King Ace of Pasturalot; Or Turning Horses Out Safely in Herds

Aug 09, 2010 3 Comments by

It’s been my long-held belief that horses should come well-stocked with bubble wrap – or at least with plenty of gauze, vet wrap, and furazone ointment. They’re good at getting themselves in trouble, and never more than when they are are turned out in the pasture together.

Horses are herd animals. Almost all of them are happier when they are with other horses. But as with most groups, they need to establish their pecking order. They can’t very well argue it out in the office kitchen. So they use what they have: teeth and hooves. And sometimes two horses just won’t get along and will cause serious damage to each other.

Case in point: my thoroughbred gelding Ace was clearly low-man-on-the-totem-pole at the first place I kept him. It was a friend’s farm and he lived in the arena with their three horses. The other three had been together for a long time, and besides the fact that they were all buddied up already, they had a very firmly established pecking order. Ace had no choice but to defer to the last place position.

Some horses are totally OK with being submissive and not rocking the boat, but not Ace. He’s naturally dominant.

For that first year I was constantly finding him with large teeth marks or cuts and scrapes on his legs and head from trying to get away from the other horses. I could see on his face that he was stressed.

Then we moved to a large boarding stable where Ace was put with the least dominant horses on the property so he wouldn’t get beat up. And he promptly made himself king of the field -  a position he has yet to relinquish despite several herd changes.

A few days ago, Ace was turned out with three new horses. I put them out one at a time and kept a close eye on them to make sure there wasn’t going to be any major issues. The first two I walked out together; when released, Ace pinned his ears and backed up towards the other horse, who promptly spun and trotted away.

I brought in the second horse, a Shire gelding. He and Ace sniffed noses for a moment, then Ace pinned his ears and the Shire promptly spun and trotted away. For the next five minutes, Ace herded the other two horses around at a fast walk, keeping himself in between.

The fourth horse was the baby of the bunch, and went trotting right up to Ace, who was grazing between the other two. Ace pinned his ears. The baby spun and trotted away. I watched as for the next five minutes they would approach each other, and quickly leave Ace when he gave them “that look”. Within 10 minutes, Ace and his obedient subjects were all happily tucking in to their dinner.

In the last 10 months since our barn move, Ace has been happier overall and has only come in twice with minor injuries: one teeth mark and one large bump from a kick.

Tips For Turning Horses Out Safely

There’s a little more finesse involved when turning horses out together than just sticking them all in a pasture together. The two keys are making sure all horses get along with their group, and introducing new horses to the herd slowly and carefully.

You may have a serious herd issue to address if you have a horse who either is getting beat up badly and regularly, or one who isn’t being allowed to eat or drink. Both are common in herds where two or more horses really don’t get along.

Here are a few keys for managing horse herds.

Introducing a New Horse to the Herd

Giving horses a chance to get to know each slowly and ensuring their first encounter is in a large, safe area will make for a smoother transition process.

  • introduce horses in a large area free of obstacles
  • wait until footing is firm; sloppy and slippery makes for dangerous “get-to-know-you” antics
  • do it in daylight hours so horses can easily see each other, fencing, and footing in the pasture
  • wait until after mealtime so the horses aren’t anxious to be fed and feeling like they have to fight over it
  • turn the new horse out first so he can get familiar with the lay-of-the-land, and then turn the other horses out one at a time
  • if introducing 2 or more horses to a herd, let the newcomers get acclimated to each other first

Also, it really helps if you spend time watching your horses at pasture. Know which ones are dominant and which ones are submissive. Know how they react to advances from other horses. Know which ones are buddies and will try to protect their friends. This will enable you to be more strategic in picking your turnout groups and selecting an order for turnout when you first introduce them.

General Herd Management Safety Tips

Here are a few tips that will help keep your horses safer when turned out together

  • separate mares and geldings. Mares and geldings are more likely to get protective of one another, and they can have some serious fights if for instance two geldings want to be buddies with one mare. If you think this is no big deal, stop over and talk to MiKael of Rising Rainbow Arabians. One of her geldings killed her prize mare when they were turned out together. Is it really worth risking it? This “rule”  isn’t an absolute, but for most horses it’s a good rule of thumb. We do have one little gelding POA at the barn who beats up the other geldings regularly; he goes out with the mares who keep him in line. In general, keep mares and geldings separated unless there’s a good reason to integrate.
  • use breakaway halters or nothing. It’s always better to turn out horses sans-halters when possible. It’s too tempting for them to play with each other’s – which can be all in good fun or not. They can also get caught on fences or trees in the field, causing suffocation or injury. If circumstance requires your horse to wear a halter, only use one with a leather headstall or breakaway piece that will release if a horse gets into trouble. Bonus? You can buy replacements for just the headstall if it does break.
  • provide an escape route. Avoid building corners into your pasture where horses can trap one another. It can get pretty nasty if a dominant horse traps another in a corner and beats up on him. Make sure they have plenty of room to escape each other if wanted. Don’t confine too many horses together in a small pasture.
  • space out feed. If you grain in the pasture or give them extra hay when the grass is low or non-existent, be sure leave lots of space between feeding stations. If you have a particularly food aggressive horse, place an extra station or four so all the horses can get to plenty of feed.
  • keep an eye on the herd. Watch the horses for a few minutes after turnout, and check on them periodically to makes sure they are OK. Have at least two pastures available, so that if you have one horse who is too aggressive, you have the option to separate him. Always know what is happening with them and get to know the pecking order. Even if your horses live out 24/7, run your eyes and hands over them daily to check for injuries.

Do you have any other turnout safety tips to share, or funny (or compelling) stories about your horses and their pecking order?


Side note: I really need to sell my saddle. It’s a lovely Crosby Prix De Nations I bought new 12 years ago and have kept in great shape. 16.5″ seat and medium tree, great for a junior or small adult. I’m not asking a lot for it. Contact me if you or someone you know is interested.

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3 Responses to “King Ace of Pasturalot; Or Turning Horses Out Safely in Herds”

  1. Arlene says:

    Ace reminds me of our dominant horse Mellon. Nobody has challenged him for the last twenty years, he just has that look and attitude about him. You’ve given some really good common sense advice. We do mostly everything the same way except all our horses go out together, mares included. Dusty had no problem with anybody, probably because she’s like one of the boys. She and Mellon sort of co-direct the herd. I would venture to say the only one Dusty defers to is Mellon, not because she wants to but because she has to, you can just see how much she’d like to give him a kick sometimes but she doesn’t dare. Once they all know the pecking order things run pretty smoothly. Great post.

  2. Rocking Horses says:

    It also helps if you can introduce the horse into an adjacent field first

  3. Mary S. Beveridge says:

    We turned our young thoroughbreds out together for the first time this weekend. They have had about a week or two of exposure through the stall windows and seemed comfortable with one another. The alpha dog was my 5 year old- that was proven in the first 5 minutes- lots of running around , bucking, kicking…etc. Then they acted like they had been together for years. As soon as I went in to bring them in-going for the dominant one first, he reared up at me and took off, full speed, after my three yr old , herding him all over the pasture. He finally came to a stop and allowed me to approach him lead him to the stall-long enough to get my baby in. Normal behavior? Do we allow daily turnout for about an hour or so- my only concern is the amount of running around they did. My baby is an off track rescue with history of chipped left knee. Should they go out at all together?

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