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Horse Behaviour: How to safely introduce your horse to a new friend

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Horse Behaviour:  How to safely introduce your horse to a new friend

Overview of the article:

Suggested solutions based on the science of Applied Animal Behaviour to introducing a new horse to an existing herd so as to avoid conflict or injury. This is a brief article – for a fuller understanding of the topic we suggest the Equine Behaviour Qualification Course. See the end of the article for the link to the prospectus.


On our Animal Behaviour courses at the Natural Animal Centre, we often make suggestions about keeping horses as naturally as possible (the science of Horse Behaviour), such as allowing them to live in permanent herds which affords them the opportunity to pair bond, an important part of their social structure.   Without a herd, horses not only lead an unnatural existence, but are also subject to stress.

But if you are thinking about a new horse, someone at your yard is buying a new horse or you want to be an Animal Behaviourist, is there a way of applying Equine Behaviour principles to introducing the new horse to the existing herd which minimizes the chances of upset and injury? Can you use the science of Animal Behaviour to perform the introduction so that it makes sense from the Horse Behaviour perspective?


Answers to questions such as these are found in the natural Horse Behaviour of free-ranging, feral horses. Here, horses join new herds or leave old ones and this fact makes it possible for us to introduce a new horse to a herd. If the reverse was true, then adding a new horse in a domestic environment would be virtually impossible. But there are issues surrounding how a horse tries to join a new herd in the wild that are essential for us to remember – we need to use the science of Horse Behaviour as a guide.

A feral horse may try to join a new group for a range of reasons from getting lost to young fillies voluntarily leaving to join a nursery herd. As one of the protective mechanisms for ensuring no in-breeding occurs, a stallion will not mate with his daughter and will allow her to leave the herd and join another.  Several daughter fillies may leave together and then attach themselves to another nursery group that readily accepts them.

First meetings may go relatively smoothly but as each horse meets another for the first time, each is wary of getting too close too soon. Horses have a personal space (more on this in the Equine Behaviour Course) just as we do and if a strange horse invades another horse’s space abruptly and uninvited, repercussions may be swift and painful. But natural Horse Behaviour usually avoids outright aggression because an injury could result in death. Approaches from new horses are avoided by moving away and this evasive action signals to a new horse that they are not yet ready to share personal space. Gradually the space around the horse “shrinks” in size and eventually, the new horse may even be permitted to groom the residents.

Horses also have a space which relates to the whole herd. It is as though the herd is surrounded by an invisible circle and if a new horse tries to join the herd, he is initially driven away as soon as he crosses the invisible line (more on this in Teach Yourself Horse volume I available on the website). But the line is associated with home ranges – the area which they perceive as being “theirs”. Ranges encompass favourite watering and grazing spots and in times of plenty, a herd’s home range may overlap that of another herd. But in times of drought or shortages of food, a herd guards its precious resources and drives out intruders. Provided there is room to escape, an intruding horse will simply run off and injury is generally avoided. Herein lies the important element of Horse Behaviour.

Within this knowledge of Horse Behaviour lies the key for introducing domestic horses to each other. If space is at a premium, adding another causes the resident group to become temporally territorial in their efforts to defend their valuable resource – their small field. (We cover the concept of Resource Holding Potential in detail on the Equine Behaviour Course, but this explanation will suffice for now.)

Take a leaf out of the book of free-ranging Horse Behaviour and at the time of introduction, allow horses to take evasive action to avoid being pinned in corners and injured. Start by placing the new horse in a field adjacent to the resident herd. Introductions can take place over a fence and the new horse can “escape” the attentions of the others by safely moving away in its own field. Just as the science of Horse Behaviour predicts, over several days, one individual may show interest in the new horse and once the new horse and this one are grooming over the fence, you will know that the time is right to put the two together – after all, grooming each other is about as close to natural Horse Behaviour as horses can get and shows that the two horses have no personal space problems with each other.

Once this pair have grazed side by side for a week or two, you are ready to introduce the new horse to the herd – but as part of the pair. Because one horse has already accepted the new one, and because the herd has met the new one over the fence, you have set yourself up to have the maximum chance of a smooth and safe introduction. If you understand the science of Horse Behaviour you can apply it in practical ways to help yourself or as a qualified Animal Behaviourist, your clients.


So if you want to live your passion: make helping horses your life skill.   We provide all the Animal Behavior & training you need on the Equine Behaviour Qualification, to setup your very own practice: 

Click here:  Behaviour Courses

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 Or on the website choose the ‘Animal Behaviour’ tab on the home page, then then 1st item ‘Equine, Canine, Feline Behaviour Qualifications Stage I’ on the drop down menu, scroll down and click on the picture of the horse for a free Equine Behaviour Course Prospectus.