I have been boarding other owners' horses on my ranch for over 12 years. Before that, I had been a boarder myself for about 5 years. I’ve seen a lot of different techniques and theories behind herd management, and many I thought could be improved.
When I started boarding other people’s horses on my property, I had the opportunity to do things my way, and over the last decade, I have tweaked (and nearly perfected) the perfect recipe for introducing a new horse to an existing herd fairly seamlessly.
Now, the one thing to remember above all else, is that a new horse in the herd will always cause some level of disruption. Herds have hierarchy and one new horse, even if they are a “bottom feeder,” is going to cause a shift in the dynamics. But that aside, here have been my secrets to success.
1. Quarantine new horses away from your existing herd if at all possible. The stress of moving to a new place can inhibit a horse’s immune system and things like strangles or the sniffles can pop up. This is not always possible, and although I do have quarantine abilities, it’s not always possible when I am at maximum capacity for boarders. You can use things like a round pen, your arena if it’s away from the herd, or panels on your trailer like you’re on the road. Quarantining for 5-7 days is a gold standard, but if you aren’t able to – the rest of these options are the pinnacle pieces of the recipe.
2. Place the new horse in a corral that borders the pasture you plan to put the horse in eventually. This fence should be solid post and rail (or steel) and 5’ high. I specifically built two, 20x30’ pens for introducing horses, and more than one at a time. This humble abode will be your new horse’s home for the next 7-20 days.
3. For feeding your new horse, ensure they are fed and watered on a “neutral” fence line – somewhere they can “escape” the herd to eat quietly. Bonus points if you want to support your horse’s big transition with a gut health supplement (we recommend Galozyme Equine Sport by Technavet).
4. Days 1-3 are the honeymoon phase. Sure there will be some ruckus and squeals for the first few hours, but after that – someone will fall in love, go into heat, take ownership of the band, and the dynamics in your existing herd are going to start to change. On days 2 and 3, and maybe even 4, you’re going to be tempted to turn “poor princess” out with the herd because they are getting along sooo well. This is an act. Hold the line.
5. Days 4-7 are when your herd’s true colors come out. Be prep’d with your drill and pre-cut lengths of wood, because the fence will come down. You’ll look back on days 1-3 wondering how they pulled off the angel act for so long, and be even more grateful you didn’t fall for it.
6. Days 7-10 are when you’re going to start to get an idea of when you may be able to introduce your animals together. Begin feeding all the horses on a shared fence line. Maintain that “neutral” feeding zone for your newbie, but also throw some flakes out on the shared fence line so all horses can continue working out their herd hierarchy within the safety of fences. Do this even in summer, especially in summer if your horses are on pasture. For whatever weird reason hay is a treat to them in July.
7. Continue to feel soooo bad your new baby is alone.
8. Days 10 and onward – use your judgement on herd turnout. Once everyone can eat together without knocking the fence down and the mare-stares slightly abate, you can get ready for the big day. When that day comes, here’s how to prepare for it:
a. Turning your new horse out in the morning is best – so there’s lots of daylight to find fence lines and water.
b. Ensure the herd is as far away in the pasture from the new horse as possible. I run horses on 20 and 40-acre pastures, so am very blessed with lots of room.
c. Toss out flakes of hay between the new horse and the herd in the pasture. Put the hay out in a huge circle, and ensure there are way more piles than there are horses, with more than 2 horse lengths in between piles. If you do not have hay, you can try alfalfa pellets or oats. I usually put out hay and oats together.
d. Turn out your new horse, ideally when the herd isn’t close by. If the herd is far away, take the new addition to the water, then turn them out around the snack pile.
e. It won’t be long before the herd gets a whiff that there is a stranger among them. But as they come careening across the pasture, those yummy snacks you’ve put out are going to distract them. Since the hay is out in a big circle, they are going to start figuring their new dynamic out on a huge real-life horse carousel. Because there are more piles than horses, everyone will have somewhere to go.
f. Do this merry-go-round routine for a day or two, then let your horses return to their regularly programmed schedule.
PRO TIP – Leave the gate open to the corral where your new horse was for the first day. The new horses are going to go in there to check out the smells, giving your new horse time to check out their smells. Continuing to keep the gate open will be a case-by-case basis. The pros of leaving it open are that I have found it provides a safe haven and place of familiarity for your new horse to “escape” to. But you also don’t want your horse to get cornered in there – as much as this introduction method works, horses in corners are risks.
In religiously following this routine over the last 10 years, I rarely if ever turn out a new horse that ever even gets a scratch on them. Since we are a boarding stable, we intake many horses throughout the year so the dynamic is constantly changing every few months. This has become my fail-safe method for keeping my client’s horses healthy when making a stable change. I have tried turning out new horses in other ways, and it has never ended as well as this method does.
Some tweaks I have also learned throughout the year – days 10 and onward have no expiration. I have turned horses out after 10 days, 14 days, 21 days… I’ve also tried to turn them out and had the run put on a horse, so put them back in the pen for another few days or a week. When I tried again it was a seamless introduction.
Hope this helps and provides some tips for you when you expand your herd!