Bonding with a Trail Buddy

Bonding with a Trail Buddy

The basic bond of two horses, even two geldings, can form quickly and can be very strong.


Q. I took my best trail and traveling horse, a 7-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse gelding (gelded at age five), on a trail ride recently. He has been on other trips of similar distance and length of stay and has always been great in groups, even very large ones. He is very tolerant of other horses around him. On this trip, my friend took her well-behaved Spotted Saddle Horse mare. The horses had met briefly in the past, but do not live/board together.

This was a gathering of approximately 50 to 75 horses, so all trail rides were large. On the first ride, my friend and her mare opted for the longer ride, and I took my less conditioned gelding on the shorter ride. As the "long ride" group separated from my group, both of our horses displayed separation anxiety by crow-hopping, jigging around, calling to each other--behaviors that were unusual for both horses individually. Once we got moving, my horse settled down and was the trail-savvy boy I am used to.

When in their accommodations (10x10-foot stalls--both are used to much larger areas), my boy became very aggressive toward other horses coming near "his mare" and bit a gelding to one side as well as the mare (no stitches required, but still extremely unsettling to all humans). He even kicked at me once, which he has never done to horse or human (he loves people to scratch, or horses to scratch or nibble, on his butt). That was immediately punished.

When we did ride together, he didn't want to let the mare out of his sight, and would pin his ears and act aggressively toward other horses that came near "his" mare.

I am trying to give as many details as possible because I will do anything possible to avoid another situation like this again. I felt this was way beyond bad manners and that herd and possibly hormonal influences were at work. He had trailered with a gelding this same distance previously and none of this behavior happened, so I am assuming it was in large part due to the mare/gelding pairing. I have shared this story with several people who, surprisingly, have told me that they've had this same problem, even with two geldings.

I would greatly appreciate any advice about this situation. I will definitely not trailer any distance with a mare in the future, but would like to know of anything to discourage this bonding and behavior. It made for an extremely stressful week.

Barb, via e-mail

A. First, your suggestion that the basis of your gelding's behavior is probably due to natural bonding behavior of horses--either the strong motivation for horses to "buddy up" or a male-female attraction--sounds right on track. Part of the herd instinct of horses is for any small groups, particularly for isolated individuals, to band together and protect one another. In the case of your gelding and this mare, as you suggested, their behavior likely included male and female bonding, and for your gelding the protective behavior of a harem stallion to a newly acquired mare.

One trailer ride, a few hours, how could they bond so fast? As your friends have experienced, the basic bond of two horses, even two geldings, can form quickly and can be very strong. The same can occur among mares, and in the wild, two non-harem stallions, or bachelor stallions, can become very close affiliates in a very short time.

One of the fascinating observations of domestic horses is how well horses immediately can revert to natural social organization and survival behavior.

You also mentioned hormones. If your gelding was completely castrated, the gonadal hormones that drive his male sexual behavior are no longer present. While gonadal hormones certainly influence the level of male-type sexual, aggressive, and other social behavior, they are not necessary. Even geldings castrated at a very young age can retain high levels of each of these types of male behavior.

What can you do? Well, your decision to avoid one-on-one opportunities for your gelding to bond with a mare is probably a good strategy if you can do that. But if you can't, or if the problem should arise again, there are some things that have been judged helpful in some cases.

If you must travel, or house your horse next to a potential "mate," one thing to try is an odor-masking agent. There is one product made specifically for this called Acclimate. This is a waxy ointment with anise oil that is rubbed onto the nares (nostrils). The strong odor of the anise is meant to reduce the effectiveness of the social odors of inter-male aggression and male sexual response to females. In my experience, this product or other similarly smelly ointments applied to the nose usually don't completely eliminate social interest, but for many horses that approach does seem to dull their response a bit. It's probably worth a try.

To get to the point of being fairly compliant with domestic life, as it sounds like your gelding has been for you before this incident, requires considerable behavior modification. Your gelding has already suppressed a lot of natural urges, many of which would be much stronger than bonding. With the usual discipline and training, most horses can learn to suppress these natural tendencies, too. Should this type of behavior occur again, letting him know what is expected is likely to get his focus back on you. Even stallions can learn to suppress their sexual and aggressive urges.

We often recommend specific schooling in which the horse is worked on a longe line or in a round pen. The social challenges are presented, and the horse is kept going forward, paying attention to the handler. Discipline is usually more effective when the horse is in your control, for example, under saddle or in hand than when they are in a paddock or stall. But there, too, he could be schooled to come to you at the door and pay attention rather than kicking at you.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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