Introducing new horses into a herd can be challenging. The newcomer may be chased off by the dominant members of the herd because they feel threatened. While it’s scary to watch, it’s completely normal behavior, which is why it’s important to proceed slowly and to put in place measures that will ease the transition.
Understanding Herd Dynamics
Horses are herd animals by instinct, and when several are already living together, they develop their own hierarchy with leaders and followers. Once it is established, the hierarchy stays stable with dominant and subordinate relationships and a new horse can disrupt the dynamic and cause anxiety.
As a horse owner, your goal should be to carefully introduce your new horse to the herd and other animals on the farm. When you bring a new horse around other horses and farm animals, here are some tips to make the meet ups go more smoothly.
Start with Separation
Let’s assume that your new horse has arrived with a health certificate in hand. If not, the first step would be two weeks of quarantine. This is essential for horses coming from auctions and even some sales barns. However, if you know the new horse is healthy, you can introduce them in a safe way right from the beginning.
Initially, I always keep horses separated by a fence, ideally with a string of hot wire on top. You want them to become accustomed to each other but to keep a safe distance. Don’t be concerned if there’s a lot of squealing and snorting. That’s completely normal.
Even if you don’t usually keep halters on your hoses when turned out, you may want to do so, especially for your newest horse and the self-proclaimed leader of your herd. You want to be able to catch them easily just in case something goes wrong with the meet.
When possible, I will keep new horses separate from the herd for several days and as long as two weeks.
Putting Them Together . . . Gradually
When the horses have calmed down when being turned out next to each other, your next step is to introduce them to the other herd members. What I’ve found works best is to start by turning the new horse out with the least dominant member of your existing herd. Of course, there will be some prancing, posturing, sniffing, and tails up, but since horses enjoy being with a companion, they will settle down soon enough and this approach allows the new horse to make a connection and bond individually.
To help horses through the introduction, food can help. I usually put out extra piles of hay so each horse can have access to their own supply and not feel that the other is trying to steal it.
Try to pick a day when you can supervise the horses interacting for a good period of time, then separate them back into their original spots before leaving them alone. If they get along fine for several days, try introducing your new horse to a second horse in the herd. If you only have a few horses, it’s best to repeat this with each horse so your new horse can establish a relationship with each herd member before being thrown into the herd dynamic. If that’s not possible, you can also add the new horse to a smaller subsection of the herd first.
Some barns have strict gender separation rules, so that mares and geldings are not turned out together. In my experience, personality matters more than gender. If you have a very dominant horse, they will do better turned out with a horse that has a less dominant personality. Likewise, a horse that is very playful, may not get along with a horse that wants to be left alone.
Make a Safe Space
Another vital factor when introducing a new horse to the herd is making sure the space is safe. Cramped quarters can make introductions more difficult; giving your new and established horse enough space to move around is very important. While the two horses might choose to hang out together, that togetherness can’t be forced and there needs to be enough space for the horses to distance themselves as necessary.
Before you introduce the horses, make sure the fence is secure, the paddock or fields are not too muddy or icy and there is adequate shelter, food and water for all the horses turned out together. You don’t want a new horse being crowded at a run in shelter or trapped in a corner of the field.
You should also check that there is enough space within the area so that the animals can distance themselves if necessary.
Ideally, when horses are turned out together, especially for the first time, it’s a good idea that none of them have hind shoes. While this isn’t always possible, a kick from an unshod hoof is far less damaging should one of the horses make contact. While most of the initial posturing is mostly for show, you want to avoid injuries if at all possible. Always ask your veterinarian if you have concerns or if a horse comes in with bite marks or has been kicked.
The key takeaways for introducing a new horse are clear. First, allow horses to become familiar with the newcomer from the safety of their own space. Next, introduce the new horse to the least dominant horses in a herd individually. Make sure you give horses enough space and food that they can distance themselves from the stranger. Watch the initial interactions carefully, and remove horses that are overtly aggressive.
Usually, horses are able to adapt to a new herd in short order and your new herd will be grazing in harmony before you know it.
Periodically, I invite other bloggers to submit articles to Equestrian How To. This article is written by Melissa Waltz, who grew up on a family farm with 4 dogs, sheep, a few hens, gooses, and two Appaloosas (named Ronny & Barty), and one American Miniature Horses (Moosa). Before opting for a full-time vet-tech career, she interned at Fort Worth Botanical Gardens in Fort Worth, Texas, and has first-hand experience working with farm animals including horses and managing the animal relations within the farm.