Introducing a new horse to and established herd group can often cause a lot of stress and sometimes injury to both horses & handlers. But it does not need to be this way if you follow a safe procedure. All aspects of introduction should be supervised in case of an accident.
1. Within sight but no physical contact
This really is a case of more haste less speed. Firstly allow the new horse to recover from their journey and acclimatise to the new environment. Observe the horse and allow his behaviour to tell you how he is doing.
- Calm regular breathing & heart rate
- Signs of relaxation like a cocked hind leg or sighs
- Lowering of the horses head
- Llinking & soft eyes
Remember it may take some time for the horse to relax and he may need to see other horses to achieve this, but do not allow contact at this time. As a minimum I will leave a horse able to see others but with no direct physical contact for 24 hours before progressing
2. In separate spaces but able to safely make contact
At this stage I will move the horse so he can occupy space where he can make contact with the herd over a safe barrier. If a fence is electrified I switch it off for a period so the shock does not add to any drama that occurs. I tend not to separate with a gate because feet can easily get caught. Once again I observe the horses and wait for signs of relaxation, and again keep them like this for a minimum of 24 hours, including remaining calm while fed.
3. Introduction of a buddy
I now introduce a buddy horse from the existing group to the new horse. I chose a regular Joe type horse that is pretty confident but not the big cheese, or too boisterous a horse. I want to introduce these two without a lot of drama, and may out them in adjacent stables to get to know each other a little before I allow them some liberty together. I may turn them out in an arena or paddock away from the other horses for a while, once they have settled together I will move them back to the space adjacent to the main group. Again I look for signs of calmness and will leave them like this for a minimum of 24 hours before proceeding.
4. Combining the groups
Finally, it in time to combine the two groups and introduce the new horse to the existing herd. Once again I want this to be low drama. I avoid feeding time, in fact I want to make sure the horses have had any feed they get beforehand so they are not waiting around for it. Ideally I will set this up so that there is a gate connecting the spaces and while the horses are all settled and not paying any attention to each other I will quietly open the gate. I then stand back and let the two groups combine slowly and calmly. Sometimes it can be a hours before they finally notice that they are no longer separated. It is likely that there will be some display and play which may look hair raising to us, but it is a natural part of horse behaviour and unless there is undue aggression I will not intervene.
- Be flexible, use the model but also use your knowledge of the horses to adapt it to suit your particular group and the facilities you have.
- Remove shoes. Horses have a very acute awareness of where their feet are. While it is not impossible it is highly unlikely that an unshod foot will cause anything other than cosmetic damage.
- Allow plenty of time. I suggest at least 24 hours at each stage but it may be many days before I feel that the horses are calm enough to proceed. I am always ‘about’ during this process even if I am not directly observing, so I will notice if something untoward happens.
- Keep food out of the process as much as possible. It may be necessary to remove the new horse, or any other horse that is emotional about food, from the group at feed time for a period of time.
- If you are not totally confident to leave them together all night separate them. Calmness is the key to success with this procedure and that includes us!
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