Are Horses Territorial?

Eastern Washington’s stunning scenery.

Several years ago I took my horse, Chaco, and his pasture mate, Barley, on a summer vacation to the hills of eastern Washington.  A friend of mine had 75 acres, and the back 45 acres of sage brush hillside were Chaco’s and Barley’s home for two weeks.  The climate was dry and hot; the dirt was like powder.  The horses loved it.

To get to this back 45 acres, we had to pass through a several acre field where my friend kept her herd of 10 horses.  I knew many of her horses well, and especially the herd leader.  Other than Chaco, he was one of the fairest horse leaders I have ever known.

He could set a pace and lead you out of the mountains and get you back to the truck and trailer by dark.  He was a wonderful protector of his herd.  If someone unsavory ever came on the property, he didn’t take his eyes off them until they left.  While he had boundaries and wasn’t afraid express them, he didn’t waste energy on unnecessary things.  I never saw him be overly aggressive.  The best way to describe him was he was fair and of sound mind.

One evening after I fed Chaco his special food down by the house, I walked him and Barley up to their 45-acre home in the dark.  There was just enough light from the moon and stars for me to be able to see.  Horses have spectacular night vision, so walking in the dark was quite comfortable for Chaco and Barley.

To get to where we were going, we had to walk up this canyon-like corridor that opened to the field where the herd of 10 horses lived.  Then we would have to walk through that herd’s home to get to the 45-acre hillside where Chaco and Barley would go.

As we walked, I kept Chaco and Barley behind me so it was clear to them that I was leading this little herd of three:  me, Chaco and Barley.  Barley always deferred to Chaco, and Chaco would defer to me, so if and when we came upon the herd of 10 horses, I would be the one calling the shots.  The last thing I wanted was Chaco and Barley thinking they needed to negotiate or defend themselves when we reached the 10 horses.  That would be dangerous for me.

As we walked up the corridor, the sky was midnight black and speckled with so many stars I had difficulty recognizing any constellations.  It was breathtaking and peaceful.  We were about 2/3 of the way up the corridor when I heard a set of hooves come thundering toward us.  I stopped and made sure Chaco and Barley were behind me.   I stood tall with open, relaxed, square shoulders to communicate to this approaching horse to stop at a distance from us.

Sure enough, the herd leader came into focus, his white/gray coat easily seen in the dark.  Once he saw us, he slowed to a walk and stopped about 25 feet away, his head up, ears pricked forward and both eyes on us.

I was quite happy that he stopped where he did.  A horse’s personal space is about 10-15 feet out from its body in all directions.  12 feet out from me and my herd, and 12 feet out from him are 24 feet and right about where he stopped.  There was no need to do anything because we had both just acknowledged each other’s presence at a safe distance.  He was respecting my space, and I was respecting his space.

I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but it didn’t matter.  We had mutual acknowledgement and respect, and neither of us had a need to make the other do anything.

In my mind I’m thinking, “Hey, it’s just us.  Sorry to alarm you.  We’re just walking up to the 45-acre hillside to drop off Chaco and Barley.”

We had reached the edge of his territory, and as protector of his herd, he wanted to know who we were.  Out of respect for him and his home and herd, I didn’t move, but I also did not give up any of my ground.  We were both square to each other, and we were both looking at each other with both eyes.  (Both eyes in horse language mean complete attention).

Neither of us moved, and yet we were both very much aware.  A move forward by either us at that point would be considered an aggressive move.  A retreat by either of us at that point would be a submissive move.   Both of us stood in the neutral place of being neither aggressive, nor submissive. It was the meeting of two leaders, both respectful of the other, and both aware of their responsibility to their respective herds, and both not wanting any trouble.

That moment lasted several moments.  I could have stayed there forever:  the diamond stars glittering in the night sky, this powerful gray horse meeting us at the gate to his field, fulfilling his duty as protector of his herd, and Chaco and Barley waiting respectfully behind me.

For me, it’s moments like these that I treasure most about interacting with horses.  I have found that if I am patient and willing to wait long enough, horses will make their own decisions.  It’s fascinating to me to find out what those decisions are.

So on this beautiful evening, in the presence of all these horses, I waited to see what would happen.  After thoroughly checking us out from a distance, the big gray decided we were not a threat.  He stepped aside to let us pass through his home.  I was honored.

In order to be as unobtrusive as possible, we found a path around the herd of 10 horses and headed for the far gate to the 45-acres hillside.  The resident herd was curious and began following us with a relaxed posture.  I did not want any problems, so I did not allow any of them to get too close to us.  We crossed their home without incident.

Two weeks later, on our last day there, I walked up to the 45-acre hillside to catch Chaco and Barley to lead them across the resident herd’s field for the last time.  I had grown to like that twice daily walk that took about 30 minutes round trip.  The crunch of dry grass and soft dirt under my feet had begun to feel like home.

Near the gate to the 45-acre hillside, the leader and his herd had congregated.  They had never been at that gate before, but on this day they were there.  I sensed that they knew we were leaving for the last time.

I spent a long moment just hanging out and being with them, breathing, relaxing and enjoying their company and the beautiful place in which they lived.  I thanked them, the herd leader in particular, for sharing their home with us for the past two weeks.  It all began with him allowing us to traverse his territory without incident that first night.

With a heart full of appreciation for him and his herd, I reluctantly said goodbye.  It was a bittersweet moment as I gathered up Chaco and Barley, and we walked through the resident herd’s home for the final time.

I savored every step down that hillside and the 360 degree panoramic view before me: sparkling blue sky, a few token billowing clouds, the river valley below us, and the mountains framing the land. This time, the horses watched us go.  As we neared our exit, I looked back one last time, took it all in, then dipped out of sight.

Chaco following the resident herd leader on the trail.
Preparing to leave on our last day.

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