Thursday, February 16, 2012

Turnout with the New Herd - Scary but Good

One of the things I like about the new barn Dawn moved to on Monday is that all the horses are out in herds, in large turnouts, all day, almost every day regardless of weather.  In the late fall, winter and spring, they have multiple hay round bales per turnout, and in the summer, they have pasture.  There are three herds: mares, geldings and pasture boarders (mostly geldings with a few mares).  After two days in a small paddock next to the mares' turnout, Dawn got to go in with the mares yesterday.

I strongly believe that herd turnout is very, very good for a horse's mental health and contentment.  I also believe that larger herds (provided there's enough space) are better than small herds - less stress and every horse can find a buddy or two. That said, herd turnout can be very stressful (mostly for the humans involved) - when a new horse is introduced, there is often lots of running, and kicking, and squealing and striking as the horses work out where the new horse fits in the herd hierarchy.  In my experience, mares tend to be more violent, particularly with kicking, in working out their status than geldings, but once the hierarchy is confirmed, there is usually little subseqent sparring and the herd order is stable.  Geldings, on the other hand, are always playing games that are really dominance games - chasing, face biting, pawing, rearing - and this tends to go on and on but usually with fewer injuries.

Dawn had been able to meet a number of the mares who were interested over the shared fenceline of her small paddock.  But there wasn't a lot of continuous socializing going on - the mares were more interested in their herd and eating from the round bales than making the trek up the hill to talk to Dawn.  Dawn was bored in the small paddock, and wasn't getting to move around much - when I lunged her Tuesday night, in one direction (to the left, her easier direction), she held it together at the trot but when we lunged to the right, she scooted and bucked and clearly had a lot of excess energy.

So we were ready for her to go into the herd.  The barn manager was there, as was one of the trainers who had several mares in the herd.  The trainer, who does hunter/jumper, confessed that when she came to the barn she had to take a long time to get her head around group turnout (which in my experience is pretty rare in the hunter/jumper world), and that she still found new horse introductions stressful, not because her mares fight much, but because they run like crazy and rip their front shoes off (none of the horses have back shoes, which is a policy I agree with).  We were all nervous - I've done many new horse introductions to herds before and it's often scary.

Watching herds of horses interact is fascinating to me.  This herd had about 12 mares in it before Dawn joined, ranging from a very old mare who doesn't move around much and stays out of trouble, to two pretty dominant mares.  When I let Dawn go in the pasture, she walked off, sniffing the ground. Then the other mares came streaming over to her and the fun and games began.  Within seconds of the nose sniff/strike/squeal on Dawn's part, all but two of the mares had acknowledged Dawn's status and backed off, leaving her alone.  That left the two dominant mares - I'm not sure which one is the alpha because the turnout is very big and they stayed out of each other's way - perhaps there are sub-herds, although I doubt it.  There was lots of spinning and kicking and churning around (while this was going on a bunch of the subordinate mares were tearing around like crazy - I'll be there were some front shoes lost as it was somewhat muddy).  Dawn kicked and struck at both dominant mares, and got kicked at least once in the side (she was wearing her rain sheet and didn't even have a bruise).  I noticed that neither dominant mare really took her on after that - they clearly figured out quickly that she was a mare to be respected.

At one point Dawn and the mare I believe to be the alpha were alone down in one end of the pasture while all the other horses stayed away (some were still galloping around, silly things) - in fact if another mare approached, the alpha would herd them away from Dawn.  It was almost as if she were protecting Dawn - "she's mine and you're not to bother her". There was a lot of nose sniffing between the alpha and Dawn but no more squealing or kicking.  Then the alpha headed back to the herd (there's an earth bridge over a ditch from one side of the pasture to the other), and Dawn followed, but just as they got to the bridge, the other dominant mare started to come across towards them, and the alpha turned around.  Dawn kept going and ended up going across the bridge very close to the other dominant mare.  Then Dawn and this mare and a number of the other horses galloped to the far side of the pasture.  Dawn then hung out very close to the other dominant mare, who made no aggressive gestures towards her.  Dawn was even nibbling some dead grass.

That was it - in 15 minutes things were pretty much settled.  The barn owner reported that things were quiet in the afternoon, and that Dawn was eating at the round bales with the other horses.  I'm not sure what her herd status is, but I think she's pretty clearly in the top three at least.  She seemed tired and happy that afternoon, and I did a brief bit of lungeing and ground driving in the arena - she was very quiet as I expect she was pretty tired.

