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Topic Review

Joined: Tue Jan 3rd, 2012
Posts: 11
Status:  Offline
Posted: Tue May 10th, 2016 04:18 am
Hi Dr. Deb and others!
I am curious, should I be concerned or have an opinion on my horse being turned out by herself in a small pen (maybe 40 x 100 foot run)? She has historically been turned out in large pastures with herds of 6-10 other mares, and to my naive mind this seems like the most natural way for horses to interact with each other and be part of a herd. However, in this area we moved to in Colorado, it is very common to turn horses out in individual runs that are adjacent to other horses, but the horses typically are not able to have much, if any, physical interaction with the other each other (such as nuzzling or grooming at the very least).
Besides the fact that my barn made a change to her accommodations without telling me, should I be concerned about the arrangement in general when shopping for a boarding facility? She is almost 12, has been out with herds most of her life, so I don't worry about her learning "herd etiquette," I'm more concerned for her emotional health and ability to make friends.

Thanks for your advice!
Super Moderator

Joined: Fri Mar 30th, 2007
Posts: 3308
Status:  Offline
Posted: Tue May 10th, 2016 01:13 pm
Sumosha, your horse will probably be just fine. Assuming that the fencing is not so high that adjacent animals can't reach their heads and necks over the top rail, then they will have ample interactions.

The biggest problem with mares in pens is that they tend to "grump" at adjacent animals and kick; and in kicking, they may bruise their hind tendons on the fence rails, or even actually kick through the space between the rails and hurt the other horse. You'll be able to gauge the likelihood of this by just getting a lawn chair and sitting down for an hour and observing. Especially, observe as feed time approaches and as the horses are being fed; this provokes the most negative interactions. If your mare gets to kicking, or is kicked at, during feed time, then see if you can move her feed tub/hay tray to another part of the pen/stall.

Your thinking falls into the current-fad fallacy of believing that there is such a thing as a "natural" way to keep domesticated horses. The fact is -- there ceased to be a natural way to do anything with domesticated horses the moment they became domesticated, that is, between five and six thousand years ago. Where your thinking should be instead is smart management, management based on common sense and knowledge. Everything that happens to any domestic horse -- whether the owner thinks it's "natural" or not -- is in actuality the result of some decision made by the owner. So, you see to it that you make good decisions.

And "good" decisions are defined as decisions that protect your horse from injury; that promote a peaceful inner state in him as much of the time as possible; and that tend to promote health and a longer working life.

So you can stop feeling guilty that your horse isn't out on pasture. And you can also stop being angry or resentful that management made a decision for you -- because if management has half a brain, they'll be working as hard as they can to keep you and your horse safe and healthy. If your animal is fat and/or founder-prone, a problem to catch, dangerous to staff or management or other boarders when being released into the field, or is either the perpetrator or the recipient of undue aggression in the herd -- then your horse is a prime candidate for a stall and run. Management may also need to bring horses up if agricultural operations to be carried out in the pastures warrant it, i.e. including but not limited to weed spraying, mowing, irrigation, and when "blooms" of potentially toxic stuff like white clover, fiddleneck, or tall fescue are happening.

Most neophyte horse owners are very sincerely concerned for their horse's welfare. The problem is that the beginner or first-time owner has little experience, and thus tends to over-interpret or get panicky over stuff like an empty water bucket. This regularly drives management nuts, but anyone who has been in the horse boarding business for any amount of time gets used to it (to a degree). Your own longevity as a boarder at your current barn, or at any barn, will depend on how fast you learn what's important vs. what's trivial.

My friend and mentor Dr. Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, after 50 years in practice, when the panicked call came in, used to ask them "is there blood in the street"? And that's exactly the question that neophyte owners need to learn to ask themselves. So, in your case Sumosha -- has your mare actually exhibited any negative behaviors, or suffered any negative consequences from being in the run? And on the other hand, have you noticed any BENEFITS to herself or you from her being kept up more closely? That's how you figure the cost-benefit equation, and there is always going to be a cost-benefit equation, precisely because horsekeeping is a matter of management and is not in any sense "natural." -- Dr. Deb



Joined: Tue Jan 3rd, 2012
Posts: 11
Status:  Offline
Posted: Tue May 10th, 2016 04:41 pm
Thanks Dr. Deb!
I didn't want to be the "panicky boarder" for no reason, hence why I asked, and it's wonderful to have a resource like you for this kind of sound advice.

I plan to do a lawn chair session this weekend to ensure she is not hurting herself and see how she interacts with her neighbor. The fencing is a little tall and has an electric wire fence between the two pens at the top (I think it's electric, I'll need to confirm), but I'll take a closer look. I don't know exactly when she was moved since I'm mostly working during the day, and I only recently happened to get a chance to come out when they were turned out. The only difference I notice in my horse the last 6 months is that she has been a lot more anxious, especially when there other horses working in the arena alongside us. Attention and focus has required a lot more effort and practice (I use your mannering CD exercises) than in the past. She hasn't gotten to the point where I fear for my safety, but it takes more time to get her brain with me. However, I did just uproot her last fall from her environment completely, hauled her across the country, and moved her into a new, larger, far more active and busy barn than we are both used to. I also have been more busy with my work than in the past, so my frequency of visits has been inconsistent. There are too many variables to blame one thing, and maybe the change is just the combination of all of these changes. Things are settling down for my schedule now, so I think some time and focusing practice will get us to a better place.

Thanks again for your advice! :)

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