It can take weeks for new horses to settle into an established herd—be prepared to see aggressive behavior during the initial introduction. Adding a male to a female brood can extend the time and add extra stress
Two weeks ago I introduced my new Appaloosa gelding to my well-established and friendly mare and mule. The mare and mule—both female—are sweet and quiet. They have been in with other horses in the past, but that was about two years ago. When I first introduced the new gelding, all three had time in stalls to snort and touch noses. When I first turned them out together, they seemed calm and fine. After a few days, the gelding became increasingly aggressive to both females. All three horses are in a pasture with a 32 by 36-foot run-in barn. There‘s plenty of room for all to run free, then stand separated in the barn if they choose. However, the gelding is intimidating the females and pushing them out of the shelter whenever they approach. It’s getting cooler and I want all three to have access to the shelter. How long does it take for new horses to settle into the herd? What can I do to facilitate the process?
Driven Out, via e-mail
Dear Driven Out,
It sounds like normal herd behavior going on with your bunch and yes, sometimes it can take weeks for the pecking order to be fully re-established after a new horse is added to the herd. The gelding is trying to make the mares submit so that he has total control over them. Naturally, mares are more likely to form bonded relationships with other mares; while a mare in the wild might bond to a stallion too, mostly they are tight with each other. Probably they are more bonded to each other than to him and that is driving him crazy. A stallion in the wild will herd his mares until they become submissive and obedient. Hopefully they will accept his authority soon, show the appropriate signs of submissiveness and respect then he will settle down.
If you look at the natural herd setting, there are brood mare bands and bachelor bands. The broodmare band generally consists of a stallion, any number of mares he might possess, and their young off-spring. They are a bonded herd. The bachelor band consists of all the colts and stallions that don’t have their own mares and they are not particularly bonded, they have just formed a herd of convenience, since horses are reliant on the herd for survival.
In domestication, we generally turn the natural herd setting upside down and horses are grouped together for our convenience. Most large operations keep all the geldings in one pen and all the mares in another; this makes for very peaceful coexistence. As soon as you add one member of the opposite sex to either group, the sparks will fly and horses will start vying for position: “It’s my mare, not yours,” or “I am the favored mare, not you.” While it is certainly possible for a mixed gender herd to get a long well, it can also be a recipe for disaster.
Whenever you introduce a new horse into a herd, especially a more dominant horse, it is likely that sparks are going to fly and it is quite possible that someone will get hurt. It’s a good idea to introduce them slowly in adjacent pens, over a week or two, preferably so that they can touch and sniff over a tall, sturdy, safe fence. When you turn out the new horse to the herd, there will still be some posturing so you may want to supervise for a while, to make sure things don’t blow up into a full-scale war. I usually hang out in the pen for a while with a whip in my hand, in case I need to break up a scuffle. Try to introduce them in an area free of traps, like corners or stalls where a dominant horse might trap a subordinate and wail on him. It is also very effective to introduce one horse at a time to the new one, by putting one horse from the herd in with him, let them become comfortable, then turn the two out together. Sometimes, if the new horse already has a buddy, he’ll be less likely to be aggressive.
It is possible that your gelding is just a bully. A good herd leader will establish his/her authority and then leave the other horses alone, only discipline them if they are disrespectful or disobedient. However, some horses are just bullies and will pick on the other horses in the herd relentlessly. In time, the herd hierarchy should have straightened out and he should start treating the mares better, or at least ignore them. If not, he may be a relentless bully and may need to be separated from the girls.
If the gelding’s aggressive behavior continues, you may want to start separating him for feeding or pull him out altogether. An incorrigible bully either needs to be put in with a more dominant horse that will put him in his place (at the risk of injury to both horses) or be kept separate from other horses. If you choose the latter, make sure he’s in a pen where he can see and touch other horses—that way he won’t feel alone.
If his aggressive behavior continues or if separation is a problem, consider the use of an electric shock collar called “Vice Breaker.” It is only used in cases where it is in the horses’ best interest (we’re talking about safety for the bully and for the females) to eliminate the unacceptable behavior–in this case the unacceptable behavior is aggressiveness. People have had remarkable and quick success with aggressive horses using a shock collar. The shock collar is similar to what they use on dogs, but with a much lower level of stimulation (at the lowest level, a human cannot feel anything). Basically, you put the collar on the horse, stand at a distance, and (unbeknownst to him) hit the remote button to shock him every time he acts aggressively. Like all training, timing is quintessential and it requires skill to use this device effectively. With good timing, you could eliminate the undesirable behavior on the first session, but generally it will take a few sessions. The remote control works up to half mile away so it is easy to stay ‘hidden’ so that your horse doesn’t associate the correction with your presence. This device is also very handy for barn or trailer kickers, aggressive biting, etc. Generally, in one or two sessions the horse is cured.
Good luck with your new horse. I hope they all settle soon!
Until next time,