Getting a new horse is super exciting (doesn’t matter if it’s your first one or your fifth one), but getting the new member to join your already existing herd can result in some tense moments.
Horses are herd animals and you should always strive to have your horse live in a herd, where she can have physical contact and engage in social interaction with other horses.
If you can’t get another horse to keep your horse company, consider getting a small pony, mule or a donkey or even a goat, if you can’t get your hands on anything else.
In a herd there’s a social ladder that defines how daily life works, and getting a new horse to join an already existing herd can definitely cause you some worry.
Regardless of how you’re going to introduce the new horse to the existing herd, keeping the newcomer apart for a while is a good idea just to make sure that he’s healthy and free of any diseases.
Give the horses enough space
Now, I prefer to introduce a new horse to a herd of horses that I’m familiar with and have a history of working with, so I know that I can easily separate them if necessary (e.g. not have the horses running away from me and being impossible to catch in a pinch) – but sometimes that’s not just an option.
If I’m introducing a horse to a herd that is made of up horses that I don’t know that well, such as when my horse is going to live at a livery yard with other people’s horses, I’ll do the first introductions with a solid barrier (such as adjacent paddocks) in between to prevent injuries to anyone’s horse.
It’s a good idea to let horses get to know each other with a lot of space around because some of them may want to stamp and squeal and run away kicking and bucking – this is a very unfortunate place to be hanging by the end of the lead rope.
Even just a sassy toss of the head can clip you in a bad way and I’ve seen people end up with broken noses and split lips this way.
If the new horses was a dominant horse in the previous herd, there may especially be some posturing between him and the most dominant horse in the new herd.
It’s usually best to let horses define how the new member is going to fit into the existing social matrix and keep out of so long as there isn’t a threat of severe injury.
Make sure that the space is clear of any obstructions and that there’s enough space for the horses to disperse and move around without getting hurt. If the footing is icy or muddy, you can turn your horses loose in the indoor arena instead (if available), or simply wait until the conditions get better.
When you want to stagger the meeting, you can turn out the new horse into the pasture recently occupied by the herd he’s going to join and allow him to familiarise himself with the pasture and the smells of the other horses.
When you let out the herd into the pasture after the new horse has been there, they’ll also pick up on his presence and smell the places he visited carefully – especially where he urinated or defecated.
Settling into the hierarchy of the herd
No matter if you’re adding to a herd of two or twenty, there’s probably going to be some posturing, prancing, snorting, squealing, stamping, sniffing and general milling around as the terms of the herd are laid out for the newcomer.
First to greet the new horse, will be the highest ranking horse. Quickly followed by other horses in descending rank, until the lowest ranking horse has has a chance to see the new boy.
The smaller the herd, the more quickly it’ll all be settled and everything will go back to business as usual.
Most likely the newcomer will spend the next days on the fringes of the herd and forming bonds with the individuals in the herd before he really settles in.
3 ways to introduce a new horse to your herd
The way you introduce a new horse to your herd will depend on the individuals in the herd, their dynamic, the new horse and you. So long as you get the horse into the herd without severe injuries, you’ve done a good job and how you did it is less important.
But in case you’re working with unfamiliar horses or an unfamiliar stable, here are some options.
Gradually introducing your horse to the herd
When you want to take it slow, maybe this is your first horse or he’s new to you and you want to spend time getting to know him, you can keep your horse separate but within view of the herd.
This way they’ll get a chance to see and smell one another first. You can then gradually move your horse closer and closer, moving him up a paddock or picketing him closer every day.
This is a good option if you’re working with small paddocks where biting and kicking – even though the fence – is a risk, or you’ve got a fancy performance horse that cost you a pretty penny.
You can keep increasing the time they spend in each other’s vicinity and decreasing the distance between them every time they settle down and stay around each other quietly.
Once you’ve gotten them up to the same fence and life just goes on as usual, you can put them in the same paddock together.
Just because you’ve given them ample time to sniff each other before doesn’t mean that there won’t be kicking, biting, squealing or galloping around.
There will be some initial excitement at having the new horse in the same paddock but this will usually settle down quite quickly.
Adding the horses in one by one
Another gradual method is to turn out the new horse with one of the herd horses alone. As they settle into their existence together, you let in the next member and so on.
Depending on the personalities in the herd, you can decide if you want to start by introducing high or low ranking members.
If you begin by introducing from the low end of the herd, most of the horses will already have gotten over the initial excitement by the time you let the top horse in.
Putting them all together from the start
If you have plenty of space to do it, putting the horses together and letting them work it out is often a pretty good choice.
Be prepared that the newcomer can end up with some bite and kick marks in the scuffle that will erupt as everyone jostles to get to know the new horse.
So long as there’s more than enough space for horses to get away from each other without running into anything or hurting themselves or others, any damage should be minor. Keep in mind that (with enough space) horses are masters at controlling when they make contact.
With sufficient space the newcomer should pretty quickly settle into the herd and find his place among them.
However, if the newcomer is very assertive and feels like he should be higher up in the ranks, it can take some time before things settle down.
A new horse coming in and reordering the top tiers of the herd is going to cause some resistance and it’ll take a while for the horses to settle their differences.
If you’ve got two horses that get very dominant and start a proper power struggle over the top spot, just keep your eyes open to make sure it doesn’t get too serious.
Considerations when adding to a herd
Occasionally, there will be a mix of horses that just can’t live together and you’ll have to make other accommodations. For instance, colts growing up will eventually have to be gelded or separated from the herd.
This is especially true if the herd has a resident stallion and you should remove the colts into their own bachelor herd before the stallion does it for you – with potentially severe consequences.
You should also never introduce a new horse to the herd over one pile of hay. The days following the integration you should be particularly vigilant with making sure that all the horses are getting to eat enough and putting out some extra piles of hay is the best way.
You should have more hay piles in the pasture than you do horses to make sure that when a horse is chased off one spot, he can go find another one.
How can you tell that the new horse has been accepted by the herd?
You’ll know that the new horse as been assimilated into the herd when everyone has stopped bickering and are grazing together like nothing ever happened.
There may well be some squabbles over the coming days as your new horse settles into the herd and finds his place. If he’s happy to be the most subordinate horse, keep an eye on that he’s not bullied to the point of being injured.
The general galloping around and excited buzz should die down as soon as the herd accepts the new member.
If you see your new horse out on the fringes of the herd initially, that’s perfectly normal. Eventually, you’ll start seeing him find his preferred mates and start mutual grooming with the other members.
Again, there are many ways to accomplish adding a new horse to an existing herd and there really isn’t a wrong or right way to do it – so long as you make sure horses and humans all stay safe and sound.