Friday, June 19, 2009

New to the “Neigh”borhood: Safely introducing a new horse to an established herd

By: Darlene M. Cox (

Those of us who have been around horses for a number of years can attest to the trials and tribulations of introducing a new horse to an established equine community. I can attest I have held my breath many times watching a newly introduced horse fend for itself as it is loosed into the pasture and domain of a resident herd. Some horses have gotten off lucky by only being chased around for a while, before everyone settled down. Others, however, have borne the bite marks and suffered the kicks rained upon them by dominant members of the herd hierarchy.

Aggressive reactions of the herd upon the newcomer simply define herd behavior throughout the millennia. Herds are established based upon a pecking order, with one horse maintaining the alpha position and sequential inferior positions being held by each horse in the herd. Each horse within that herd constantly attempts to improve their ranking position, and you can watch daily skirmishes, actions, and communications between the horses as they involve themselves in their attempts to secede to a higher rank or keep the one they have; even the alpha horse must defend its position from herd members who aspire to leadership. The introduction of a new horse is guaranteed to add fuel to the fire as the herd will be re-defined to include the new horse somewhere on that hierarchical chart.

While one cannot be guaranteed that altercations will not result, there are a few plans that may provide the best avenue in making the best preparations possible for a minimized aggressive response from the established herd upon the newcomer. While these plans vary with regard to pasture size and accommodations, you may find one that works well for you.

The most important thing to do before a new horse is introduced into any existing herd is to make sure it is disease and illness free. Any new horse arriving on your property should have an up-to-date negative Coggins (Equine Infectious Anemia) certificate, a current medical examination report from a veterinarian, and verification that all required vaccinations have been received. Upon arrival, the new horse should be placed in a quarantine area, if available, for at least 7-to-10 days before introducing him to any resident horses. This precaution may save you time and money if an illness presents itself a few days after the arrival of the new horse. The quarantine area could be a turnout paddock, one of your rotational pastures, or a stall. Any place is good as long as there is no exposure for direct contact with your resident horses. Keeping your newcomer in a separate pasture or paddock will allow a line of sight and smell for all horses involved; kind of a pre-introductory introduction where everyone knows there’s a new kid on the block. This separation will also give the new horse time to become accustomed to his new home, the layout of the pasture or paddock that he is in, and the routines of his new owners.

After the quarantine time has elapsed, it is time to begin the formal introduction process. Prior to any introductions, I remove the hind shoes of all horses involved. This will hopefully limit the severity of any resultant kick that may be sustained by any horse. The one tried-and-true method that I have personally and successfully used is to slowly begin the introductions one horse at a time, beginning with the lowest ranking horse. This horse is brought to the pasture housing the new horse, making the turf mutually known by each and the 1:1 ratio an even par. Once the horses are together, stand back and observe their interaction, being ever vigilant for violent, over-the-top behavior that could become injurious to either horse. You can expect to hear snorting and squealing, and witness some striking, rearing, non-violent kicking, and perhaps a bit of chasing/running. This is all part of the introduction process. These two are, at that moment, defining their status in the herd of two, and your once lowest dominance horse may be vying for the top position in this new herd. This process should be worked out in short order, ending with both of them contentedly grazing within a short time.

Depending upon the size of your herd, introduce another horse from the established herd into the “new” herd every day or so, allowing time for the small skirmishes to subside before introducing another horse. Always end this process with the last introduction being that of the alpha horse, from whom you can expect the greatest reaction to the new horse, but at which time the others may not add to the fray since they have already had their introduction/acceptance time and have established the semblance of a new pecking order. One important rule of thumb: Never, ever introduce horses at feeding time. Herd dominance is most highly defined when horses are being fed, and to introduce horses at this time can spell disaster.

This method works best if you have the time and space to allow for the introductions. Always observe the introduction and be ready for action to remove the established horse that is brought in to meet the new horse should a severe skirmish erupt. Be mindful to look for any resulting injuries to either horse and treat them accordingly.

Most importantly, you must consider your personal safety during these times of new introduction. Always be mindful of the communication going on between the horses, be watchful of tell-tale signs of potential aggression and avoid being caught in the middle of such bouts. Don’t rush in to break up a squabble, rather wait until it ends and then assess any damages that may have been sustained by either horse.

I have witnessed the following introduction method used by friends and it has seemingly worked out well; although, I cannot attest to its complete efficacy as I only witnessed a portion of the process. Two or three horses were placed with the new horse in a round pen and were worked in unison. The premise of this process is to have all the horses focus on you and to work together until they collectively draw their attention to you and what you are requesting them to do. This limits the amount of time they have to react to the new horse, although they will be aware of each other’s presence. You should watch for signs that a skirmish may be beginning, and increase the pressure on the horses to move out. This collective working establishes your ranking to the new horse and re-establishes it to those in the existing herd. Several sessions may be required, and the new horse should be removed to an isolated area after each and re-introduced to the other horses in the round pen for subsequent sessions.

This method will require a lot of attention on your part to keep skirmishes from erupting and to keep yourself safe. With the completion of each session, you should be able to discern that the horses are becoming relaxed with each other and that the new horse is being accepted. Once this becomes evident, you can introduce the new horse to the herd in the pasture, and since there will be an air of familiarity with the newcomer and established herd, the resultant skirmishes should be limited in intensity and duration.

Lastly, if you have large pastures that are hazard free, you can simply turn a new horse out with the herd and let him become acquainted in the way that new horses have naturally made introductions throughout time. As long as there is ample running room, and no areas in which the new horse can become entrapped and surrounded, this method should work out fine. Removing the hind shoes from all horses may be prudent to assuring greater safety to all involved.

Regardless of the method used, the bottom line is to always remain present during the introduction process and to assess all horses involved for possible injuries; and never place yourself in harm’s way. Before long, a new pecking order will be established and harmony will return to your herd…..until someone new moves into the “neigh”borhood!

Happy trails!

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