What you need to know about herd-kept horses and introducing new horses to a herd

Introducing a new horse to a herd is not as straightforward as you may think. There’s a misconception of ”there are already so many horses, why can’t you just add another to the herd?” but, in fact, it’s quite an art to pull this off while still keeping the existing herd happy. It’s very stressful to watch a new horse join an existing herd, even though this behaviour is all completely natural for them. Something all owners must remember when keeping horses in herds.

Here are some important reminders about herd-kept horses, and introducing new horses to a herd:

  • Owners and horses move stable yards all the time, but sometimes the fact that horses have placed trust in their herds and their “home territory” is overlooked. We as humans expect them to adapt, sometimes without thinking how it must feel for the horse to be uprooted from a place of security and known source of food, of preferred horse friends and a well-defined place in the hierarchy, to be moved somewhere completely unknown to them. They trust no one until they learn the new structures of their new home.
  • The first few weeks are very trying, not only for the newbie, but for the entire herd. They are in a position where they need to redefine their hierarchy and make place for a newcomer. This short space of time when a newbie enters a herd is the perfect opportunity for the youngsters to challenge their rank, and sometimes others may feel the need to fight for their long-held standing. Not only does the risk of injury increase, but so do the stress levels. Just like humans, stress can be debilitating for horses and can make them vulnerable to infections. The newcomer’s immune system is already compromised under stressful conditions, for this reason it’s very important to keep a new horse separated when they are first moved for health and parasite checks.
  • In the wild, horses roam continuously but domestic horses are confined to much smaller areas. Their nutritional need to roam is taken care of by regular feeding patterns, but their mental state also needs to be taken into consideration. Freedom to move freely is essential to a horses well being physically and mentally, keeping them in small spaces is a stressful situation for them and they can become distressed when in fear. When introducing new horses to a herd, there has to be a large area for them to be able to escape any aggression. As soon as horses are introduced in a small space, aggression and the likelihood of injury become much higher.
  • It is vitally important that, with herd horses, there are excellent managerial practises in place to mitigate the risks of parasitic diseases. This needs to be controlled properly in order for a herd to be healthy.
  • When it comes to babies, they are often separated from their herds before they have a chance to learn proper socialization skills. Youngsters are often deprived of these important learning opportunities. Removing a weanling from their herd of birth at four or six months of age may confound their acquisition of interpersonal skills. Some horses are forced to lead solitary lives for long periods of time and are then placed in herds, without these interpersonal skills learnt in the months after birth, the horse may struggle to integrate. For example, racing and show stables where horses spend most of their time in stables or turned out alone, can lead to socialization problems.

It’s imperative to manage the process from A to Z when a new horse is introduced to an existing herd. Reduce the hazards and start with basic precautions such as parasite control and health care. Here are some ways to make sure you introducing a new horse in the most suitable way:

  1. You need to understand your herd’s dynamics. Study the hierarchy and know each horses personality so that you can predict which ones will be the troublemakers and who will be the least aggressive. Adjust your management routine to accommodate the newcomer for the introduction period.
  2. New horses or any existing aggressive horses need to have their shoes removed for safety purposes, from back feet especially. At least until the introduction and integration is complete.
  3. Walk around and make sure that the area where you will doing introductions is safe and free of wires, sharp edges, and anything a frightened horse may run into without being aware of it while trying to escape any aggression. Ensure there are no places that horses can get trapped either.
  4. Place the new horse in an adjoining paddock for a few days so they can assess their new situation, while still being able to smell the others around him. Move a middle-ranking, non-aggressive horse in with the newcomer so that the two can bond before the mass introduction.
  5. Always make the first introduction when it is daylight, and you are free to stay and watch them. Also make sure it is not slippery or raining. This needs to be done nowhere near feeding time to avoid any feed time aggression. The horses should call off the chase (at least temporarily) when they get tired or sweaty, if they don’t you may need to remove the new horse for the good of the herd for the meantime.
  6. For a few weeks after the introduction, be particularly observant of all the herd members, checking for bites, bruises, lamenesses, sniffles, dull coats, lethargy and anything indicating illness or injury.

Even though it is stressful to introduce a new horse to a herd, remember this is natural and is an innate aspect of equine nature. Horses have been through these introductory battles for at least 10,000 years, usually without benefit of safety precautions taken by concerned managers. In a matter of hours or days the group will most likely have settled into a sedate routine once again with the outsider now an accepted member of a smooth-functioning social order, resulting in a happier horse herd.