• Honestly evaluate your horse's ability to get along in a group.
• Get the history of the herd that you're considering.
• Be sure that shelter and acreage are adequate for the number of horses.
• Try a gradual introduction, such as putting the horse in an adjacent pen.
• Consider a feed bag or feeding separately if the only difficulty is a food issue.
Before you throw your horse into a group setting, recognize that horse group living necessitates establishing a set of rules for social interactions. A horse herd establishes a very particular pecking order, or dominance chain, by threatening actions or kicking and biting each other. While this is natural horse communication, it also involves a certain amount of risk.
Factors such as size, age, gender, temperament and prior experience living in a group all play some role in a horse finding his or her place within the group. Can your horse work within the structure of these herd rules, or could it potentially be more dangerous for him and/or the group to be in a herd?
The pro side of cohabitating acknowledges your horse's mental well-being. The herd setting allows horses to move freely, to have room to explore and interact, but also to take comfort in the structure of the herd as a protective environment. The con side relates more to your horse's physical well-being. Your horse has a greater chance of getting hurt in a group by being kicked or bitten, and if your horse has specialized eating requirements, group feeding won't work.
The horse that is either too aggressive or too timid is a poor candidate for a herd. No matter how badly you may want your horse to live in a group, if he has such strong tendencies that he tries to subvert the herd right away, she's so food-aggressive that she overeats or he's overly timid so gets pushed around and begins to lose weight or gets hurt, then a group situation is not right for your horse. If you feel that your horse generally gets along well with other horses and would be happy in a group setting, read on for some great guidelines in making good decisions.
Space and Horse Considerations
You're ready to create a horse group on your property or put your horse into a group elsewhere. Your two main considerations will be how many horses can safely fit in the available space and which horses should go where.
The number of horses in a group will be dictated by many factors, including the following:
Size of shelter. The most important thing when evaluating shed size is to try to minimize the potential risk of a horse getting cornered in the shed and kicked. Additionally, make sure that all horses have some protection from the elements. For these reasons, it's best to err on the side of too much shed rather than too many horses. A 12' x 24' shelter is the size of two box stalls, so you'd assume you can put two horses together. In reality, you'll often see as many as four horses doing quite well together in a shelter this size, but we only recommend it for horses who've learned to get along well. Shed placement should be toward the middle of the pen rather than along a fence line so horses can also find shelter and relief from the elements along the sides or back of the shed without having to go inside.
Size and shape of the space. As with shelter issues, there's no "right" size for your pen. Size depends on the temperaments of the horses you want to combine. If they all get along well, you can put more horses in a smaller space. The goal is to have enough room that all the horses feel comfortable and safe. For example, you'll want to make sure that the timid horse has room enough to be able to dodge the aggressive horse. The space should be shaped so that there are no blind ends or narrow spots from which a trapped horse can't escape.
Type of fencing. The general rule is that the smaller your space is, the stronger your fence must be. When fencing a smaller area, you can use wood, pipe or even woven wire. Many people shy away from using electric wire with their smaller enclosures because the wire can intimidate the horse in a home where we want them to be comfortable. Pasture acreage can be fenced in wire and posts.
Room for Feeding
• Feed individual piles of hay rather than using a bulk feeder. This allows the horses to stay a safe distance apart to discourage fighting for food.
• The farther apart you can feed your horses, the safer it will be for them. Aim for at least 10' between piles.
• Feed at least one more pile of hay than you have horses in an enclosure. This ensures that there's always plenty to go around.
Now let's look at particular horse traits to help you decide which horses can go where.
History. What do you know about the horses that may be coming to live on your property? Have they lived in group settings in the past? Can the owner tell you that his horse was tried in a group setting and it did or didn't work? Was the horse too aggressive or too timid? Additionally, if you're moving your horse to a group setting on someone else's property, you'll need to help them keep your horse safe and provide similar information. Ask about the herd history. How well settled are the horses in their pecking order? Have any horses been seriously injured in the herd?
Gender. Typically, you'd expect to see a large male horse as the "herd boss," with a mature mare close behind in rank and expected to lead the herd to find food and shelter. Beyond that, you can expect to see mares and geldings well mixed, so you could say that the dominance status of the genders generally is similar. Many facilities will separate geldings into one group and mares into another to avoid hormonal issues.
Age. Young horses tend to rank lowest within a large group. So, instead of throwing them in with the general herd, try building a small group of young horses (i.e., a group of yearlings, a group of 2-year-olds, etc.) to help alleviate some of the tribulations of pecking order. Similarly, if you have a few slower moving seniors, say in the 25-and-up crowd, putting them together in a subgroup could also help remove them from harm's way.
Feeding needs. Are some of your horses just on grass hay, while others also get alfalfa? Consider grouping horses by feeding requirements to make things easier at breakfast and dinner. You might also look into using feed bags as an alternative to removing a horse with special needs from the beneficial group setting, though merely taking his dinner "to go" may not allow him to relax and eat as he should.
At this point, you've mapped out how many horses will fit in your available space and which horses will work well together based on specific criteria. Now it's time to make it happen. The following case study section offers an example of how one experienced horsewoman gets a horse ready for the group, introduces him or her into the group and then monitors the transition to make sure it goes smoothly over time.
Welcome to the Gang
Janice Green, owner of J Bar 4 Ranch, has devised several different methods for mixing groups of horses on her 20-acre property in Watkins, Colo. She runs a boarding, training and teaching facility that caters to 35 to 40 different owners and about 60 horses total.
"I've been playing around with putting groups of horses together for over 20 years now," Janice noted.
