Bringing Home a New Horse
Horses are very social animals who will group together and form herds if given the chance. Because of this, new horses are often integrated into existing groups of horses with relative ease. It’s still a good idea to consider the comfort of your new horse and your existing horses whenever you introduce someone new to your stable and herd. This comfort can be maximized—and problems minimized—by following a few guidelines when you bring home your new horse.
Preparing for Your New Arrival
- Inspect your barn Even if you already have horses in the space you plan to bring your new horse, you’ll find it useful to inspect your barn. A horse new to an area will likely sniff every corner. He’ll also be less wary of potential hazards, particularly if he’s spooked. It’s up to you to check for loose nails, hooks and other sharp edges. Inspect walls and doors for spaces that might catch a hoof or head. Make sure your feed room door closes securely and that buckets are high enough that a hoof cannot reach them. Also, ensure barriers can be put in place to block face-to-face access to barn mates if needed.
- Inspect the paddock A horse who’s unfamiliar with his surroundings is more likely to find a weak spot in the fencing or a hazard than a horse who’s spent months grazing in the area. Check for loose fencing and debris such as sharp fallen branches, old wire or trash. Check water sources for sharp edges. In addition, if your new horse will be turned out with other horses, be sure there are two water sources in case he’s herded away from one.
- Check your first aid kit Have medical supplies on hand just in case your new horse encounters a hazard you didn’t anticipate.
- Prepare the area for your new occupant
- If your horse will be stalled, have clean shavings, a water bucket that’s three-quarters full and some fresh hay set up before you bring him into the stall for the first time. Your new horse will investigate his space quickly, and he’ll likely take less time to settle in if he’s aware of his food and water sources. If you have a choice of stalls, choose one that gives your horse the most visual access to other horses.
- If you’ll keep your new horse in a paddock with shelter, prepare the paddock. Again, have the water source full and some fresh hay available before you bring the new horse into the paddock for the first time. If you have a choice of paddocks, choose the paddock that gives him the best visibility of other horses but doesn’t allow him to touch another horse.
- Prepare and place enrichment options in the area where you’ll house your horse Enrichment is defined as the process of creating a challenging environment to satisfy an animal's social, psychological and physical needs. Enrichment enhances your horse’s activities and provides mental stimulation. It can decrease the likelihood of cribbing, weaving and other unwanted behaviors. It can also help you shape his behavior in his new environment. For instance, you can provide him with mental stimulation by using various feeding options, such as treat-dispensing devices, an apple or carrot pieces bobbing in his drinking water and even something as simple as 4 to 5 small hay piles instead of one. Another idea is to provide him with a wall-mounted scratch brush to rub against. For more information about enrichment, please see our article, Enriching Your Horse’s Life.
Introducing Your Horse to His New Space
To minimize the stress your horse might feel upon arriving at his new home, follow these steps:
- Slowly walk your horse around as soon as he comes off the trailer. Allow him to sniff and watch whatever interests him. Then give him at least 15 minutes to walk around the area close to the stall or sheltered paddock where he’ll be staying.
- When you’ve finished letting him explore outside of his new space, take your horse into the stall or paddock and walk him around, stopping at water, food and enrichment sources.
- Leave him in the stall or paddock, and observe his behavior for at least one hour before leaving him unattended. During this time, look for signs of his settling in, such as shaking his body as if he was shaking off water, eating hay, holding his ears in a relaxed position and breathing normally.
- Ideally, your new horse should take at least two walks with you around the property after his first night. The walks give him an opportunity to learn about his new space and become comfortable. Strategically place treats where your other horses have been known to investigate or become aroused. Allow him to discover the treats, and make a game out of exploring the space.
Introducing Your New Horse to the Herd
Whether you have just one other horse or a herd, it pays to take the time to introduce your new horse to the herd in a systematic way. The process is often called a “howdy” process, and it gives the horses time to slowly introduce themselves to one another before sharing the same space.
Think of the howdy process as a series of stages in which you gradually increase the contact your horses have with each other. Increase the amount of contact your new horse has with the others when you no longer notice arousal when contact occurs at the current stage. How long the howdy process takes depends on the individual horses. Sometimes the process can take just 24 hours, while at other times it can be a week or two before the horses can safely be together in a paddock.
Here are the stages of the howdy process:
- Visual access Begin all introductions for horses with visual contact. Again, horses are quite social and naturally form herds in the wild. They’re a prey species, and they have increased safety in a herd. Giving your new horse the ability to see other horses decreases his fear response and helps him to settle in more quickly. Visual contact should begin as soon as your horse enters his new space.
- Minimal tactile access Once the horses accept visual access without arousal, let them sniff each other and blow into one another’s nostrils (a social greeting behavior). Don’t allow them to intertwine heads or necks, however. You can prevent this from happening by using fence paneling or stall doors with guards at this stage of the howdy process. Watch for pinned ears, bite attempts, squealing and hoof strikes. Don’t reprimand your horses for these behaviors. Simply observe. These behaviors are normal and should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
- Increased tactile access Once the horses stop reacting, you can increase the amount of contact they have with each other. If you’re introducing your new horse to a large herd, begin the process with the dominant herd member. Use a tall barn door or non-slatted fence to avoid having horses tangle their hooves and legs in a slatted fence, as forward hoof strikes are common during introductions. Place one horse on one side of the partition, and the other on the other side. The horses should have the choice to approach or not approach each other, and they should have only enough access to reach in with their head and neck. If Step 2 was conducted correctly, there will be little contact at this stage, as the horses have already become familiar with each other. The horses might sniff and blow into one another’s nostrils, touch heads, touch necks or groom or nip each other. As before, make note of squealing, pinned ears, bite attempts and hoof strikes. Unless an injury is imminent, don’t interfere with these behaviors—just observe. Aggressive behaviors should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
If you have multiple horses, once this stage is completed with the dominant horse, the rest of the herd can be given access to the new horse. Always observe responses, and don’t move forward to the next stage until you see only a few aroused responses or none at all.
- In-paddock access (full access) For this final stage, a bit of preparation is needed. First, be sure you’ve inspected the paddock. Place several piles of hay around the paddock, and load up the area with enrichment devices so that several activities are available for the horses. If possible, have the horses wear paddock boots, polo wraps or other leg protection. (If your horses never wear these items, don’t attempt to use them for the first time during this stage.) In addition, if your stable setup allows, begin full-access introductions in a paddock adjacent to the area you’ve been using for increased tactile access.
Follow these guidelines when allowing the horses to have full access to each other:
- Train your new horse to come when called before you turn him out with the group.
- Conduct your full-access introductions immediately after an increased tactile access session. Your new horse should be able to just walk through a door to gain access to the paddock. This reduces change and helps the process go more smoothly.
- It’s normal for your new horse to be chased and pushed from the herd for the first few days. These behaviors should decrease rapidly, particularly if the other stages were conducted correctly.
- Eating and drinking in the presence of the other horses indicates that your new horse is feeling more comfortable in the group.
Although there’s always a risk of injury, it’s less likely to occur when your horses are no longer pushing the new horse out of the herd while they’re eating and drinking together. The risk of injury also lessens when your new horse shows signs of comfort such as lying down, relaxing his ears, breathing normally and grooming other horses. At that point, you can consider leaving your new horse unattended in the pasture wit