Give your horses sufficient space and adequate resources, and they will develop their own peaceable kingdom. New Bolton Center maintains a semi-feral research herd of 75 horses, and McDonnell observes few kick and bite marks on these free-roaming animals. “They’re in natural family groups with stallions and mares together,” she says, “and they are essentially blemish-free.”
Pasture size and configuration are also critical to healthy herd interactions. When possible, says McDonnell, avoid right angles, alleyways and confined spaces within your pasture where horses can get boxed in and be subjected to kicks.
“People sometimes put their horses in a smaller space until they get used to each other, thinking that then they’ll be able to catch them if there’s a problem,” McDonnell says, “but that can create more problems. Signals for submission include keeping your distance, and horses need the space to do that.”
In addition, be vigilant both in maintaining safe pastures and in observing the well-being of turned-out horses. “Look over your horses every day,” advises Holland. “Even if you don’t put halters on them, just take a look at them to know that they are okay.” The following management routines go a long way toward keeping accidents at bay:
In a pasture or paddock, separate horses to control aggression. Feeding aggressiveness is different from social dominance and is probably the top cause of pasture and paddock injuries. “Place feed buckets far enough apart, at least 20 feet, so that your horses can’t take potshots at one another,” says Holland.
Consider an extra feed tub as an alternative source for horses who are displaced by aggressive eaters. Rather than feeding hay in a single spot – particularly right up against a fence or in a small, confined area – spread more than one hay pile per horse throughout the field.
“It’s better to put hay far away from the fence and to feed lots of piles,” says McDonnell. “With 10 horses, for example, I like to put out 15 piles of hay, well separated, because some may effectively dominate more than one pile.”
Reduce feeding-time anxiety for horses brought in for their meals. Hungry horses gathered at the gate are accidents waiting to happen. Defuse their overeagerness to get to their grain by having only hay waiting in their stalls, and wait at least 15 minutes for the horses to settle and take the edge off of their hunger with hay before doling out the evening grain.
Stay on schedule. Whether the horses are fed inside or out, they have unerring clocks in their bellies, and if you miss your usual feeding time, anxiety levels soar among herd members along with accident-making behavior.
Halter horses safely. The upside of leaving halters on turned-out horses is their catchability should they go astray. The big downside is that unbreakable halters sometimes get caught on immovable objects of the horse’s own hooves/shoes, inflicting serious injuries on the struggling horse. If turnout halters are your choice, use only well-fitted safety types with a breakaway function, such as leather crown pieces.
Keep things sociable. Manage your herd so that fighting is a rarity. If one horse seems like an abuse magnet for most of the other horses, perhaps he could live more serenely outside the herd, in the company of a single pony or goat. “You can try to put the timid horses together,” say Foss, “but realize that even the timid ones have a pecking order.”
When one aggressive trouble-maker regularly torments the others, he may deserve solitary confinement. In larger operations, you may be able to balance the personalities within several turnout groups to accommodate everyone in compatible social circumstances.
Yes, pasture accidents do happen, but you won’t do your horses any favors by keeping them forever locked away from the rough-and-tumble world. The social, physical and health benefits of turnout time far outweigh the small risk of injury that pastured horses face. Know your animals and give them a turnout area configured for equine safety and sociability, and you’ll find yourself administering maybe occasional first aid but hardly ever facing those heart-stopping red alerts.