Janice explained that, over the years, she's learned several different tricks to help prepare a horse for a group-living arrangement, to introduce him or her into the group and to monitor that horse's progress. But before this process even begins, Janice evaluates the horse's potential.
"It's important for both the horse and the owner to decide if the horse is a good candidate to live in a group," she said. "The problem horse is the one who won't accept his place at the bottom of the totem pole."
That's usually a gelding with stallion tendencies (a "staggy" horse). He'll move into the herd and try to steal some mares to start his own little subgroup within the herd. He'll be very aggressive with those who try to investigate.
Subgroups within a herd are normal, Janice noted. "My large herd has many small subgroups: the young geldings who like to play every afternoon, the mares who wander the fence line every day before feeding, the boyfriend/girlfriend combinations. However, there's no aggression in any of these groups. That's the difference with the staggy horse. This behavior is detrimental to the existing herd and can cause many problems in an otherwise well-established group."
The best herd candidates are the relaxed, even-tempered horses who are willing to work their way up through the herd ranks.
At Janice's facility, her large group is a mature herd of 30-32 horses living on non-grazing acreage. She begins the process of getting a horse ready for this group by placing him or her in a special pen that she built to share a fence line with her pasture area. They'll stay in this pen for a few days to give them time to interact with many of the horses in the large group.
"The fence is built to allow horses from both sides to smell each other, nose around and get acquainted," Janice explained.
The new horse will be introduced into the group after the morning feeding has been put out on a day when the weather is calm and the footing is good and dry.
"This timing is beneficial in a couple of ways," Janice said. "The new horse will have the whole day to inspect his new living space and become familiar with the physical surroundings, such as the fence line, the sheds and the water tank. It's also one of the quietest times of the day for the herd, since everyone is busy eating."
Interactions begin right away as the herd realizes there's someone new in their midst.
"The horses who're lower to middle in the group's pecking order usually will be the first to approach the new horse to investigate," Janice said. "The top horses never have to mess with this stuff."
The communication usually starts with sniffing, and then maybe progresses to squealing and/or a carefully aimed kick from either side. Some small chases might follow. After these first interactions, the new horse usually has freedom to explore for a while. Throughout the day, some mild altercations may develop as herd mates check out the new horse. It's OK to leave him in the group as long as he isn't exhibiting any of those staggy tendencies described earlier.
"Sometimes owners will want to lead their horse around the pasture area to show him where everything is," Janice said. "On this first day, this is not a safe situation for either horse or owner. The new horse will do fine learning the area on his own.
"If the new horse makes it through the first day in the large group, then you're usually set. You'll still want to keep an eye on him and the group for a while, though, to make sure the transition goes smoothly."
J Bar 4 Ranch also has several two-horse pens that are approximately 50' x 50'. New horses are introduced to these pens in a slightly different manner than to the large group boarding area. Perhaps there's room in one pen to add a second horse as a buddy for the horse who lives there. Janice tests out potential new pairs by giving them several turnouts in her large fenced arena. If the turnout sessions are congenial, then she'll flip-flop the horses for a day or two, putting the new horse into the two-horse pen by himself and the old horse into the single-horse pen.
"This gives the new horse a chance to explore his potential new home without being bothered," she said.
Guidelines for Feed Bagging
• A feed bag needs to fit well. If it's too loose, supplements can spill out and the horse can step on it and rip it. If the bag is too tight, it's harder to breathe through it, there's no room for the feed and the horse can't get his nose to the bottom of the bag to eat.
• Never leave a horse unattended with a feed bag on.
• Remove the feed bag immediately when the horse has finished eating.
• If the horse tries to drink with a feed bag on, the bag can fill with water and pose a health risk.
On the day of introduction, she'll wait until after both horses have finished eating the morning meal to avoid food-related pecking order issues.
"I bring the new buddy into the pen, and then, hopefully, their interaction will be just like during their turnouts, only in a smaller space."
The horses still have the entire day to get used to each other before food is introduced in the evening. Dinner may cause some aggression to surface, so it should be monitored. As long as the horse that had been in the pen doesn't chase the new horse around all day, it's usually a successful match. Janice noted that the new horse often will be the underdog at first, but that may even change over time.
Janice often recommends that new students or owners spend some time watching the herd and maybe even help feed so they can really see how horses communicate with each other. This, in turn, helps people understand their horse better.
I Want to Be Alone
Some horses - because of gender, health or other ownership issues - are destined to live the solitary life. Many owners prefer their horses to be separate to avoid risk of injury. Additionally, some horses - the "easy keepers" of the world - live in single pens because they must be fed individually to avoid overeating. You'll also note that stallions, pregnant mares and newly foaled mares with babies often are kept in single living arrangements. Lastly, an injured horse on restricted activity or a horse with a chronic health issue may have to be stabled alone in a small enclosure to allow time to heal or to protect against further degeneration.
Even though your horse may need to live separately, this doesn't mean that he or she must be denied beneficial social interaction with other horses. A horse's natural environment includes the herd, so see what you can do to simulate this. Put your stallion in a large pen with high fencing next door to your favorite mellow gelding, where they can both have nose contact and become buddies. Create a mares-and-foals pasture where moms and babies can go after a few weeks to all hang out together until weaning time. Build a "breakfast and dinner nook" as a separate enclosure where you can feed the horse that tends to gain weight easily, then put her in pasture with the gang the rest of the time.
By respecting the various needs of horses and owners, you can always arrange living situations that make for happy and safe horses.
Jenny Sullivan is a Certified Veterinary Technician. She lives in Denver with her husband and two dogs. Her two horses live the good life at Janice Green's place in Watkins. To learn more about Jenny and the Colorado Association of Certified Veterinary Technicians go to www.cacvt.com.