Friday, December 12, 2008

Introducing a New Horse to the Herd

We have had many opportunities over the years to introduce new horses into our small herd and have discovered a few ways to do this which make it easier not only on the horses, but on my nerves. It’s never easy; sometimes it goes smoothly and other times we end up with kick and bite marks on the new horse. I’ve also felt badly when I see the new guy being shunned and forced to stand off by himself.

We are lucky in that we have two widely separated fields – a summer pasture across the road and a small acreage close to the house – making it fairly easy to bring in a new horse during the months when I can have the horses over at the far pasture. I put the new guy here in the home field by himself, as my first concern is that he isn’t bringing any infectious diseases to my animals. (A current Coggins test for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) is a must; a vet exam before purchase and proof that he’s up-to-date on all his shots is also a very good idea.)

Not only does keeping him isolated for a few days make sure that he’s healthy, it also gives him a chance to explore his new home by himself. He can discover the fence line at his leisure, without being chased into it by a dominant herd member. After a few days of being by himself, I bring my most amiable horse over and put him in with the new horse, letting them "buddy up." This usually doesn’t take very long as neither one really likes being alone.

Then one by one I bring the other horses and put them into the field with the new horse. With each addition, the poor new horse gets chased around and left alone again as the herd re-settles into its hierarchy. But by now the newcomer knows his boundaries and isn’t likely to get hurt running blindly away in a panic.

I never add another horse when it’s close to feeding time, as they need plenty of time to sort things out and get a little used to each other before adding another dynamic into the mix.

There have been times when we haven’t had the luxury of being able to use both pastures. Those times I’ll use the arena as a temporary paddock. It is close enough that all the horses can see each other, but far enough away so that they can’t share a fence line. My old mare’s first reaction to meeting a new horse is to squeal and strike out and if there’s a fence in between, there’s a possibility of her getting a foot caught in the fence.

After time the pecking order in the new herd is established and everyone settles in. Once I see the new herd member is calm enough to lie down among the others I know that all is well.

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