2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Kimberly Meenen
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
Ms. Jones just purchased her first show horse and turned it out with her other two horses for a week to let them get acquainted. Upon bringing the new horse in to load it up for the big show, Ms. Jones was devastated to see her expensive investment limping from a kick wound to its back leg.
Misfortunes like these can be prevented by learning some basic horse behavior.
Proper introduction of a new horse to the herd begins before the horses ever see each other. According to Dr. R.D. Scoggins, equine Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana, you should ask questions about the previous behavior of any prospective addition to your stable. If possible, watch the horse in its normal environment and see how it acts around people and other horses. These precautions can help predict how smoothly the socialization process will occur.
"The best way to acquaint new horses with the herd is to stable them adjacently," says Dr. Scoggins. "Horses can do less damage to themselves between box stalls than between fences."
If you don't have access to stalls, you may want to consider building some. However, if fencing is the only alternative, choose electric wire or at least fencing that will not permit horses to kick or bite through or over it
Dr. Scoggins also recommends introducing the new horse to one or two other horses at a time, rather than the whole herd at once.
"Every horse has a bubble of privacy, and it is easier for the new horse to learn where this space is for each of the established horses," he says. When you do turn the new horse out with the others, avoid feeding time. In addition, make sure all horses have had their back shoes removed, which lessens the damage of kicks. Try to do this initial turnout in a corral with rounded corners, so the new horse can't get trapped. Avoid areas with narrow aisles, chutes, or fences adjoining buildings, where the new horse has no way out. Finally, remove any unnecessary objects from the corral that the horses could run into and get hurt.
Generally, a few days is enough for the socialization process. However, if you have upcoming plans for the new horse, turning it out with the others may not be the safest thing to do. If the socialization process does not go well, you may risk temporary or even permanent damage to the new horse.
Introducing a new horse can be critical at any time, but especially at the beginning of the show season. Not only injuries from kicking and biting, but also self-inflicted wounds from trying to escape harassment can keep the new horse out of training or competition. Excess trauma may cause a horse to be afraid of other horses in the ring and seriously affect its performance.
"Decide what's top priority: showing or socialization," Dr. Scoggins says. If it's showing, keep the new horse in a stall for the season and make introductions later. Turn it out individually for free exercise as needed.
Teaching horses to behave well around people is important too. A horse that is manageable while the veterinarian, farrier, or owner works on it is less likely to reinjure itself or worsen an injury while being treated.
"Horses learn by repetition," Dr. Scoggins stresses. "Every time you touch the animal there is an opportunity to train it--or untrain it."
He reminds owners that the goal is to encourage submissiveness and discourage resistance and aggression. Submissiveness does not mean domination by creating fear in the animal, but simply the horse acquiring respect for its handler without fear. Without this respect, the horse may not be willing to respond to anything it is asked to do, either because it is defiant or frightened.
The horse owner must be able to differentiate defiance in a horse's action from fear, and act accordingly. It is best to treat any action, at first, as fear, giving the horse the benefit of the doubt. In the case of true aggression, however, more force may be required, as well as professional help.
It is possible to teach horses how to overcome fear. But remember that unlike people, horses don't "think." They react--based on prior experience or just "the best way out." Their strongest instinct is survival and they survive by escaping danger.
"Horses have a great memory, and when a procedure is tried a second time that didn't go well the first time, they'll react to that first bad experience," explains Dr. Scoggins.
When trying to relax an animal, use something they can relate to and expand it to a new experience. For example, loading a horse into a trailer can be similar to "loading" it into a box stall, which is a familiar, comfortable place of food, warmth, and security. Always prepare the horse for new and potentially frightening experiences. Reward the animal when it trusts you enough to accept new action, such as clipping, floating its teeth, or shoeing.
Teach all your horses, not just the new additions, to respect
you. As a result, managing your horse will be safer, quicker,
and less traumatic for all.