It’s a sight that any horse person can appreciate: a group of horses grazing together or relaxing in a group beneath the cool shade of a tree. Horses are, after all, herd animals, so they are most at home with other horses.
But putting horses together isn’t always easy and some—just like people—simply don’t get along. With a little common sense and good horsemanship you can turn out safely and avoid many dangerous situations.
“Bigger is always better. The larger the area, the easier horses can get out of each other’s way,” says Karen Dodd of Southern Chase Farm, a training and boarding operation near Ocala, Florida. Karen and husband Greg own and manage the 425-acre farm and regularly buy, train and sell young horses.
In any group of horses, the natural equine pecking order comes into play. There’s no 100% positive way to determine compatibility until you actually put horses together, Karen points out, but you can certainly put the odds in your favor that things will go well.
- Let horses get acquainted in stall or over fence before turning out together
- Turn out in pairs so horses buddy up
- Never turn out unfamiliar horses at night or when you can’t stay around to watch for a while
- Don’t put two dominant horses together
- Separate horses at feeding time
“We turn out in pairs. That way there are even numbers and less chance of one horse being the ‘odd one out,’” says Karen.
Before turning out horses in the same paddock or field, put them in neighboring pens or stalls so they can get familiar with each other. If they show obvious dislike or aggression, you’ll know to try a different match-up for turn out.
“We put horses that are turned out together in stalls next to each other so they’ve already met by seeing and smelling each other through slats in the stall walls,” notes Karen. “This gives you an idea how they’re going to act.”
Don’t turn colts, stallions or two dominant horses (of any sex) out together. They are likely to be too aggressive and might hurt each other or even run through a fence.
When turning horses out together for the first time, always stay close by for at least 20 to 30 minutes to see how things go. Expect squeals and snorts and don’t be surprised if the horse run a few laps around the field or paddock as they sort things out amongst themselves.
If you have doubts about how horses will react, you can always ask your veterinarian to give each a small dose of tranquilizer—just enough to “take the edge off”—a few minutes before turning them out the first time together. By the time it wears off, the horses should have settled down and will likely just drop their heads and start grazing.
Any time you have one horse that is more timid that the other(s), always turn that horse loose first. This way a more dominant horse won’t rush up and intimidate the horse you’re holding (catching you in the middle!) when you are pulling off the halter. (Likewise, when taking horses out of the field, catch the more dominant horse first.)
An important way to avoid potential dangers is not to feed hay or grain in the field. By separating horses (in pens or stalls) at feeding time, you greatly lower the chance of injury from horses kicking, biting or fussing over food. This also reduces the stress and anxiety a more timid horse endures when repeatedly getting chased away from his feed. Constant stress is a source of digestive woes and other health problems, so do whatever you can to eliminate it; separating horses at feeding time is a prime way to do this.
Remove halters when turning horses out so they can’t get them caught on something or grab them when playing.
If you have ponies, miniature horses or otherwise vulnerable equines—such as old or “gimpy” horses or with mares with young foals at side—only turn them out with similar pasture mates. For example, a full-size horse might have fun running and playing with a mini, but unintentionally injure the smaller animal with a frisky kick. Realize that an older, slower horse can’t get out of the way of younger, stronger horses and could get hurt.
Finally, remember your own safety whenever turning out. ALWAYS turn the horse to face you before releasing your hold. This allows you to step out of the way if he jumps or whirls and kicks out the moment he realizes he’s loose.