Written by: Amy Harris
Tips for managing horses in groups and the science behind herd dynamics.
Andrea Harrison says she never set out to be a horse “rescuer,” and yet, over the years, her home has become a safe haven for several horses in need of sanctuary.
It was an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Valiant (formerly Lorenzo’s Prize), who was the first “rescue” to join Andrea’s motley crew including Red and Rodeo, two retired show horses still loved and supported by their own people, a pony named Quirk, plus Harri and Maggi – none formal rescues, but all with sad back stories, says Andrea.
Valiant became the namesake for “Team Valiant” and set the ball rolling for Andrea’s horse rescuing adventures, which are supported whole-heartedly by her husband Tom and mother Devon.
Ever since the first paddock was erected on the property Andrea and Tom call home, horses (and dogs, chickens, and even a pig) have been arriving – some staying, and others going on to new homes under free lease agreements so that Andrea can ensure their continued well-being.
Currently, there are 10 horses at the Harrisons’ De Vareharri Farm in Picton, Ontario. In addition to Valiant, and Andrea’s original bunch, the herd includes Thoroughbreds Aldwyn (Cool Proposal), Mysterious Code and Big Deed. These horses were pulled out of feedlots, auction pens and other bad situations, and have a home with Andrea for as long as they need. Another Thoroughbred, Huey (Clark Stable) was lucky enough to bypass a rough start and came directly to the farm from his caring breeder.
Andrea takes her role as guardian of these horses very seriously, and does all she can to provide a stable environment along with attentive, loving care, including regular veterinary and farrier visits and, for those who need it, chiropractic and massage treatments and special diets.
Part of Andrea’s job involves ensuring the herd runs smoothly. More than anything, observing the horses interact and paying attention to individual needs has taught her what they need, when to intervene and when to let nature take its course.
Here, Andrea shares some of the lessons she has learned about herd harmony.
Introducing a New Horse
Before a new horse has contact with any of the horses on Andrea’s property, it must have served some time in quarantine. “We try to ensure the horse has had some quarantine time before arriving here,” said Andrea. “If necessary, we can do it here, but prefer to establish the new horse with a buddy as soon as possible. Everybody is happier that way, and the new horse is not as overwhelmed as it would be being turned out into a large group. Even so, we go slowly and let the horses dictate the pace of introductions.”
On arrival, explained Andrea, “a new horse is set up in a big double stall where he or she can see but not have direct contact with the other horses. If the first 24 hours go by without a hitch, we turn the horse out into the barnyard with no direct contact for a day.
“We tend to slow introductions, over a fence, with a small group of two or three horses. We place hay piles close to the fence and away from it, so that the new horse can choose whether they want to eat alone or socialize.
“We watch the horses carefully and then choose one horse from the group to go in with the newcomer, usually within 24 hours. Then, when the time is right, we integrate the new horse and the buddy with the small group, then with a larger group once the horse is ready.
“We have a large safe field for such introductions. Two of the longer-term residents here, Rodeo and Aldwyn, are often determined to run new horses around at first. We watch closely and usually separate them out again after a couple of hours, then repeat again the next day, and so on, until there is harmony.”
Andrea said usually the herd settles down about two weeks after a new horse has been introduced, following some posturing. “Squeals and big arched necks are the norm for a bit – then eating. We let the horses themselves determine how quickly the process goes. Some horses adapt very quickly and others take much longer. Rushing it does not work,” she said.
Catering to Their Needs
Paying close attention to the individual personalities of each horse and pairing or grouping them accordingly is paramount to achieving peaceful coexistence. “Horses are as individual as we are,” said Andrea. “They will have friends, best friends and horses they simply don’t love. That’s to be expected.”
For this reason, sometimes, at least initially, it won’t be possible to turn all of your horses out together. You may need to create smaller groups based on the horses’ preferences and as well as their practical needs. “I’d love to have all 10 horses galloping romantically around here together, but I usually end up with two or three turn out groups – for practicality as much as anything else,” said Andrea. “The horses have friends in all groups, and often hang out beside each other along a fence line.”
For example, said Andrea, when she tried to introduce four-year-old Huey to the group including Valiant, the aged gelding took umbrage any time the youngster went near Mysterious Code, a mare. Andrea has opted to keep Huey, who is, by nature, very sensitive and worried, out of this group for now.
