A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting to Know Your Horse
The best advice I’ve ever received about searching for a new horse was “Take deep breaths, manage your expectations, and NEVER GO ALONE.” The first two points are for the horse’s benefit and the last is for your wallet and mental well being.
There are few things more stressful and exciting than getting a new horse. Between getting feed, managing logistics, finding a farrier and veterinarian, there are a lot of moving parts to consider! On top of all this, you want to create a positive and inviting experience for your new friend. With a little prep, you’ll be building a strong partnership in no time.
Phase 1: Preparation
You’ll want to feel mentally and physically well before heading out to introduce yourself to a new horse. When horse shopping, you should set limits for yourself.
A sweet personality or unique coloring can sneak up on you…
Before you know it you might have a horse you’re not ready for “but it was so cute” when you went to look. Cute does not make up for other mistakes
What to Expect when Meeting a New Horse
Just like social interactions between people can vary, so can meeting a new horse. Old school masters that give lessons to kids 5 days a week might not show much interest in you—while other horses will be very curious and sniff you like you’re the most interesting thing to happen to them all year!
Understanding Horse Body Language
A relaxed horse is generally a safer horse so be aware of signs of discomfort, fear, and pain. Watch body language closely to keep both you and your new horse safe as you interact.
Horses don’t have the ability to say “I’m scared of that thing over there.” Instead, they communicate to us through body language. Usually the earliest signs that a horse may be about to spook are subtle changes in how they hold their head, neck, and ears.
Noticing those little changes can mean preventing a behavior from escalating to something dangerous like a buck, bolt, rear, bite, or kick.
The RSPCA (UK) put together this helpful guide for reading some common ways that horses communicate with us, including how to spot a happy, relaxed horse.
How long does it take to get used to a new horse?
It can take months to years to build a truly strong relationship with a horse. However, getting comfortable with them and starting to connect can just take a little time with them, without expectation.
I love spending time sitting outside my horse’s paddock and reading a book when the weather is nice.
Try not to push too hard or set high expectations early on in a new equine partnership!
Phase 2: Meet & Greet
So you’ve read up on horse behavior, you’re prepared to meet the horse’s needs, and are ready for the fun part—the meet and greet!
Check in with your feelings
Before even walking up to the horse, give yourself a check in and maybe take a few deep breaths to recenter yourself. Horses are very observant and can tell if you’re not in a good mood before you even interact.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re 100% clear with what you’re looking for in a new horse.
A cute face, flashy coloring, or engaging personality can easily persuade someone into buying a horse that isn’t the right fit. Bring along a ‘voice of reason’ to counter this!
How to safely approach a horse
Horses have two major blind spots directly in front of and directly behind them and could get startled if you approach them in these two spots.
By sticking towards their shoulder, or off to one side of their head, you’re more likely to have a safe interaction.
Approach slowly but confidently, and if the horse reaches out to sniff you in a friendly way, it’s ok to let them. If they don’t reach out to sniff then moving to their neck or shoulder to pet them is a good first introduction.
Where to NOT touch a horse
Horses are by nature prey animals and tend to instinctually be very protective of a few vulnerable areas of their bodies; the legs, flank, belly, groin, under the tail, eyes, ears, and throat.
It’s best to work up some rapport with your horse before trying to touch any of these areas.
How to interact with a new horse
Take things slow and keep your expectations low in your early interactions. You want to cultivate a calm, relaxed state for both you and your new horse. It can be helpful to observe how the current owner handles the horse to see what they are used to.
Generally, it’s best to avoid trying to teach a horse anything new right off the bat—instead try to work with what they know and see how you get along before moving into any new work.
Phase 3: Settling In
Your best tool to make the transition as smooth as possible for the horse is to learn everything that you can about the previous life they were living. Here are some questions that will be helpful for the transition:
- What type of grain or supplements are they fed and how much per day?
- What was their feeding schedule?
- Are they turned out with other horses for a few hours each day or do they get individual turnout time?
- How often are they ridden or worked?
Asking questions about their daily routine and trying to implement some of those routines in their new home can help reduce anxiety.
What to do when you first get a new horse
Getting a new horse is generally exciting for the rider but can be stressful and confusing for the horse, especially if they are not used to being hauled to new places. A little preparation can go a long way to making it more enjoyable.
Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up from my peers, trainers, and veterinarians over the years:
- According to the AAEP, between 60-90% of adult horses have some degree of painful stomach ulcers due to stress. Asking a veterinarian about taking ulcer prevention steps in advance of a move is a great idea.
- You’ll want to ask for their vet records to be transferred into the vet clinic you plan to use. Select a farrier if you don’t have one in mind already.
- Prepare the horse’s living area with fresh feed, water and bedding and make sure you have halters, leads, blankets, brushes and any other tack you need ready to go for when they arrive!
How do you calm a horse in a new place?
Horses can become stressed in new environments, especially if they don’t have the benefit of traveling with their herd mates. If they’re showing signs of stress like pacing, neighing, pawing, or not eating it’s important to make them more comfortable.
Here are some simple strategies I’m using this week as I settle my 7 year old thoroughbred into his new boarding facility:
- Take them on a walk with a calm buddy. Just like humans build confidence and camaraderie when they do things together, horses build confidence together too!
- Do some low pressure exercises like carrot stretches, hand walking over poles, or weaving through cones.
- Low stress lunging or round penning, especially for horses that like to pace or fence walk.
- Hand grazing, ideally near or with another horse in a quiet part of the property.
If a horse is severely anxious they could become dangerous to handle. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel you may be in over your head.
How do you settle a horse into a new home?
Some horses take 5 minutes to settle and others can take 5 months. By managing your expectations and understanding that your new horse might not be feeling their best right away it will help you get through the get-to-know-each-other phase.
You’ll want to maintain a consistent schedule for feed and turnout. Horses thrive on consistent and low-stress routines.
If they are transitioning to new feed you’ll want to make that transition slowly over about two weeks by gradually adding more and more of the new food and less and less of the old.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do horses get sad when they are sold?
Unfortunately, yes some horses do tend to get a little withdrawn or sad when they are sold or are enduring stressful circumstances.
Thankfully, most horses are able to recover from this period relatively well with lots of love and attention from their new owners and a consistent schedule.
Q: Do horses like to be talked to?
Yes! Just like dogs, and even human babies, horses are receptive to “baby-talk” or more scientifically known as pet-directed speech.
Speaking in a soothing and positive tone has some evidence to support that it can even help horses learn a task quicker than without.
Q: How long will a horse remember a human for?
I have had the wonderful experience of being greeted with nickers and happy faces of horses that I hadn’t seen in 10+ years, but who used to be in my care.
Just like people the stronger the relationship you have the more likely they are to remember you. Studies indicate horses can remember people for 10 years to a lifetime.
By taking the time to maintain a calm and positive attitude, preparing with familiar feeds and routines and having a few calming activities to do with another horse you’ll be able to give yourself and your horse the best chance at a low stress transition and hopefully kick off a great relationship.
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Investigating attentional processes in depressive-like horses: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26739514/
Towards an ethological animal model of depression (French Study): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3386251/
Pet directed speech and horses study: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-021-01487-3