Last month I both said goodbye and hello to horses. On my birthday, I picked up my new-to-me horse, Trace, who is a 13-year-old APHA gelding. In turn, I sold my quarter pony Ticket, an 11-year-old mare to a lovely little girl.
Now, I can be both neurotic and over-compassionate when it comes to the husbandry of our horses (ie: I didn’t sleep for the entire five days that Ticket was on the transport truck travelling 4,000 kilometres to her new home and debated not even letting her go lol). But to be faulted as an owner who cares too much is my preference rather than being toted as one who doesn’t care enough.
Changing homes is a huge shift in dynamics for horses, and there are a lot of little things we can do to help ease the transition for them. In fact, a lot of it comes from considering how much we can keep the same! From feeding routines to workouts to equipment – the more familiarity we can bring to our new equine friend, the faster we can build a true rapport with them and develop the bond we all know and love to have with horses. So with that, we are going to cover a few do’s and don’ts to help your new horse settle in at home!
Ride them in the bit they are used to packing. I wanted to keep as much the same as I could for Trace, so I borrowed his owner’s entire headstall!
Ensure your saddle fits. This can be a tough one for sure especially if the horse is changing disciplines, it’s hard and nearly impossible to use the same saddle. I did offer to sell my good fitting saddle with Ticket, and had a saddle fitter come out and fit one of my other saddles to Trace the first week he was home. If a similar saddle is out of the question, use the same type of pad and cinch if you can, and try to get a saddle fit!
Spend quality time with them 1-1 every day for the first few days, Grooming, hand walking, and in-hand exercises.
Use the same warm-up their last owner did. Trace’s warmup consisted of two arena laps at the walk, two laps at the trot, work on bending, lateral execution, a few laps at the lope, then mounted shooting drills. Whereas I prefer to go out cross country for 20 minutes WTL straight lines then come into the arena. That’s not to say I won’t ever do that again, but until Trace trusts me and is fully settled, I’m going to keep things the same for him and use the warmup he’s accustomed to. Plus, when we are at a competition and the only place to warm up is in the arena, it’s great to know his pre-game ride.
Support their transition with a gut-health supplement. Changing homes is enough to bring on new or recurring ulcers, so why not support their sensitive digestive tract from the onset. Our go-to gut health supplement of choice is Galozyme Equine Sport by Technavet.
Head to a competition four days after you bring them home (unless you have rode them extensively prior to purchasing).
Tolerate testing behaviour. Be firm, fair, and consistent. When Trace came home it was a new experience being around mares! He had lived with only geldings the last three years. He thought he should try to be a stallion, and I was having some struggles with his behaviour when trying to work with him 1-1. I knew that this was a big change for him, I also felt a little bit outside of my skills in training. So, I reached back out to his owner! They gave me some awesome tips on enforcing that my horse’s halter was his “uniform” and when he was in his uniform, he was expected to act accordingly to my expectations. It took no more than 3 days and a few moving feet exercises to help him understand that testing wasn’t tolerated here. In the wrong hands or unaddressed, it could have been easily escalated into a real problem, because he is a very strong-willed horse, and we’ve all heard horror stories of people thinking they bought “the wrong horse” or that their horse changed once they brought it home. Recognize you might need to ask for help, and level up your handling and training skills – especially if you bought a step-up horse!
“Bond” with them by feeding treats (that’s bribing). We want them to love us, I get it. But basing a relationship on treats isn’t true love or respect. I’m not saying you can never give a treat, but don’t do it if they are looking for one, and don’t let this be the basis of your definition of them loving you. Horses love you most when they can count on you to keep black and white guidelines of acceptable behaviour, and give them space and a release of pressure as a reward.
Invade their space. You, love them instantly of course. They – had everything about their life turned upside down. When you approach them, go for their shoulder or wither. Don’t try to hug them (enact their flight response) or make them stay with you. Earn that bond on the lunge line, through your hand walking or round penning.
Expect them to be the exact same horse they were when you went to try them out. Even if you’re using the same bit, saddle, feeding regime and training program – a lot has still changed. Expecting your new horse to be different than they were when you first saw them will help ease any anxiety you have about having bought the “wrong horse.”
So there are a few of our do’s and don’ts of helping your new horse settle at home. But what about you? You now have to get to know and be comfortable with and around this living breathing animal, make them comfortable, but are you comfortable? It can be scary getting to know a new horse – what will they spook at, do they freeze, shudder step or bolt… and one unfortunate incident can throw off your entire bonding relationship. My advice for that – is to do all the things you are afraid of doing, early. Timid about going out on trail? Get out there within the first week of bringing them home. Whether you ride or hand walk, get off the property and into the wilderness. Do you have reservations about hauling? Load up and go ride at a friend's house those first few days too. The faster you can show your brain that what you’re afraid of is over… the less build-up and overall anxiety you will create for yourself.
Above all, give the both of you some grace as you begin the relationship process. Consider it like dating, having to get to know each other, be vulnerable with each other, establish healthy boundaries as a foundation for your future. Reach out to their old owners for help if you can, and remember that the best relationships take time to develop <3
Addy & Trace