Andrea noted that some groups or pairings are formed based on things like dietary restrictions. “The pony mare, Quirk, is on a very limited/no grass diet right now, as she came home from a free lease a bit overweight. So, she hangs out in the dirt barnyard generally. I put one of the tough geldings out with her that doesn’t share hay well so that she can’t sit and gorge all day. She is good friends with one of the other mares too, so Maggi is often in with her.”
A Fluid Hierarchy
Herd hierarchy plays an important role in developing peaceful coexistence, and must be considered when forming turn out groups. In her experience, Andrea said “calm, clear leadership ‘wins’ around here. The bossy, pushy horses end up mid-rank.”
Most of the horses know where they fall in the pecking order and rarely make a bid to change their status. “There are three potential leaders here, depending on who they are with,” said Andrea. “If Mysterious Code and Valiant are together, Valiant won’t let anybody else near her. Red defers to Valiant, but otherwise he tends to get what he wants first. He is pretty benevolent. He’ll share food with nearly anybody and is often seen grooming or playing. Rodeo, his buddy, would like to run the herd. He makes mean faces and turns and kicks out. The horses stay out of his way largely, but don’t get too worried, except for young Huey.”
Each of the leaders tend to rule in slightly different says. For example, said Andrea, when a new horse arrives, “Valiant pins his ears and shakes his head and the horse moves, whereas Red simply stands where he wants, and body blocks whoever he wants elsewhere.”
Andrea noted that depending on which horse is leading a group, the herd dynamics can shift, and lower ranking horses will enjoy certain privileges, or not. “It’s funny,” she said, “if Red and Valiant are separate, they each lead their own group. If they are together, Harri gets to eat first, then Valiant, and Red is quite a long way down the list. I often wonder how Harri swings that.”
Normally though, said Andrea, she sees “few changes in the order they move in or which hay pile they go to. Usually the same horses are in the same spots, but every once in a while Harri and Maggi will hang tough and stay at the hay.”
One of the best ways to maintain peace in a herd is to make sure there is lots of food available. “This is probably my number one way to reduce conflict,” said Andrea. “We have multiple water locations and hay piles/nets.” She added that in a stable herd where resources are plentiful, “bickering over food is usually just for show.”
Andrea noted that she’s also seen horses fight over who is getting more attention – from other horses or humans. For example, she said, “Valiant is insistent that Mysterious Code is HIS girl. Even as he enjoys visits with the other horses, he stands between her and them.” She added, “Red takes his job as farm greeter very seriously and woe be to anyone that shoves their way into his space when there are people visiting along the fence line.”
Sometimes, said Andrea, horses can find themselves in trouble if they lack social skills. “Aldwyn, for example, does not read enough cues from the other horses and they can get pretty cross with him. And Rodeo would like to be a bully at times. He’ll stand at a gate that the other horses have to come through and pin his ears and generally project the message ‘Don’t you dare.’ The horses mostly just wait him out though, occasionally, one of the big guys will walk right past his creepy faces. The horses have largely learned to work around both of them, and any conflict is over very quickly.”
In terms of whether turning mares and geldings out together causes conflict, Andrea said “I was really torn about having the mares and geldings together. Local custom is very much split herds, and I do find there is a little posturing around the mares by the geldings, especially at first, but the mares are a moderating influence too.
“The three mares here all like each other and two have a clear preference of a favoured gelding to hang out with. They are often the first buddy I introduce the new guys to because they are clear about what they will tolerate.”
Enjoying the Harmony
Andrea said caring for a herd, though a large responsibility, with many variables, is a rewarding experience. “Watching the horses play, groom, stand in the shade and graze in a group is magical,” she said. “It’s restorative for us and it’s worth working through the transition to allow it to happen. Being aware of the dynamics of the group and making sure there are more resources available than needed makes a huge difference to success.”
Upon meeting Valiant, a retired racehorse in need a safe place to land, Andrea Harrison was inspired to form “Team Valiant,” which she describes as a “global band of women passionate about making a difference in the lives of those in need.” Andrea and a core of about 50 other women, who met in September of 2013, largely through Facebook networking, band together to raise funds to support the horses seeking sanctuary at her farm as well as other horses and animals in need. Fundraising efforts have included open houses, virtual parties and online auctions. The fundraising is important and vital to the ongoing support of the four Team Valiant horses, but Team Valiant has become much more than that – it’s a supportive educational compassionate collective. To learn more, visit the Team Valiant page on Facebook.