Introducing a new horse to a herd

Bringing a new horse home or looking to change arrangements within an existing herd? Check out some of the possible approaches.

Bringing a new horse home or looking to change arrangements within an existing herd? Check out some of the possible approaches.

It can seem very daunting knowing where to start with introducing a new arrival to an established herd – and remember, even two horses living together are an established herd as far as an incomer is concerned.

If you don’t know exactly the circumstances a newcomer has come from, disease control should be top of your considerations. Biosecurity and quarantine may seem like daunting words but they really needn’t be – it’s just simple everyday horse care and even small steps can make a huge difference. You can find out more about this here.

Biosecurity considerations aside, there are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to introducing new horses, from putting them all in together straight away to keeping them separate, grazing them alongside one another and introducing them very gradually. It’s really important to remember that all horses are individuals and as such there is no right and wrong answer to this situation. You should take into consideration the individual horses involved and monitor them closely throughout, always being prepared to go to a plan B if necessary.

General considerations when introducing a new horse

  • When introducing a new horse, however you choose to do it, please bear in mind at all times that highly stimulated horses are unlikely to be looking out for humans/handlers, so you and any helpers need to take great care not to get caught between the horses involved. This includes not getting trapped in a gateway/corner of the field. All handlers should be wearing appropriate hats, gloves and boots and know what the planned approach is beforehand. 
  • Make sure fence lines are very obvious, both outer boundaries and any internal dividing fences. You could run a strip of white electric tape down inside each fence line to help make them as visible as possible, especially if the newcomer is likely to go in in poor lighting conditions.
  • Considering removing hind (or all) shoes, if applicable.
  • Make sure there is plenty of food available, to discourage resource guarding. If you put hay out, for example, make sure there are several spare piles and that they’re all set well apart. Ideally you should also have more than one water source available too.
  • Remove any potential obstacles from the field, or fence them off securely if removal isn’t possible.
  • Make sure there is plenty of space available when they first go in together. This is very important!
  • Leave field-safe headcollars on the first few times they go out together in case you do need to catch/remove anyone.
  • Always have a plan B in case you do need to separate them again.

The “putting them all in together straight away” approach

Depending on the temperament of the horses involved, you may choose to put them in together straight away – for example, if you have a horse really not coping with being on their own you may reach the judgement that they are more likely to injure themselves being kept separately than through a new arrival going straight into the field.

When the horses first meet, there’s likely to be a bit of noise and posturing to begin with. There may well be natural behaviours such as squealing, kicking, striking with a front leg and general “introduction traits” which can appear extremely alarming if you’re not used to such behaviour. This is normal behaviour and should settle over time. If, however, you think they’re not settling down and/or one horse is being pursued aggressively and relentlessly, you may decide to separate them again. If this is the case, you should exercise extreme care when going into the paddock to keep yourself and any helpers safe.

If the horses involved are stabled part-time, you may well see a repeat of the squealing and posturing the first few times they’re put back out together again, although this should settle down more quickly each time. All horses – and therefore relationships – are individuals and how long it takes for the “new normal” to be established and the new horse to settle in fully will vary accordingly. Remember that it’s normal for it to take weeks or months for a horse to settle in a new home rather than days.

The “keeping them all separate until the time seems right to put them in together” approach

If you choose to take the approach of keeping horses turned out side by side until you feel the time is right to put them in together, remember that horses can take much longer to settle than we expect and you’ll need to allow for this in your plan.

When turning a new horse out alongside the existing herd, make sure the fences are safe and they are unlikely to get caught up if they do strike out at one another with a fence between them. Signs to look out for that they’ve settled next to each other include consistently grazing quietly – and/or potentially grazing alongside either side of the fence together – as well as any interactions over the fence being calm and friendly.

You can take droppings from each paddock and place in the other one, so that the ponies can sniff this to find out more information about their neighbour, as they would in the wild or as a stallion would do.

If you have a yard area linked to your stables (making sure it’s safe to do so and any other owners in the area are aware of what’s happening) the next step could be to put one of the horses in their stable and let the other one into the yard so they can interact over the door. Anywhere with solid fencing that the horses feel safe enough to touch could be used instead – for instance an arena fence or a wall that they can reach over.

When you do decide to put them in together, make sure they have plenty of space to get out of each other’s way to begin with. To prevent resource guarding, you should make sure there is a plentiful supply of food and water. If you put piles of hay out, make sure there are several extra and that they’re all well-spaced out. Ideally you should have more than one water source too.

If you have multiple horses in your herd, don’t be surprised if there is a change in dynamics even amongst existing herd members once the initial settling in period has passed. You may be concerned that the new horse doesn’t appear to be interacting with the existing residents very much, or at all, but this isn’t something to worry about. Many horses are very comfortable living with others but like their own space within the same field and may never be seen to “mutually groom” others in the herd. Others may need more time to get confident enough to approach another herd member/be comfortable with another herd member approaching them to suggest a grooming session.

If you need more advice or have specific questions about introducing a new horse, you can always call our Advice Line in office hours on +44 (0)1953 497 238.

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