I’ve run a boarding barn for eighteen years. In that time, many horses have moved in and moved out. Some have stayed for years, some have stayed for only a month or so, some only visit for the day to use our indoor pen. I’ve watched many horses come up the driveway and step off the trailer. Some are curious and some are scared. All of them are probably wondering if this is the dog food factory.
When a horse comes here for the first time, he is often somewhat anxious – perhaps a little high-headed, distracted from his handler, and curious or downright fearful. It is our job to reassure him and let him know by our actions that this is not the dog food factory. We need to treat him about the same as we would a child on his first day of pre-school. He will need lots of reassurance and patience.
For a horse who is moving in for a long term stay, we put him in a clean stall, with fluffy bedding and a fresh bucket of water, and immediately give him a flake of hay. Ideally, the person who does the daily feeding gives the horse that first flake of hay. The presence of food reassures the horse. He meets his “waiter”. We give him some time to explore the stall and make sure there are no monsters in the corners. He gets acquainted with his equine neighbors through the stall walls.
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A horse who is a first-time purchase for eager new owners will be somewhat confused. He will have several questions on his little equine mind. He’s a horse; he has no idea about money exchanged, registration papers or pre-purchase exams. He is used to people who are used to him. And why are these new people so excited and anxious? He probably has no idea they are excited and anxious about him, so he will be alert and watchful for the predator that is causing the excitement. This place is new and strange to him. He has probably had a trailer ride, which he might or might not be still worried about, depending on his history. He does not know why he has been moved to this new place. He has left familiar surroundings to come here. Are his old stable buddies coming too? Or is he alone? Is that horse in the next stall a friendly sort, a bully or a stand-offish snob?
I have found it is generally a big mistake to saddle this horse right up and ride him. That is too much for him to accept. He needs some time to relax, meet his new owners, have a meal, and check out this new place. His equine neighbors will help to reassure him that we do indeed feed three times a day, clean stalls on a regular basis and generally handle horses with kindness. He needs some time, perhaps even a few days, depending on the horse’s individual temperament and experiences, to settle in and decide that maybe, after all, this is not the dog food factory.
If the new horse meets with excited new owners, goes through all the adjustments for new tack, is distracted by foot traffic in the alleyway, people coming and going all around him to see and pet the new horse, then is subjected to being ridden by perhaps an inexperienced rider, he will pretty quickly come to the conclusion this is not the place to be. He will just want to go home and who could blame him?
The poor guy needs time to scope this joint out. He needs time to understand his new owner might be inexperienced but means well. He will learn after a bit that every move on the part of these people is not a threat.
Did you ever move to a new neighborhood, a new school, or a new job? It takes time to get acquainted. It takes time to find out who is who and what their position in the power structure really is. For most people, a move to something new is planned for and at least intellectually understood, but it is still stressful. In many cases, people take familiar items with them – their furniture to a new home, perhaps desk accessories to a new job, a favorite backpack to the new school – to make the transition easier. Horses are shipped off to new surroundings with just their halter. New owners often have all new things for their new buddy. These new things smell funny to the horse. No one has consulted him about all these changes. Unfortunately, there is no effective way to explain to a horse what is happening.
It is our job to help him make the adjustments necessary for his new life.
If at all possible, find out from the previous owner what equipment the horse uses: what type of bit, saddle and pads, and of course his training specialty. If he has been trained as a hunter, please don’t expect him to be a western pleasure horse today. If his training has been western pleasure, don’t aim him at a jump right away. It is entirely possible if he was trained as a show horse that trail riding will hold unspeakable terrors for him. Proceed with caution! There are no rabbits and squirrels in the show pen! And avoid the most common mistakes of all – expecting the horse to know what you know or expecting the horse to be at a certain level of training simply because he is a certain age.
Another common problem is trailering. There are many different types of trailers. If a horse has always been hauled in a step-up slant load, a straight-on two horse with a ramp will be a whole new experience he must be taught about. He must even re-learn how to balance in this new position. We once had an Arabian who hated our slant-load and soon began to refuse to load. We managed to find him a ride to the show in a straight two-horse. He expressed his preference for that by loading easily and hauling quietly and calmly. Also, consider the size of the horse when putting him in a trailer. Many trailers are too small for the animal. No horse in his right mind wants to ride down the road in a sardine can!
If you can ascertain what the horse knows, and give him the safety of some familiar things, his transition to your friend and companion will be smoother for both of you. If you give him time to settle in, he will be more easily convinced this ain’t the dog factory.