Here at the ranch, our herd is constantly changing as horses arrive for retraining or are sold for pleasure mounts. The process of letting-down the Thoroughbred athlete and introducing turn-out time is an essential part of resocialization into a herd situation. There are many variables when introducing new horses into a group, while keeping him safe and happy a priority.
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 with a van-mate 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. 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, it is important to make sure they rehydrate, are eating normally and are monitored for possible problems.
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 slowly 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 which have spent much of their life at the racetrack living in box stalls 22 hours a day are what we term "institutionalized." Things like water tanks, creek crossings and cows can be overwhelming for them at first. Having a "mentor" that can show them the ropes and how to do things 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 week or more, we try to sort them into a small group where they can get comfortable. We often have one large group of 6 to 8 geldings and several smaller groups of 2 to 4 head. Typically, we will let the new horse get to know a small group over a corral fence for a few days so they can get most of the squealing and snorting over with before turning them out.
We try to do this first thing in the morning when everyone is busy 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 during winter, we make sure there are more hay piles than horses so they can shuffle around for full access. Secondly, the morning turnout time means we can watch the group interact for the full day. We never 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 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 problems adjusting to certain aspects of their new environment. We have had horses that took issue with the water tank, refusing to drink from anything but a bucket until we gently coaxed them into trying it. We had one gelding who was so afraid of the cattle in the adjoining pasture, 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.
Over the decades, we have experimented with different turnout scenarios and for many years now have stuck to methods that work. One of the biggest problems we see others run into with turning out horses is the lack of available acreage. Thoroughbreds require plenty of room to run at liberty. Proper fencing is another requirement and a topic unto itself. Our herd lives outside 24/7 so they can't build up a head of steam from being stabled and then turned out, which leads to injury.
It should also be noted that we run a closed herd of only gelded or freshly gelded horses. We no longer have any mares on the ranch for the simple reason, as Dale says, "All the guys on a football team get along really well until the cheerleaders show up."
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