Introducing New Horses into Your Herd
By Joanne Terry
In an ideal world, all of us would have enough pens, corrals and cross fencing with safe materials so that integrating a new horse into your present herd would not be much of an issue. This is not the case for most of us, however, so the following is a general guideline and some tips on how to safely integrate a new horse into your herd at home.
First, know your horses! Study your herd, and learn the position each horse has within the herd. Every herd has a ranking of horses in order of dominance. Usually a mare will be in the top position. This is true even in the wild. A stallion may have “his” herd and drive away other competing male horses, but a mare is almost always top dog. She is the one who eats and drinks first, while the other horses stand respectfully waiting their turns.
Second, think about the new horse you are bringing home. Is it a mare or a gelding? Is it young? Has it ever been turned out with other horses? Is it sound enough and is it strong enough to be able to get away or tolerate being chased by other horses?
Third, recognize that integrating a new horse safely can take time. I allow a minimum of two weeks, and often more. The new horse is kept in a pen, where it can meet the other horses over a safe fence - in my case, that means a pipe fence with non-climb horse wire. Allow a few days for everyone to meet. Once they all have settled down, and there is no more ear pinning, striking, kicking, then you are ready for the next step.
Recognize potential problems before they happen. Such problems include trying to integrate a new gelding into a herd of mares which already has a gelding. Often the established herd gelding will act studdy and attack the new gelding. Mixed sex turn outs are not as easy to accomplish, and in some cases not possible at all, when there are mares and two or more geldings involved.
Young horses, such as weanlings and yearlings, do better when they have a buddy or two their own age. This way they are not bothering the older horses as much. At the same time, though, often young ones can be easily frightened when out in the pasture by themselves. They rely on the guidance of the older horses to let them know when a situation requires flight or to continue eating grass. The older horses will also help protect the younger ones against possible dangers, such as a pack of stray dogs or coyotes.
Control the initial turn out. I turn out the newcomer in the pasture by themselves, or with one or two other non-dominant horses. Allow the new horse to learn the pasture, in the daylight hours. I never EVER leave during this process. Chances are you do not know how your new horse is going to react in a new situation. Is it going to respect the fencing or try to jump it? Will it even recognize a fence line. There have been some LSER horses who can’t see anything other than a board fence. Some have never been around electric fence, and will run right through it. Likewise, some have never been around barbed wire.
Once the new horse has checked out its new pasture, then try adding horses, one at a time, starting with the least dominant. Be alert and ready to run interference. It helps if you have a pen that you can throw open the gate and allow the new horse to run into if it is being chased by the herd, and then close the gate to prevent the bullies from entering. I also carry a lunge whip to be used to keep pursuing horses away from me, and halter and lead rope over my shoulder, in case I need to catch the bully for a “time out”. Beware about trying to catch the new horse when the other horses are chasing it. In their excitement, they may fail to respect your space and you could get run over or kicked. Catching the new horse also makes it an easier “target” for the horses that are loose, and they may not stop their efforts to drive it away, even though it is now being led by you. The new horse could panic and try to escape, in which case you now have a horse running around the pasture dragging a lead rope, being chased by other horses.
One tactic that can help, if one of your dominant horses will not accept the newcomer, is to keep them next to each other in separate enclosures for a period of days. As horses are social animals, they often will “buddy up”. Beware that this acceptance may change when they are turned out.
Another hint is to use “Acclimate”. Acclimate is a scented stick, much like a roll-on deodorant, which is rubbed on the muzzle of the non-accepting horse. It masks the smell of the new horse and if there is no smell to trigger a reaction, often the dominant horse, over the course of a few days, will buddy up across the fence with the newcomer.
Herbal supplements can also help reduce aggression in both mares and geldings. They should be added to the feed for a few days prior to turning out the newcomer.
Use the weather to your advantage. Turning out new horses is much easier on a hot day than it is in winter. Likewise, if there is a front coming in, and the wind is blowing, that will make the herd much more excitable.
I usually bring the newcomer in at night for the first week, to prevent fence accidents at night. But likewise, I will pen up the herd right next to the newcomer, and turn the newcomer out first and then the herd, in the morning. This way you do not have the newcomer running frantically out into the pasture looking for the herd and getting everyone all stirred up. If the newcomer has not been turned out on grass recently, then the turnout needs to be even more gradual to prevent possible founder on rich grass. Start with an hour twice a day, and increase by an hour or two every day so that their digestive system has a chance to adjust to the new diet.
Be aware that feeding time can also be dangerous. The new horse, especially if it is young, may try to stand by the gate at feeding time. This position is usually reserved for the dominant horse, who often will rush up and try to drive the newcomer away from the gate. Be ready to drive the attacker back so that the new horse is not trapped or pinned against the gate, but to the extent it is safe to do so, allow the dominant horse to remind the new one of proper gate etiquette. You need to be very aware of your position and not allow yourself to be pinned or hurt if the dominant horse attacks the new one. I prefer all of mine to stand some distance away from the gate so that I can safely move horses to their feeding areas. I always start with the most dominant horse and work down the hierarchy to the bottom horse.
The above suggestions, although they appear to be time consuming, will alleviate many potential problems and help prevent injuries.