Herd Watching

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour

Mare group on ExmoorMy ‘Introduction to Behaviour’ talk begins with a look at equine evolution, an ever growing catalogue of what came before and what behaviour it has resulted in. Whilst the old saying ‘behaviour leaves no fossils’ is true, behaviour has certainly left its mark on both equids and hominids (horse and human families) such that studying their history can shed light on much present day behaviour.

Herd watching- gazing close
Grazing close

What we know about horses from their past helps us provide the best living and handling conditions for them today. If you’re looking for proof that innate behaviour has its roots millions of years ago then look no further than the semi-feral equines close to where you live. Today there are only a handful of wild equid populations in the world most being zebras or asses and, whilst there remain some feral herds in the world, here in the UK we have a few well-known semi-feral herds. These herds, whilst managed, still display many of the innate behaviours that we might expect to see in a wild herd.

Whilst behaviour is interesting to watch at all times of the year this wonderful spring season makes the job of amateur ethologist easier. Light early mornings and a more moderate temperature give the opportunity to sit for longer without being disturbed with the added bonus that my husband (photographer) can accompany me to record things in permanence. Living on Exmoor can bring its challenges but (along with Dartmoor and The New Forest) it is a rich ground for pony watching.

Herd watching- space within the herd
Space within the herd

It is most important is that we remain at a distance from the herd and well below the threshold of the ponies becoming startled; we should be observing behaviour rather than creating it. What do we look for with our pen poised above notepad?

  • The nature of the herd; members get on (affiliative)and there is generally very little aggression
  • Movement; how far do they travel, who instigates movement and how do the herd follow
  • Space; how much does an individual maintain, how is it maintained
  • Eating/drinking; how, what, when, who goes first?
  • Contact; closeness between pair bonds or smaller groups within the herd, mutual grooming, resting close to each other.
  • Sleep; standing up, lying down, anyone on guard?
  • Reaction and response to potentially fearful stimuli; who sees things first, who moves first, could you see the trigger?

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it will get you started (and get you hooked) on herd watching, find a herd local to you or get in touch for guided herd watching sessions.Herd watching- Personal space within the herd

Places to check out:
https://wildequus.org/2015/07/16/exmoor-ponies-we/  Wild Equus register wild, feral and semi-feral herds
https://www.facebook.com/wildhorsesinspain/ Lucy Rees feral herd in Spain