Jan 13
horses are neophobes – they are frightened of new things and new situations.

Horses are neophobes, frightened of new situations.

Many well-socialised horses take so readily to new places and situations that it can be easy to forget that, as a species, horses are neophobes – in simple terms, they are frightened of new things and new situations. This trait stood their wild ancestors in good stead as prey animals: being suspicious of rustles in the bushes might mean the difference between life and death. A new environment is one in which the location of threats and resources is at first unknown – we have all seen a horse released into a new field exploring with a heightened awareness, all senses working hard to give the horse the information he needs. Horses are also herd animals, and in an established herd they have access to familiar resources, security, social relationships and the opportunity to ‘just be a horse’. Moving to a new home challenges all of these aspects simultaneously. As humans, we find moving house or job stressful: Will we get on with our new colleagues or neighbours? Will we be able to find the things we need? Will new processes be hard to get to grips with? In general, people are sympathetic in these situations and give us time to adjust. Horses need the same consideration, particularly as they cannot be expected to understand why everything they are familiar with has changed overnight. There are a number of ways in which we can make the process of settling into a new home easier for a horse.

Care and time should be taken when introducing new horses

Care and time should be taken when introducing new horses

Other horses will be a source of both reassurance and potential conflict, as established horses (particularly in a herd situation) begin to integrate the new horse into their social structure. If possible, turning the new horse straight out with others should be avoided, at least partly to avoid the spread of contagious diseases. Rather, the horse should be given time to adjust to his new situation gradually. He should always be able to see other horses nearby, so that he knows he is not alone – a hugely stressful situation for a social prey animal – but should also be given time to become accustomed to his new surroundings. For those insecure horses who find it hard to be on their own, there are a number of things that can help – a stable mirror and quiet radio; a relaxed human companion for as much time as possible; or, if one is available, a very quiet horse next door who will give the new arrival the confidence to relax.

It is not always the best policy to let horses meet each other over a fence – remember that fences are responsible for more injuries to horses than other horses are. It can be better to keep two fences between resident horses and the newcomer until the health of the new horse is confirmed, before introducing a quiet herd member, or their new field-mate, to the new arrival in the same field. If the horse is to be turned out alone, it is important that fences are well-constructed and completely secure, to lessen the risk of injury. Particular care is needed with electric fencing, which is becoming increasingly common as a primary fencing material. A horse unfamiliar with electric fencing needs a careful introduction to it in a situation in which he cannot hurt himself or other horses if he panics.

Make any dietary changes gradually

Make any dietary changes gradually

Horses will settle better if a familiar routine is maintained, at least initially. Ask the horse’s previous keepers abouttheir routine and management and try to copy it as far as possible. Feeding and turnout are important aspects here. It is well established that changes to diet should be made gradually, to allow the gut’s microflora to adapt – an unsettled gut is an unsettled horse. However, this applies as much if not more to forage as to hard feed – the former, after all, makes up the bulk of a horse’s diet. While it is clearly not possible to bring a supply of the horse’s old grass to its new home, it is worth asking to buy a small supply of the hay/haylage the horse has been eating, particularly in the winter, when hay/haylage will make up the majority of the diet. Grasses and hays vary widely in their nutritional value by species and by location, so if a sudden change is unavoidable allowances should be made as the horse’s digestive system becomes accustomed to the new fare. Consider giving a probiotic before, during and for a period afterward the move to help the horse maintain a settled tummy.

Like many people who have moved to a new area, horses are often sensitive to the smell and taste of new drinking water. Some may initially be reluctant to drink in a new home and a reduced water intake has potentially serious implications, such as colic. However, adding chopped apple or a juice from soaking sugar beet to the bucket can encourage even the most reluctant to drink, and adding extra water to feeds helps to increase intake.

A horse in work can be helped to settle by regular sympathetic exercise, and this can also be a good way to introduce new horses. But your new horse will also have to get used to a new handler and rider, who will apply the aids differently and have different standards and expectations, and usually unfamiliar tack as well. If it can be arranged, ride your new horse a few times in his old home before moving, so that you have the beginnings of a relationship when you bring him home. In his new home, try to keep the pressure on him to a minimum – don’t ask him to learn new things immediately or expect him to deal with experiences such as traffic or livestock at once unless you are sure he is familiar with them. Even something as apparently simple as your arena surface may be very different from what the horse is used to, and his body will need time to adapt. Simple groundwork will help to keep the horse’s mind and body occupied while building a trusting relationship between the horse and his new owner, but bear in mind that a stressed horse – just like a stressed person – is not in the right mental state to learn new things.

With the right approach it is possible to reduce the stress of moving for horse and human!

With the right approach it is possible to reduce the stress of moving for horse and human!

Every horse is different – they all have different temperaments, experiences, training and socialisation. Some are used to a busy show schedule while others rarely leave the yard. Some are used to a busy yard, some to a quiet yard. Some have been turned out alone all their lives, others have never lived apart from other horses. All these things need to be taken into account. While many horses will settle quickly, usually thanks to previous good training and experiences, some will find a new situation immediately stressful; others, by contrast, may initially appear to accept the new home, before beginning to ‘test the boundaries’. However, such behaviours often result from insecurity and worry, and an initially subdued response may be another sign of stress. It is important that a new owner considers such behaviours from the horse’s point of view and provides a reassuring presence to allow the horse to relax and gain trust.

Most horses will settle very well into a new home given a good routine, suitable feeding and consistent handling, but owners should always bear in mind that abrupt changes in environment, companions, lifestyle and nutrition are not natural, and horses are not naturally well adapted to cope with them. By following this advice, and giving the horse the time they need, you will be in the best position to achieve a stress-free move, resulting in a happy, settled horse and owner.

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