Nature Meets Nurture: Management Schemes Designed for Equines

Whether feeding, handling or sorting pasture mates, be sure to 'think like a horse'! Here's a look at some horse-friendly management schemes, courtesy of equine behavior experts.

Looking to manage a stable, ranch or other equine operation? Whether feeding, handling or sorting pasture mates, be sure to “think like a horse”!

Here’s a look at some horse-friendly management schemes, courtesy of equine behavior experts and My Horse University’s online Horse Behavior and Welfare Course, based out of Michigan State University.

Social Interaction
We all know that horses are social creatures. But, while it’s important to cater to this need, it’s equally important to do so in ways that minimize the possibility of injuries.

“People need to remember they are not simply housing a large dog… they are housing a very large animal with an incredibly strong flight response,” notes Dr. Camie Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University Horse Management Program and lead instructor for the online behavior course. “Furthermore, they are housing an animal that evolved to move about a great deal throughout the day while grazing/foraging. Stable social groups in safe pastures have very few injuries, but places that end up with a high degree of mixing, or who have not thought about ‘the nature of the beast’ will tend to have high rates of injuries.”

Nip potential conflicts in the bud by maintaining these stable groups and minimizing mixing. When laying out your farm, avoid sharp corners in pastures and the placement of coveted resources such as the water tank or hay feeder in such corners. Sheds should always have large openings, so horses won’t feel trapped. And last but not least, try to sort groups according to age. This will help ensure that older horses, who are typically more dominant, do not take feed from the youngsters.

Of course, the groups you use for sorting purposes will vary according to the size of your operation and the sex and status of the animals involved. On a large farm, weanlings might be one group, yearlings another and 2-year-olds still another. Open (non-pregnant) mares might be separated from in-foal (pregnant) mares, while geldings might form another group. Stallions would, of course, be housed individually.

On a smaller spread with fewer horses, the pasture mates would likely be sorted into broader age categories. Be sure, too, to consider geriatric equines who might need additional feed to maintain their body weight.

Introducing New Horses
The introduction of new horses to an established group requires patience and planning. In order to avoid injuries and minimize stress, it’s a good idea to let the horses get used to each other across the bars of stalls and across safe fencing between adjacent paddocks for a few days. This also gives the “newbie” a chance to settle in. Next, you might try turning the new horse out with one of the horses from the established group, making hay available in multiple piles and keeping the other horses from the established group in the adjacent paddock.

Then, once the new horse and the first “old” horse are getting along, you could try adding the other horses from the established group to this arrangement, one by one–or turning the new horse out with each of the other “old” horses individually. It’s a gradual process, and the length of time it will take for the horses to become accustomed to one another is largely dependent on their individual dispositions.

The most important thing to remember, experts say, is that horses are individuals who need space and time to work out their relationships. “This means doing introductions carefully and providing a new horse with the opportunity to escape,” says Natalie Waran, senior vice president of the International Society for Equitation Science Council and head of the School of Natural Sciences at Unitec New Zealand. “Go slow and you won’t have to worry as much about [leaving an escape route],” adds Dr. Cindy McCall, professor and extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at Alabama’s Auburn University.

Fencing and Stalls
Good fencing is an essential component to successful horse management. While no equine fencing is 100 percent safe, it should provide both a physical barrier, keeping the horse safely contained with minimal damage if it runs into it; and a psychological barrier, meaning that it is both visible and high enough that the horse won’t challenge it.

To this end, while a charged electric fence might provide a psychological barrier, the electricity itself does not provide enough of a physical barrier to be effective–particularly if it is not always on!

Safe, horse-friendly stabling is another consideration when managing horses. “If we could concentrate on making our stalls more horse-friendly and worry less about the beauty of said stalls, we would allow [many] more social opportunities amongst horses, which tends to help their dispositions dramatically,” Heleski maintains.

For more information on appropriate fencing and stabling, take the self-guided Virtual Horse Facility Tour on the Community Page of the Michigan State University Extension Equine Team at

Horses in the wild spend a great deal of their time grazing. Not surprisingly, most equine nutritionists maintain that maximizing the forage component of a horse’s diet makes for a healthy digestive system and fewer behavioral problems.

“If I could convince all farms in the country to get their horses turned out more, that would be one of the greatest services we could ever do for the horse,” says Heleski. “I do understand there are some limitations to this, but they are not nearly as plentiful as people make them out to be. Additionally, if I could convince all owners/managers to feed based on forage first (again, realizing there are occasional limitations), that would also be a tremendous welfare enhancement for the horse population.”

But what about grain, you ask? Contrary to popular belief, feeding oats, corn and prepared feeds may make the horse owner feel better, but it is not necessary for every equine. Indeed, the energy needs of most adult horses in light work can be met with pasture and/or hay, as well as access to fresh water and a trace mineral salt block. Grain supplementation might be appropriate, however, for young, growing horses, performance horses working at moderate to high intensity levels, and certain geriatrics.

