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New horse adjusting to new home

From: Melissa

Hi Jessica!

Have so much enjoyed my weekly installment of Horse Sense ... am learning loads just from reading everyone else's questions and your answers to them!

I purchased a 5-year-old Missouri Foxtrotter mare about two weeks ago and she was a dream when I rode her at her home. She was also perfection when she first arrived here (her trainer still around with us). Since then, she's extremely insecure and I feel that's attributed to the fact that she was at her previous home since she was 8 months old. She doesn't know me or her surroundings very well. When my daughter and I go out on the trail, if my daughter's horse passes her, she flings fits. She does this bouncing from front legs to back legs ... sort of like a canter in place. I feel she's testing the waters if she should rear or not to be allowed to catch up.

Now, I'm thinking she needs some time settling in and spent bonding with me. Then, she needs to learn to accept parting from my gelding in baby steps ... just a few strides at a time. I figure she doesn't really know me from Adam, and she really has no good reason to want to please me or trust me yet.

Here's where you come in: is my thinking on the right track? I know it can take quite a while for a new horse to adjust to its new home. I don't want to push her too hard too fast, but I don't want her to buffalo me either. Do you think I should just proceed slowly, just a little at a time and let her have time to trust me? Or is there another way I should proceed? Currently all her attention is on her surroundings/other horses, not on me. Today, I took her in the round pen to do basic inside/outside turns ... all based on attention to me. Then we proceeded to eat lunch together. I think this is the type of thing we need for now, instead of demanding she let my gelding canter past her and get worked into a tizzy ... am I right? If not, what would you recommend?

Under no circumstances do I want her to think she can do whatever she pleases (don't worry, I don't let her get away with not minding her manners), and a horse that won't go away from the others is pretty worthless.

Suggestions?? Thanx so much for this wonderful loop!!


Hi Melissa! Thank you -- it's good to know that you're enjoying horse- sense so much.

Your instincts are excellent and your plan is right on target -- it will take your new mare some time to adjust to her new home. As a very crude "rule of thumb," I would give her at least one week for each year that she lived in her old home (five weeks at least!) to become accustomed to her new surroundings, pasture, companions, humans, feed, and daily routine. Her whole life has changed! Horses that have been very actively shown, or that have changed hands (and barns!) many times, are often much more quick to adjust to a new place. Just relax, be very clear and calm with the mare, and she'll come around. It sounds as though she's found a wonderful home.

It's normal for her to be high-headed and inattentive while she's taking in all the changes. Her attention WILL be on her surroundings for several weeks at least -- that's absolutely NORMAL, and you shouldn't worry about it, or feel that she doesn't like you because she's ignoring you. She's being a horse, that's all -- a prey animal that relies on sensitivity and speed as a warning/defense system.

Do you remember how it felt when you were a child and spent your first night in another house? Every stair-creak, every loose floorboard,every fan, every brush of a branch against a window would make your heart pound, just because you weren't used to the noises and couldn't identify them. It's quite similar for a horse in a new place, but compounded by the nature of the horse, which is to be very sensitive, very attentive, notice ALL changes and strange sounds, smells, and sights -- and to run away from anything that could possibly be harmful. And for a prey animal, "anything" is, well, EVERYTHING. Eventually, your mare will learn what the new sounds and smells and sights are, and the more relaxed she feels, the more confident she will get, and the more attention she will be able to pay to YOU.

You mention that she doesn't know you -- think about this! She will learn to know you through her daily time with you, and she will learn to trust and like you through your treatment of her. Be calm and confident when you handle her, treat her gently, move slowly and talk to her in a low voice. Again, think back to when you were a child -- if you were in a strange place, everyone you knew was gone, and you were frightened and needed reassurance, would you accept it from a strange adult? What if that strange adult made sudden, jerky movements and yelled? Put yourself in your horse's place, and realize that your behaviour is the ONLY way you have to convey your intentions to her. She's a horse, after all -- you have to SHOW her what you're about. Telling her that she's come to a lovely home and you love her won't make an impression on her, but handling her kindly and consistently WILL.

Your handling methods sound ideal -- just keep on doing exactly what you're doing. She needs "quality time" AND "quantity time" from you, and it sounds as though that's exactly what she's getting.

Once she's settled in -- and this, as I said, could take a month or more -- take her for rides in a familiar area, maybe even her own pasture at first, or down a nearby WIDE trail. Don't believe anything you've been told about her training and experiences -- let HER tell you what she knows and what she's comfortable with. Many well-meaning horseowners get into trouble by assuming that their horses KNOW things that those horses do NOT know. Assume that she knows nothing, and teach her everything. If she already knows it, fine, you can "teach" it to her very quickly. If she doesn't know it, you'll be glad you took the time.

This "teaching" should include such apparently simple maneuvers as passing another horse on the trail, and being passed by another horse. There are exercises you can do that will teach her to do this quietly and confidently. On a calm day, take her out with one or two or three other horses and riders, and just go around the pasture in single-file, one or two horse- lengths apart, at a walk. Then have the last rider trot past everyone else, take the lead, and return to a walk, and keep doing this until each horse has been the first horse, the last horse, and the middle horse, and has been passed by other horses, and has passed the other horses.

This accomplishes quite a few things: the horses learn to stay calm when another horse comes past at a faster gait (VERY useful on the trail!), and they learn to pass one another and take different places in the line. When everyone is happy with this in the pasture, go out and do it on a wide, familiar trail. This will keep you from having a problem, later on, with a horse that only feels comfortable if it's in a specific position: first, or last, or in the middle of the group. And it's a good exercise for the riders, as well! As everyone becomes more competent and confident, you can have the group trot, and the end rider canter past the group to take up the lead position, then trot again (you may want to go back to the pasture for the first few sessions, since the canter is more exciting for the horses). Once everyone can do this exercise and assume and keep ANY position comfortably and easily, you'll be ready to take this mare on any group ride.

Have fun with her -- and I'm sure you will.

- Jessica

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