By Karine Burt
Here’s how to reduce the risks of introducing new horses into established herds.
If you’ve ever watched a new horse try to gain entry into an established herd, you will probably never forget it. The violence of the herd members as they pursue the newcomer can be frightening. And yet this is all completely natural behavior that, if you heed the whys and whats of herd dynamics in managing the introductions, needn’t cause more than passing disruption.
In searching stability the outsider is not the only one affected by the change: during the several weeks following the introduction of a new herd member, the other horses have to redefine their hierarchy to make a place for the stranger. This momentary uncertainty in the social rankings may be the perfect moment for an ambitious young horse to challenge the system, or it may be such an unsettling time that usually docile horses battle fiercely to protect their long-held social rank. Not only does the risk of injury skyrocket, but the turmoil, in general, can be quite stressful.
You can almost bet that a newcomer is going to be put through a hazing period when entering an established group. But you can manage the situation to greatly reduce the hazards, starting with preliminary precautions even before the introductions take place. As for disease control, quarantining a new horse is the ideal approach, but it’s not practical in most horse keeping situations. Effective quarantine requires that the new horse be stabled in a separate building at some distance from the resident horses and under the care of different handlers for several weeks. The following advance preparations will reduce both health and injury risks:
Know your herd’s dynamics. Study the hierarchy and personality traits of your horses so that you can predict who will be the troublemakers and who will be the least aggressive. Much of the aggression displayed during the introduction will come from lower-rung horses looking to climb up the social ladder.
After all your preparations, the new horse arrives. Presuming that the stranger is none the worse for his travels and that the environment and management routine has been “vetted” and corrected, it’s time to concentrate on minimizing aggression in the meeting of old and new horse.
- Turn the new guy out in an adjoining paddock for at least two or three days so that the horses can meet but still flee if threatened. However, the fence between the two paddocks needs to be sturdy and safe (no hoof-snaring wire, especially) or have a “hot” wire along the top to discourage contact by the horses on both sides of the fence.
- Move a middle-ranking, non-aggressive horse in with the newcomer so that the two can bond before the mass introduction.
- If possible, put the new horse in the pasture alone or with his new buddy so he can learn the lay of the land. Once familiarized, he’ll be less likely to run into danger trying to escape from aggression once the other horses are returned to the field.
- Make the big introduction during daylight, when the new horse can see well to run and you can be on hand for several hours to observe and step in if things get out of hand. Hold off if the footing is slick from mud or ice or the temperature is stressfully warm.
- Release the newcomer at least 15 to 20 minutes after feeding so there will be no food fights and most of the herd members are likely to be grazing or resting. They’ll be more relaxed then, and post-feeding running around shouldn’t cause a problem if the horses were fed lightly and if the other aspects of their daily routine (other than the new horse) have not been altered.
- Call off the chase (at least temporarily) when they get tired or sweaty. If they don’t, a deeper-seated animosity is fueling the aggression and you may need to remove the new horse for the good of all.
- For a couple of weeks after the introduction, be particularly observant of all the herd members, checking for bites, bruises, lameness, sniffles, dull coats, lethargy and so forth, indicating illness or injury.
Aggression may be present in single-gender herds. Mares may threaten each other to establish dominance but usually stay relatively calm. Geldings will play rough, even when kept apart from the mares but they usually aren’t a serious danger to each other. If necessary, one quiet gelding can be kept with a herd of mares without causing a problem, and of course, a stallion can be kept among mares, with the obvious consequences.
For the good of the entire herd, a Stallion or a sexually aggressive Gelding is best kept only with other geldings and away from mares. “If a gelding was gelded a little late, say after four or five years of age, he might herd mares, fight with other geldings and mount mares.”
Throughout the strain that usually arises when an unfamiliar horse arrives upon the scene, remember that the uproar is an innate aspect of equine nature. Horses have been fighting and surviving these introductory battles for at least 10,000 + years, usually without benefit of safety precautions taken by concerned owners.
Keep in mind that horses aggressive behavior is intended only to threaten, not to maim or kill. In a matter of days or even hours the group will most likely have settled into a sedate routine once again with the outsider now an accepted member of a smooth-functioning equine society.