Here at the ranch, our herd is constantly expanding, contracting and changing as horses come, go and move around within different groups. We constantly monitor the social health of each group and look for ways that we create groups that provide a stress free life for each horse in it.
There are many variables when introducing new horses into a group and when you are introducing an off-track Thoroughbred, which may not have been turned out in a group setting in several years, there are extra precautions to be taken.
When a horse arrives at the ranch, whether it is fresh off the racetrack or from another farm, we always let them have some down time alone or sometimes with a horse they traveled with (and already buddied up to) in a secure corral. We are fortunate in that we have many different sizes and configurations of working corrals at the ranch, in addition to large box stalls. Typically, we turn a new horse into a high-sided corral that does not border any other horses. That way, they can decompress from a long van ride and begin the process of transition.
As with any horse that has traveled long distances (most of our horses come from Ohio and Kentucky and therefore have been on the van 15-20 hours by the time they arrive), it is important to make sure they rehydrate and begin eating normally. We usually keep the "new boys" in a corral fairly close to the house so we can check on them multiple times per day for the first several days. If they arrive during inclement weather, we put them in box stalls.
Finding a "Mentor"
When a horse is fresh off the racetrack, there is a good chance they have not experienced group turnout, and therefor normal equine group interaction, for several years. Many horses will not have been turned out in a pasture group since they were yearlings. With that in mind, going slow and giving them time to regain lost skills is essential.
Whenever possible, we like to pair a new horse with one that has already been on the ranch for some time, Horses that have spent much of their life at the racetrack, living in box stalls 22 hours a day, can be much like a visitor from a far-off foreign country. Things like water tanks, mud puddles, cows and even the act of eating hay or grass from the ground can be confusing and somtime overwhelming for them at first. Having a "mentor" that can show them the ropes and how to do things "right" can ease their transition greatly. In addition, that same mentor can assist in establishing their place when they enter the large group. We all know it is easier to go out on the new playground with a trusted friend by your side!
Let's Meet the Neighbors.
After a new arrival has settled in for a few days, maybe even a week or more, we try to sort them into a small group where they can get comfortable. At the ranch, we typically have one large group (8-10) geldings and then several smaller groups (2-4). Typically, we will let the new horse get to know a small group over the fence for a few day...they can get most of the squealing, snorting and general obnoxiousness out over the big pole fence before meeting in-person. After this gets sorted out, we then turn them into the new group.
We try to do this first thing in the morning, after they get their morning hay or are in the midst of busy morning grazing. We do this for several reasons. First, hungry horses are busy horses that don't have time to create trouble. If horses are on hay, in the winter, we make sure they are more hay piles than horses so they can shuffle around as-needed. Second, the morning turnout time means we can watch the group interact for the full day. We never, ever, do a new turnout in the evening. If anything is going to happen, it will likely occur in those first 5-6 hours, so it is best they are spent in the daylight.
Wait, Watch and Adjust
After a horse has successfully transitioned to a small group, which may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, we look for ways to adjust the groups to ensure that each horse is comfortable and happy.
Horses that are naturally more timid or aggressive or simply loners may be grouped with others that are a better fit. Some horses are never comfortable in a large group and others absolutely prefer the large group over small ones. We spend much of our time just observing them to see who is happy, who is a bully and who is an outcast. Then we move them into new groups according to their needs.
Another thing we watch carefully for is horses that have issues adjusting to certain aspects of their new environment. We have had horses that took issue with the water tank, refusing to drink from anything from a bucket until we gently coaxed (and sometimes tricked) them into finally trying it. We had one gelding, Shiney, who was so afraid of the cattle in the adjoining pasture that he would not use their shared water tank. We have geldings so accustomed to getting their forage in a hay net that they take a few weeks to quit complaining about our failure to fill one for them.
Above all, horsemanship is about learning and adjusting your methods from what you have learned. Over the decades, we have tried (and sometimes failed) at different turnout scenarios and for many years now have stuck to methods that work. This has allowed us to successfully transition many off-track Thoroughbreds each year, with a minimum amount of fuss and stress. We have groups that include stallions mixed with geldings, young horses with older ones and new horses with veterans. These groups work because we are always paying attention to the herd dynamics and making adjustments when necessary.
It should also be noted that we run a closed herd of only MALE (stallions and geldings) horses. We no longer have any mares on the ranch for the simple reason that boys will be boys when the girls show up. We can successfully turn our stallion, Finn McCool, out with 8 other geldings and one other breeding stallion because he doesn't feel the urge to compete with no mares about. As Dale said "All the guys on a football team get along really well until the cheerleaders show up." and so it is with horses too. In addition, mares present an entirely different herd dynamic in the way they interact with each other and with geldings. For our purposes, it is easiest to keep to a single sex and keep the hormones out of it!
We answer your questions about retraining Thoroughbreds for off-track careers and share the stories of the horses on the ranch.
Gate to Great Geldings
A Division of Horse Creek Thoroughbreds
Newell, SD 57760