Sunday, January 02, 2011

Herd Introductions and Avoidance of Bloodshed

[I put in the title, then thought it pithy and ironic enough that I really should say a few words about online horse forums and networking sites, but I'll just let that slide on by and stick to the real horse stuff.   After all, with live horses there's often no option other than to intercede in our uniquely human way and keep them from badmouthing and injuring one another as they would if they accidentally crossed herds in the wild.  On the other hand, we humans have the ability to simply not go there when it comes to the online blood-lettings.   So, I will simply move on.]

Peace and Harmony...calm before the storm
It happens to all of us eventually.  Either you’ve got one or two horses already and decide that “just one more” will round out your ability to be injured on all sorts of levels, or you've taken pity on a homeless critter, or you’ve taken the leap and allowed yourself to bring in a boarder to help offset costs and increase your contact with humans.  Whatever the reason, a new horse is on its way to your barn, and you’re excited and looking forward to the arrival.

Be aware that your existing horses may not share you enthusiasm.  Even a solo equine whose best buddy recently passed on or left for greener pastures won’t necessarily be in the market for a replacement.  Horses are by nature suspicious and creatures of habit.  They are herd animals who guard their turf with all the tenacity of a bulldog.  They have opinions and sensibilities and will share them with you at the expense of your sanity and the health and well-being of other horses...and other livestock as well.  I recall hearing about a horse that killed the pygmy goat sent to be his new BFF without consultation.  Wonderful, big, handsome, hairy, dangerous critters always have the last word. 

The introduction process, then, must be approached cautiously.  You will probably have a friend who will announce that all your careful preparation is pure rubbish and a waste of time, that they’ve just thrown the new horse to the herd and let them sort things out without interference, and nothing bad has ever happened.  You need different friends. Sure, it’s possible that an aged gelding with arthritis and a laconic outlook might barely notice that another pensioner has appeared to share his paddock and your attention.  That, however, is the exception to the rule that a new horse will immediately be forced to locate and secure his place in the pecking order.  Sometimes the process goes remarkably smoothly, but other times there will be bloodshed even to the point of fatal injury.

Case in point:  A thoroughbred mare arrives at a farm and is immediately put in a paddock with two other mares of similar temperament.  All is well for a day or two, the mares grazing peacefully side-by-side, humming “Kumbaya”.  On the third morning, however, the barn owner is shocked to discover the newcomer covered in blood.  One side is scratched from contact with the fence, and her hind leg has been flayed open, exposing the tendon, the joint, and other internal bits that should never be external.  Months of rehab and thousands of dollars in vet bills ensue.

Case in point:  A young miniature horse stallion (see photo) is carefully introduced into a small, stable herd.  All is well for months.  Then spring rolls around, the sole mare in the herd goes into heat, and chaos reigns.  In a single day, the mini has made multiple attempts to emasculate all of the geldings, and is doing a decent job of it before he’s removed and the intro process started over again with gelding as an added first step.

Case in point:  A pony, recently sequestered post-gelding, is put back  into a herd that has changed while he was laid up.  He seems not to notice the new horses for a week or so.  Then one morning an owner notices that her gelding is in the mares’ pen.  He was apparently thrown there by the pony.  Despite this warning, the barn owner persists in putting the horses out together.  Serious injury results as the gelding is repeatedly driven through fences and gates by the pony.  The gelding’s jumper career is ended by a fractured shoulder.

These are not theoretical cases.  They’re mine. 

So, what’s a barn owner to do?  **

  1. Quarantine new horses in the barn for a couple of days.  Allow the existing horses to walk past them, sniff them, commune over the stall door, all under supervision.  You’ll know immediately if there are personality conflicts.  Witchy-mare teeth-baring may be just for show.  Or it may not. 

  1. Once the social quarantine period is over (this is by no means a satisfactory health quarantine, by the way--we are assuming all animals are healthy and up-to-date on vaccines and worming), turn the new horse out in an adjoining paddock so he can nose over the fence with but not attack or be attacked by the existing herd.  This, too, should be supervised carefully.  Electric fence is good in this situation as the horses are not as likely to play hard and break boards.

  1. Choose the existing horse who is least aggressive, and introduce him personally to the new horse.  Two handlers, haltered horses, sturdy lead lines, and lots of room are required.  Don’t let go of the horses until you’re sure neither has entered “The Zone”.  The new guy could turn out to be the aggressor.

  1. Continue this process, moving up the aggression scale.  If you get all the way to Hellraiser without bloodshed, you may have it made.  If not, move back down to the highest-level horse who showed signs of friendly feelings toward the new guy.

  1. Turn the new horse out with one other horse, then add more horses as you assure yourself that everyone is doing fine. 

Eventually, with luck, the herd will be a functioning unit again, with the new horse an integral part.  But avoid making the mistake of assuming that just because all is well today, all will still be well in six months.  Herd dynamics are fluid.  A subservient newcomer will have a hard time getting close to the hay pile, drinking unmolested from the trough, and getting through the gate at feeding time.  This is not all bad, but a wise barn owner will keep a close watch on all the horses to make sure no one is being starved out or approaching dehydration. 

Don’t assume that the new horse will be at the bottom of the pecking order.  Introducing a dominant mare or gelding into an existing herd is even more difficult than bringing in a wimp.  I’ve seen two mares break each other’s legs over rights to a favored gelding, and they liked each other! 

Finally, be prepared for a horse who simply can never be turned out with the herd.  If that’s not in your game plan, then you need to rethink your decision to bring in  more horses.  Ponies in the paddock are lovely.  Bleeding ponies in the trailer are not.  

**One take-away caveat  for those owners, novices in particular, who are caught up in rescue mania:  If you are boarded out, don't just tell the barn owner that you're bringing in a new horse and expect that s/he will have adequate facilities to deal with the resulting chaos of a horse coming from an auction or a kill pen.  If your boarding barn is not currently home to a number of rescued horses, the owner may be totally clueless about the added problems of emotional instability (yours or the horse's) and may be unable to handle them.  Prepare to change barns on a moment's notice, or start at the right place from the get-go.  You have the right to request accommodations for your horse's unique situation (and the right to pay dearly for them).  You do not have the right to demand them.  You always have the right to leave. 

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