Moving Your Horse
It is the reality of a domestic horse that at some point in their life, they will face a move. Maybe they were sold to a new owner, maybe they moved to a different boarding barn...whatever the reason, it is something that many of our horses have experienced, and likely will experience in their future.
I’m sure we’ve all seen it - the horse that won’t load into the trailer, or gets to their new home and paces the fence and calls for days on end. There is no doubt about it, moving can be a stressful experience for horses and owners alike. So what are some ways we can help our horses through the inevitable moves, and mitigate the stress that comes along with it?
Think about times in your life where are you have had to move homes. Maybe you left behind friends and family, maybe your new house just doesn’t hold the same memories - it takes time for you to settle in and regain a sense of security and routine. As humans, moving is an incredibly stressful experience for us, even though we can rationalize the reasons behind the move and know that in time we will settle into our new life. Horses however, do not have the same ability to rationalize...to know that even though they moved away from their friends it will be ok and they’ll make new friends...to know that they are safe in their new home....to know that their needs will continue to be met. It is up to us to prepare them and do everything we can to make the move as minimally stressful as possible.
Recently, I moved my two horses. While I am incredibly grateful that everything went smoothly, I would be lying if I said that it was a stress-free experience. But, I did everything in my power to make it as positive as I could. Here are some of the things I kept in mind.
Address Diet, Lifestyle, and Physical Health
A horse’s body is so interconnected. Factors such as diet, lifestyle, and physical health will all play a role into how quickly your horse adjusts into their new home. Pain in the body - whether from sore muscles, arthritis, ulcers, etc. can all have detrimental effects on your horse’s ability to come down from stressful events. It’s not a bad idea to schedule an appointment with your horse’s vet and/or osteopath/bodyworker to ensure that they are feeling their best. Pain will absolutely have an impact on your horse’s mental health and ability to settle in.
It is estimated that between 50-90% of domestic horses suffer from gastric ulcers. (Learn more about ulcers here) These can be brought on by something as small as changing pastures, or a herd mate leaving, so there is no doubt that something like moving homes has the potential to cause your horse to develop, or further develop ulcers. Ensuring that your horse’s lifestyle in their current home is set up to reduce the likelihood of developing ulcers is important. Take into consideration the six Fs - Forage, Friends, Freedom, ComFort, Fun, and SaFety. Providing your horse with these basic needs will set your horse up for a healthy gut - both in their current home and their new home. Both of my horses are kept on a gut supplement to prevent them from developing ulcers, however, 4 weeks before moving them, I increased their dose, and continued to keep them on the higher dose for 4 weeks after I moved them.
Calming supplements can also have a positive impact and help set your horse up for a smooth move. Similar to the gut supplement, I put my horses on a calming supplement 4 weeks before the move, and 4 weeks after. However, there was no specific timeline for discontinuing the use of the calming supplement or the gut supplement. I could have kept them on it for longer if I felt they were having trouble settling in.
Companionship & New Herds
I believe that one of the main factors into how smoothly my horses’ move went was the fact that they had each other. Horses form strong social bonds and are highly reliant on their herd. They thrive when in a stable herd environment. Having two horses that were already bonded to each other certainly made moving them far less stressful. However, I certainly recognize that having two horses to move together is a luxury not everyone has!
It also takes time for horses to form these social bonds. When introducing new horses into a herd, it should be a slow, positive experience. Taking your time with this ensures a safe, positive experience for all members of the herd. Finding a herd that is well matched to your horse is important as well! For example, your young playful gelding will likely do better with another gelding of similar age rather than a senior mare. I won’t go into too much detail on how best to introduce your horse to a new herd as Adele has a wonderful podcast on this that I would highly recommend listening to, you can check it out here.
Prepare In Advance
It’s our job as horse owners to best prepare horses for any situation that they may encounter. So, if you are expecting your horse to trailer to their new home, practice trailer loading ahead of time to ensure they are ready for it. It’s never fun, for horse or human, for the day of the move to roll around and have your horse refuse to go into the trailer. Likewise, if your horse will have to be stalled at their new home, or kept on individual turnout, take the time in advance to prepare your horse for these scenarios, and to make them as positive by providing plenty of enrichment and access to forage. Furthermore, don’t wait until you know your horse has to move to practice these things. Trailer loading, stalling, etc. are skills that all horses benefit from in case of emergencies. The better your horse is prepared for the scenarios they may encounter at their new home, the less stressful it will be.
Give them time
In my own experience, horses can take anywhere from six months to two years to settle into a new home. Bear this in mind going forward in your training and interactions with your horse…if you have to lower your criteria and expectations, don’t be alarmed, and don’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong. It is perfectly normal for it to take time for your horse to return to homeostasis. Every horse is different - some may be able to jump into training again right away, albeit with lowered criteria, while others may need a break from training altogether. Never be afraid to revisit the basics - things that your horse knows well and enjoys doing. Or, take the time as your horse settles to provide extra enrichment activities and to spend more “no expectations time” with them - time where you just hang out.
Just as you wouldn’t expect yourself to be at 100% mental capacity after a move - give your horse the same support and time to adjust. Horses are not humans - they can't understand why they have been taken away from their herd and everything they have known. It is up to us to prepare them the best we can, and then give them the patience and grace that they need as they adjust into life at their new home.