How can I introduce my horse to a herd or a turnout buddy?
At some point or another, your horse may have the opportunity to live with a buddy, or even more than one. This may happen when he’s very young, and he goes to live with a group of horses of similar age. It could also happen if you have a new boarding stable, and the horses go out together. Or, he’s at a lay up facility, a retirement farm, or it’s just time for you to have some horses in your backyard.
Some horses can be friends, others are more like frenimies, and some just won't ever get along.
First and foremost, all horses that live together need to be current on vaccinations and have no parasites. You may want to do some booster vaccinations and run some fecal egg counts just to be sure. If the newest herd member is new to the farm, a quarantine for the new horse is a good idea. Work with your Veterinarian to determine how long the quarantine period should be. Any good quarantine plan involves isolation of the new horse. (It's not as bad as it sounds! Isolation guidelines can be found here.)
It’s important to remember a few things about horses living in herds. The first is that all horses know and understand the pecking order, even if they have lived in a stall their entire lives. You could say, horses know how to horse. The second is that it’s up to us to notice if the eventual pecking order becomes dangerous or your horse’s overall health declines.
I always like to “make introductions” over a few days, or weeks time. Ideally, you have an area, like a holding or catch pen, where the newest herd member can meet his buddies over a safe fence. Make sure no one can get their heads, necks, legs, or hooves stuck if there are shenanigans or leg strikes.
Catch pens are great for introductions, as well as turnouts when the weather is horrible and the grass is dangerous.
Catch pens or small sacrifice paddocks are great spots to introduce your horse to some new friends before everyone goes out together.
Without a holding area, it’s up to you to configure stalls or use smaller adjacent turnouts to make introductions. Ideally, allowing the new guy to be adjacent to the group for hours at a time and during meal times will simulate the eventual meeting and hopefully defuse any drama. Make sure all horses have room to move away from each other.
It also helps to know your horse’s personality (more dominant, bottom of the totem pole, easy going in the middle) so that you can pair your horse to the best herd if possible. Knowing the personalities of the herd horses also helps.
When you actually do turn the new guy free with his new horse friends, a few ideas to make things safer!
- If possible, let the new horse have some time in the paddock or pasture alone to explore, find water, and get his bearings.
- If you can, turn out the new guy with only one horse of the herd at a time. Otherwise, he could get overwhelmed and panic.
- Make sure everyone is exercised for the day, this may reduce the wild running, bucking, etc and excitement that all of the horses are likely to have.
- Make sure everyone has relatively full bellies! If you turnout before breakfast, the quest for food and pecking order will likely be amplified. You can also turnout the new guy just after lunch has been fed, so everyone will be focused on eating.
- Use safe feeding practices for the herd. No cutting corners, especially in the first days and weeks of the new herd dynamic.
- Boot up legs and use bell boots for all horses, just in case.
- I prefer to have no halters on horses while turned out, and especially in herd situations. If you absolutely must have a halter on someone, it must be breakaway, no 100% nylon halters.
- Ideally, there are no hind shoes in the herd, just in case. If there are, just know the risks.
- Monitor every horse in the herd for bites, scratches, nicks, etc. that may indicate some dangerous behaviors. You can certainly expect a few shallow and minor bites, but anything major drawing blood may be cause for alarm.
- Don’t just turn out and turn away. Spend some time, likely hours, watching closely. This is critical during meal times.
Remember that horses can, and will, figure things out. As with all things horses, it’s up to you to balance any risks with the benefits of your horse living in a herd.
What has worked for you in the past?