Introducing Horses to Each Other

The best time to socialize horses is when they are young. Foals love to play and do so mostly without seriously hurting each other. At the same time, they learn to read each other's signals and coexist peacefully. Of course, the dam will teach her youngster some things, but that doesn't always translate into understanding the same signals from a horse that is not his mother. In addition, a horse that has learned only from his mother may not know that disregarding the signals can hurt, since the dam typically will not deliberately hurt her offspring.

Take It Slow

Although a well-socialized horse is more likely to fit in with others, you still need to allow the newcomer to blend into the established herd gradually. First, put the new horse in a nearby corral where the others can see him. Next, put the newcomer in a field adjacent to the herd. If the horses are stalled at night, put the new horse beside one of the other herd members. If all is going well at this stage, put the new horse out with one other horse in the herd (the most docile one), and finally, put the entire group together. At each stage, observe the reactions before you move on.

When you finally do put them all together, set out piles of hay a good distance apart to give them something else to occupy their minds besides each other. It can work like a charm — by the time they finish the hay pile, they look up and say, “Hey, it's you, the horse I've seen over the fence for a few days,” and go off and have a drink or nap in the sun. This blending process may take days or weeks, but when you finally put them all together in one herd, there shouldn't be too many fireworks other than some inevitable squealing, and maybe even some striking and a little biting. This sounds a whole lot worse than it typically is; however, if after a couple of days, two of the group just won't leave each other alone, you may have to separate them or experiment with some new groupings.

Horse Talk

Horses are masters of body language and the body cues they use among themselves are their primary means of interherd communication. However, like many other animals, horses also communicate by making sounds. These include:

  • Snorts and blowing sounds: Horses make snorting noises — sometimes a short snort, sometimes an elongated sound — when they are afraid of or curious about something.

  • Nicker: This low, friendly rat-a-tat-tat sound is one that horses use as a greeting.

  • Neigh/Whinny: High-pitched, long, and loud, a whinny is another greeting that can be used for long distances.

  • Squeal: This somewhat unpleasant short, high-pitched sound is the one you'll hear when two horses are getting to know each other or playing rough games.

  • Scream: This sound happens in a true fight, often between competing stallions, something we rarely witness in domesticated horse life.

  • If you're a fan of the classic television show Mr. Ed, starring a talking palomino, check out www.mister-ed.com. This website includes sound clips, historical background, information about the cast, and any recent news mentions that the show has received. Also included is an episode guide of all of the 143 episodes broadcast between 1961 and 1966.

    When They Just Don't Get Along

    Boarding stables often shift horses around until they find the group that a newcomer is most welcome in. Domestic horses that spend most of their leisure time living in groups seem to be the most content, so it is definitely worth trying to figure out how to turn your horse out with others. However, there are certainly times when two horses just don't get along, and you never feel like you can trust them together. If this occurs, don't take a chance on one or both horses getting hurt. Separate them.

    Grouping by Age and Sex

    Some people separate the mares from the geldings, although there are not hard and fast rules about this. Doing so seems to help reduce the amount of rough play and dominance games that go on within a herd.

    Grouping by age range is often more logical than grouping by sex. Putting a very young or a very old horse in with a group can sometimes have undesirable results. Youngsters can get hurt just because of their size differences. After the age of two or three, most horses (and definitely the stock horse breeds) tend to be of substantial size compared to adults and are a little less delicate. If at all possible, make sure a young horse has a couple of companions of similar age in the group. Elderly horses may get edged out of their feed by the younger, stronger herd members. You'll need to observe the interactions closely, to make sure your older horse isn't getting picked on or excluded from prime grazing opportunities.

    Some people perceive horses as stupid because they exhibit fear of things such as a plastic bag flapping in the wind. However, an animal of prey must always be on the lookout for danger. No one knows for certain how horses think, but clearly they do make decisions relative to survival in the prey versus predator environment. Some of their decisions may be good, some bad.

    The Stallion Dilemma

    Stallions present a different issue and clearly cannot run with mares that you do not intend to breed. Although some well-socialized stallions may run with groups of geldings, this is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, stallions are kept by themselves, usually in a separate paddock with higher, reinforced fencing.

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