Looking to manage a stable, ranch or other equine operation? Whether feeding, handling or sorting pasture mates, be sure to "think like a horse"!
Here's a look at some horse-friendly management schemes, courtesy of equine behavior experts and My Horse University's online Horse Behavior and Welfare Course, based out of Michigan State University.
We all know that horses are social creatures. But, while it's important to cater to this need, it's equally important to do so in ways that minimize the possibility of injuries.
"People need to remember they are not simply housing a large dog... they are housing a very large animal with an incredibly strong flight response," notes Dr. Camie Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University Horse Management Program and lead instructor for the online behavior course. "Furthermore, they are housing an animal that evolved to move about a great deal throughout the day while grazing/foraging. Stable social groups in safe pastures have very few injuries, but places that end up with a high degree of mixing, or who have not thought about 'the nature of the beast' will tend to have high rates of injuries."
Nip potential conflicts in the bud by maintaining these stable groups and minimizing mixing. When laying out your farm, avoid sharp corners in pastures and the placement of coveted resources such as the water tank or hay feeder in such corners. Sheds should always have large openings, so horses won't feel trapped. And last but not least, try to sort groups according to age. This will help ensure that older horses, who are typically more dominant, do not take feed from the youngsters.
Of course, the groups you use for sorting purposes will vary according to the size of your operation and the sex and status of the animals involved. On a large farm, weanlings might be one group, yearlings another and 2-year-olds still another. Open (non-pregnant) mares might be separated from in-foal (pregnant) mares, while geldings might form another group. Stallions would, of course, be housed individually.
On a smaller spread with fewer horses, the pasture mates would likely be sorted into broader age categories. Be sure, too, to consider geriatric equines who might need additional feed to maintain their body weight.
Introducing New Horses
The introduction of new horses to an established group requires patience and planning. In order to avoid injuries and minimize stress, it's a good idea to let the horses get used to each other across the bars of stalls and across safe fencing between adjacent paddocks for a few days. This also gives the "newbie" a chance to settle in. Next, you might try turning the new horse out with one of the horses from the established group, making hay available in multiple piles and keeping the other horses from the established group in the adjacent paddock.
Then, once the new horse and the first "old" horse are getting along, you could try adding the other horses from the established group to this arrangement, one by one--or turning the new horse out with each of the other "old" horses individually. It's a gradual process, and the length of time it will take for the horses to become accustomed to one another is largely dependent on their individual dispositions.
The most important thing to remember, experts say, is that horses are individuals who need space and time to work out their relationships. "This means doing introductions carefully and providing a new horse with the opportunity to escape," says Natalie Waran, senior vice president of the International Society for Equitation Science Council and head of the School of Natural Sciences at Unitec New Zealand. "Go slow and you won't have to worry as much about [leaving an escape route]," adds Dr. Cindy McCall, professor and extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at Alabama's Auburn University.
Fencing and Stalls
Good fencing is an essential component to successful horse management. While no equine fencing is 100 percent safe, it should provide both a physical barrier, keeping the horse safely contained with minimal damage if it runs into it; and a psychological barrier, meaning that it is both visible and high enough that the horse won't challenge it.
To this end, while a charged electric fence might provide a psychological barrier, the electricity itself does not provide enough of a physical barrier to be effective--particularly if it is not always on!
Safe, horse-friendly stabling is another consideration when managing horses. "If we could concentrate on making our stalls more horse-friendly and worry less about the beauty of said stalls, we would allow [many] more social opportunities amongst horses, which tends to help their dispositions dramatically," Heleski maintains.