“Good management of [aged] horses dictates that they should be weighed regularly, have their health monitored, have easy-to-digest foods provided and are fed frequently rather than all in one meal,” says Waran. McCall concurs, noting, “Some can get by very well on good-quality forage and some definitely need supplemental concentrates. However, some geriatric horses may have behavioral issues that limit their ability to be easily moved into a different group.

“Many geriatrics will be at the top of a dominance order in a group of familiar horses . [but] when they are moved to a new group of horses they may not have the ability, due to the infirmities of age, to have a high ranking,” she continues. “This decrease in ranking may be detrimental to the geriatric horse if horses are group fed or have limited resources. So if the geriatric horse is getting along well with herd mates and maintaining its weight, my advice is to let it be. If there is any way to separate them at mealtime (for example, in a stall or pen), it may be better to feed them separately from their normal group and turn them back out after the meal.”

When feeding grain, how much is too much? Experts agree that horses utilize grain more efficiently when fed no more than five pounds per feeding, with meals at frequent, evenly spaced intervals. Therefore, if you need to feed a horse nine pounds of grain daily, divvy it up into no more than four and one-half pounds per feeding and space mealtimes 12 hours apart. Or, better still, feed three pounds of grain every eight hours.

Also consider keeping horses on pasture for much of each day for natural foraging, when the eating is good. The only caveat here: Take care to limit pasture, especially among susceptible horses, during those times of year when the sugar and fructan levels are particularly high in the grass. Too much of a good thing could result in laminitis, a painful and sometimes deadly hoof condition. For more information, see

Last but not least, just because your pasture is green doesn’t mean that what’s growing there is nutritious or even edible. Pastures should contain an assortment of grasses and legumes, but horses turn their noses up at many broadleaf or long-stem weeds, and in the absence of good pasture, might be tempted to sample poisonous plants. If you are unsure of what is growing in your pasture, perhaps a chat with your local extension specialist is warranted.

Safe Handling
Thinking like a horse is especially important when working around a 1,000-pound creature that can–and will–“spook” at the drop of a hat!

What may seem illogical to us as humans can have a marked effect on a horse. After all, the equine is essentially a prey creature. Therefore, to deal with a horse successfully, you must learn to anticipate potential sources of panic and be prepared for them. It could be something as harmless as a piece of litter blowing in the wind, or something truly startling, like a deer jumping out of the woods in front of you. The trick, of course, is to proceed without tensing up and inadvertently causing your horse to spook as a result.

“A more confident rider will use stronger and more consistent aids . overshadowing the [horse ‘s] natural response with a trained response (i.e., to move forward in a controlled fashion),” explains Waran. McCall agrees, adding, “A good alternative is to flex the horse’s head away from the scary object (or a little shoulder-fore or shoulder-in away from the object) and send the horse forward. This is in effect telling the horse both that you are in control (he needs a leader when he is scared) and that there is nothing to be afraid of. Plus, it gives both you and the horse an activity that is incompatible with tensing up (rider) or stopping, leaping away or shying (horse) at the scary thing.”

The idea is to teach your horse to trust in your judgment. “A horse that has really accepted the rider as the leader will ask ‘Are we afraid?’ by focusing on the scary thing or giving a small startle reaction,” McCall explains. “If the rider says ‘No, we are not afraid’ through relaxation or flexing and driving, then the horse that has accepted the rider as leader will happily continue on.”

A sense of leadership is also important when walking out into a herd of horses. “Be conscious of the dominance order of the herd and stay alert to what is happening around you,” McCall advises. “Most people are hurt because they get caught in the middle of an interaction between horses. Of course, it really helps minimize horse/human accidents if the human is at the top of the dominance order of all the horses. If you can’t be sure that you are at the top, take a longe whip in the pasture with you when you are feeding, etc. Any place you can reach with the whip is your space, and you should use the whip (fairly, of course) to convince horses that they do not belong in your space.”

Lastly, consider the type of horse with which you’re dealing. Some horses react more quickly to “spooky” things and need more time to become “bombproof.” In many cases, this comes down to a difference between breeds.

As McCall notes, “Both cold- and hot-bloods have the same instincts and survival skills. So they will all act the same at real and imaginary dangers and in interactions with other horses and humans. However, my experience is that warmbloods [like the Trakehner and the Selle Fran?ais] and cold-bloods [like any draft horse breed] tend to ‘come back to their senses’ a little more quickly than some of our hot-blood breeds [like the Arabian or the Thoroughbred]; i.e., they get just as excited/upset as a hot-blood, but they get over it more quickly.

“Therefore, my guess is that the perceived difference in spookiness is because excitement in many of our hot-blood breeds may escalate as the horse is worked (especially when paired with a novice rider/handler), while warmblood/cold-blood breeds tend to calm down as they are worked,” she continues. “This is probably why a lot of riders report that these breeds are less reactive than the hot-bloods.”

My Horse University is a national online program for horse enthusiasts based at Michigan State University, one of the top U.S. universities in equine science and management. This program offers equine education courses and resources to help you achieve your horse-management goals.

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