on fence posts.  Three days of calling, “Blackie, dinner!” at feeding times was all it took for the horses to associate “Blackie, dinner!” with eating.
I wish I could brag about how controlled and calm my horses were at feeding time, but it would be a lie.  They were like drivers on a freeway at five p.m. on a Friday night.  When they entered the pen and claimed a bucket, I tied each horse by a rope attached to the bucket-holding fence post before doling out grain. If I didn’t do this, Blackie and the others, in order of rank, would play musical buckets in their quest for more eats, leaving Amigo, low man on the totem pole, to eat and run.
I made a foolish mistake one foggy morning when the horses were still grazing in the back pasture at breakfast time.  I strolled into the pen and swung open the outer pasture gate, then, standing in the opening, I shouted, “Blackie, dinner!” The fog cut off vision at fifty feet and sound was so muffled I wasn’t even sure my call had been heard.  Within a couple of minutes, though, the ground began to vibrate and a faint rumbling, like far-off thunder, settled into the steady drumming of hoofbeats.  Suddenly Blackie and the others emerged from the fog.  It was a moment of absolute beauty, but it was only a moment because the gate was open and in their mad scramble to claim a bucket I nearly got trampled!  After that I always closed the outer pen gate before feeding time so if the horses came running they would be forced to settle down and enter the pen (ha, ha) calmly.
Calling “Blackie, dinner!” was also a handy way to call the horses to the barn from the pasture when it wasn’t feeding time.  I tried to avoid this since the horses had been trained to expect food when they responded to the “Blackie, dinner!” call. Responding to “Blackie, dinner!” only to spy the veterinarian’s or blacksmith’s truck, brought true meaning to the phrases, “stop on a dime” and “turn tail.”  To avoid this situation I scheduled routine blacksmith or veterinary calls for first thing in the morning or last call of the work day.  That way the horses were brought inside for dinner, or everyone came inside for breakfast.  After awhile the pastured horses came in without hesitation anytime they heard the call because the good events outnumbered the bad.
So,  if you have a small herd whose members don’t change very often, and you can arrange your pasture-to-barn setup to form a runway, consider training your horses to help you out and together, you and your horses will make life a little nicer for everyone.

© 2007 Laurie Loveman