I'll stop by this morning and take a look and see how the herd dynamics are going, but I'm glad to have that part of our barn move over, and I expect Dawn is too.


  1. Sounds like she's been accepted right in. That's good!

  2. I'm all for having horses in a has a very natural and calming affect on them. It usually takes me more than 3 days to get them worked in, tho I start with them on a lead during morning hay feeding time after a few days. I don't like the kicking thing, so it takes me longer.
    So glad she is "in."

  3. How exciting. I am sure Dawn loves being out now. I also only use front shoes. I wish Pippi had a heard but right now that is not going to happen. The minis get to be in a field beside her.

  4. It's always scarey isn't it. You know they have to work it out, when do you step in, do you step in?

    We recently tried to put Rosie with a gelding who Bonnie has already been with. The gelding just didn't get any of Rosie's signs and double barrel kicks to each other ensued. We had to step in seperate them - 1. He has rear shoes - 2. She is so much larger we were afraid she would do some serious harm as neither of them were backing down.

    I'm glad it all went as smoothly as one can expect for you and Dawn.

  5. I'm glad Dawn has full time turn out and a herd to interact with. I believe that's good for a horse's mental and emotional states as well as physical.

    Even though it can be stressful, I think herd dynamics are fun to watch.


  6. It IS very stressful, and not common in the H/J world because the horses 1. tend to be spoiled brats, 2. if they are warmbloods, just a little bit stupid :) 3. very expensive, and can't take the risk of injury.

    But because of the no back shoe policy, I think its a great idea!

    p.s. your word verifications are VERY hard to decipher!

  7. Corinna - the new word verification thing isn't me - it's apparently Blogger . . .

  8. Herd dynamics are very interesting, but also nerve wracking for sure. Apparently Dawn knows how to handle herself. :)

    Val's only intro came when he was emergency boarding during a hurricane, and thankfully I didn't witness it.

    He and the alpha gelding had been grooming over the fence for a few days, but as soon as he joined the group, the second in command gelding tore into him with teeth.

    Then, Val felt the need to run through the electric tape overnight to be with the la-dies... boss mare kicked his ass - literally.

  9. My lot run in a small herd, it works for them. I`m in favour of herds.

  10. I kind of figured Dawn would end up in a top "administration post" in the herd. It will be interesting to see exactly what her job description is.

    She and boss mare must have gone off to the far corner to discuss the contract. *G*

    The word verification is horrid. Half the time I have no idea what letters the scribbles represent.

  11. I'm a huge fan of group turnout as well. Unfortunately, our pasture is quite small so we have to take things slowly. If we turn out within a few days, we don't have enough space to allow escape during the squabbles. So, we put the new horse in the paddock and wait for everyone to get thoroughly bored with each other. That usually takes a couple weeks. Then we introduce the new horse at meal time when the horses are more interested in eating than playing games. It usually works well. Thanks also for the suggestion to check Jackson's digital pulse. I have a horrible time finding it, despite being shown how to do it by our vet a couple of times. I think I must have no feeling in my fingers. :)

  12. Sounds like the alpha mare is a good leader and is helping Dawn to get settled into whatever her place will be. I agree about the stress on humans...and the horses will often inadvertently hurt themselves, but it usually turns out good.

  13. I also prefer large herds as compare to small herds.

  14. This sounds great! I hope that Dawn adjusts quickly and easily, as it sounds she will. When I moved Laz, he went from day turnout, with some night turnout, to 24/7 turnout, which is what I wanted for him. He was tired for the first few weeks, and now he's rebounded tremendously, that if I ever stalled him (which I won't) he'd be a monster. He loves to be out and moving and I suspect Dawn will be too, which in turn, will give you a happy and focused Mare. An indoor will be LOVELY!! :) It is so interesting to see how they quickly figure out their place in the herd, and then again, changes that happen in a few weeks as they creep up to the top or not. Dawn may have started out high it seems :)

  15. We've got all seven of our out together, everyday, all day and there are very few problems. They eventually work it out. You wouldn't think that Dusty would fit in being the only mare but she does. She's more like a tomboy anyway. When she was out with a mare we had they never got along.

    Glad Dawn is working it out with her new herd. It's nerve wracking to watch the introductions though.

    I'm hating this new word verification too. I hope they take it down.


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