How to introduce a new horse to the herd

The addition of an equine friend is an exciting time!

However, having a new horse join an established herd can cause concerns for owners. It’s important to make your horse’s transition to a new herd as smooth and stress-free as possible. We’re here to help…

Herd hierarchy

Wild horses live in herds, so it’s natural for horses to enjoy spending time in a field with their friends. Although there are studies suggesting herd hierarchy is based on age, other research reveals that some equine herds manage their hierarchy based on physical strength or ability to find food.

If you want to know more about the herd your horse is about to join, spend some time observing them. Body language plays a significant role in herd dynamics, and understanding equine behaviour can help when you want to know who’s who in your horse’s herd!

Limit the risk of injury by pre-planning

Limit the risk of injury by thinking carefully about the best method for introducing your horse to their new herd.

It’s always worthwhile speaking to the owners of other horses already in the herd, before deciding how best to introduce your horse, because they’ll know more about the herd and which horses are likely to be your horse’s friends (or foe!).

Any concerns you might have should be raised with your vet prior to turning your horse out with a new herd, and it’s vital your horse is properly prepared for the introduction by:

  • Ensuring your horse is fully vaccinated.
  • Worming your horse.
  • Following your new livery yard’s quarantine procedures (to limit the spread of infectious diseases, such as strangles and equine flu).

a horse in a stable

Keep them out of reach

Stabling your horse near horses who are in their new herd might give them opportunity to get to know each other’s scents, and personas, before introducing them for the first time in a field.

Your livery yard may have the option to turn your horse out in a safe, secure paddock alongside the field of the new herd they’ll be joining. If this option is available to you, it’s a great way to find out who in the new herd may become your horse’s BFF!

Find a middleman

Finding a friendly, calm companion for your noble steed to spend time with prior to introducing your horse to a new herd is a great way to ease the tension.

Providing a pal from the herd for your equine friend to attach to may make their introduction less stressful for all, since developing a bond with an established member of the herd will help them to accept the new arrival.

Send them straight in

Many horse parents prefer to let their new equine manage their own first encounters in a herd. The reason for this is often linked to a preference for horses to handle their own dynamics with as little human interference as possible.

If you are sending your horse straight into the field with their new herd:

  • All horses should be protected by suitable turnout boots and a weather-appropriate rug (to limit any physical damage caused by potential trips, slips, bites, and kicks).
  • There should be plenty of space for all horses in the herd to escape each other and avoid getting trapped in any of the corners.
  • Owners must be present to observe interactions, and everyone needs to be prepared to step in to separate hostile horses from the herd.

Create a safe environment for horses to meet

Safety is top priority for horse parents, which is why we all want to create safe environments for our horses as they join their new herds.

A few key safety considerations include:

  • Sturdy post and rail fencing that protects the perimeter of the field (barbed wire – or similar – should never be used as it can cause serious injuries).
  • A water source (e.g. automatic drinker) located in an accessible position, without risk of horses being cornered while they’re drinking.
  • Any paddocks or fields used for equine grazing or turnout should be free from poisonous plants and potential hazards.
  •  Only turn horses out onto fields that benefit from ground of a suitable condition – if ground is too muddy or too hard, there’s an increased risk of horses slipping and/or hurting their legs.
  • Shelter should be safety-checked and available for all horses in the herd.

Monitor the meeting

Watch your horse’s interactions with their new herd for at least an hour after turning them out, and don’t walk away from them until all is calm.

It’s vital you’re around in case an argument arises, and you need to separate your horse from the herd (if, of course, it is safe to do so!).

Give horses feeding space

Horses should never be given a bucket of hard food in a field, especially in the presence of other horses, because it will cause fights that result in injuries. When feeding your horse, it’s best to do so in the safety of their stable, where they can enjoy their dinner in peace.

Winter wreaks havoc on our horses’ grazing and can leave them with very little to eat during their turnout time. Sometimes we’ll need to supplement grazing with hay, which can cause hassle for hungry horses!

To avoid any arguments over hay, place one pile of hay per horse (or tie one haynet per horse) in the field, with a large distance between each, along with two additional piles of hay (or haynets) at either end of the field. That way, there’s more than enough hay for horses in the herd, and there’s no chance of a scuffle thanks to the large amounts of space between each hay pile (or haynet).

Introduce horses during daylight

By introducing your horse to their new herd during the day, you’re reducing the risk of injury as they’re able to see where they’re going and to whom they’re saying ‘hi’!

Signs something’s amiss with your horse

While injuries – like bites and kicks – are often obvious (and should be treated as quickly as possible), changes to your horse’s behaviour could also indicate they aren’t happy in their new herd:

  • Eating less than usual or refusing to eat.
  • Being quieter than normal.
  • Reluctance to leave their stable/walk to the field.
  • Misbehaving while being led to/from the field.
  • Acting up while being ridden/lunged.

If you’re concerned about your horse’s mental or physical wellbeing, please contact your vet for advice. 

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