What’s with the paddock shuffle?

At High Hopes, our horses live outside 24/7 in paddocks with run-in sheds for shelter. There are many reasons why this lifestyle benefits our horses, you can read more about that HERE

Our volunteers will often wonder, however, why we sometimes move a horse from living in one paddock to another. Jokingly, we say that it is to keep the volunteers on their toes, a sort of “Where’s Waldo” game for the staff’s enjoyment. But all joking aside, there are many reasons why the horses will move paddocks periodically, read on to learn more!

Domestic horses are different than wild horses, specifically in the social stresses they can experience.

Our horses are domestically kept, this means that they are kept in groups of our matching, in fenced areas much smaller than they would be in the wild, and in gender groups that are not technically “natural” for the horse. Domestic male horses are castrated (“gelded”) and kept in groups together, something that uncastrated male horses in the wild would not do once they are adults. And while castrating horses does temper most aggressive behavior tendencies, those can still persist, leading to turmoil in a herd. Mares living in groups is much more ‘natural’ scenario as wild horses would form mare bands that would function as a family unit. But…mares are not normally spayed, so hormones can play a huge role in the stability of a group of mares kept in domestication.

Social skills and personality types in horses are as variable as they are in humans.

Horses need to learn social skills from a young age. This does not always happen for several reasons. Maybe the horse has not ever been turned out in a shared space with other horses – pretty hard to learn social cues if you never socialize. Or perhaps the horse has been turned out with other horses who also lack social skills – pretty hard to learn appropriate social skills with no good role models. If they are not able to read, interpret, demonstrate and respond to social cues from herd mates, the constant tumult and resulting anxiety from living in a herd can be detrimental to their mental health.

Some horses have never been turned out with other horses as adults. And they don’t want to start now, thank you very much. End of story.

Also, sometimes personalities simply clash. This can be predicted to some degree (by knowing that a horse tends to be dominant or submissive, or aggressive or defensive at feeding time, for example), but often we don’t know how a match will go until we try it, “the best-laid plans” as they say. Horses have distinct personalities from the very laid back to the tightly wound, and this plays a role in their interactions with each other. When you have multiple horses together in a group, this effect is magnified.

The dynamics of a herd are fluid. And not always conducive to healthy horse relationships.

Even if we manage to make a good match in introducing horses to one another in a herd, it doesn’t always mean it will be a good match forever. Just as in human relationships, the dynamics change often. Maybe not to such a fine degree as never forgiving someone who didn’t “like” your Facebook post, but more likely, the horses are responsive to persistence stress. This can be demonstrated, for example, as a timid horse who can only take so much pushing around by a dominant horse over the course of weeks before they finally work themselves up into a belly ache, or end up losing weight due from the stress of constantly worrying about where they fit in.  It can also end in horses fighting with each other to the point of causing physical harm. This can even happen in groups that have been together for a long time. Tolerances change, either from age or stress or outside pressures to name a few. Just as our friend groups change as we age, so can horses’.

Horses come in all shapes and sizes. Literally.

In short, it is often not safe to put a little horse in to live with a giant horse. If they end up not cohabitating peacefully, it can be extremely dangerous for the little horse to be on the receiving end of a bite or kick from the giant horse. Of course, exceptions exist, but size is definitely a consideration for making herd matches.

Not everyone can eat everything they want and stay thin (me included – so annoying).

Simply put, some horses are easy keepers and some are not. This demands different feeding needs for each and can create a challenge in keeping horses with mismatched dietary needs together. This is also one reason why we might make seasonal paddock changes, to adjust for the times of year when we allow the horses onto the grazing pastures to enjoy some grass – something that only the horses who are a reasonable body weight can do without risking health issues associated with obesity.

There can also be different feeding needs for horses of differing ages. Currently, we have some horses who cannot chew hay due to their advanced age (those teeth don’t last forever!), so they eat a diet of chopped and soaked feeds. These are extra delicious and might result in undesirable weight gain in younger horses who simply don’t need that many calories and who would be better served by eating a traditional hay-based diet. These specialty diets are also more expensive and we want to be as economical as possible with our budgeted funds, so we don’t feed them to everyone if they don’t need them.

The trial horse “isolation” paddock is not a permanent home for any horse, it is meant to be a transition space.

New horses need to move out of the trial horse “isolation” paddock once they have been accepted into our program officially.  Inevitably, some horses will leave the program and some will come into the program. As these changes happen, so will paddock changes.

There’s only so much room in each paddock.

We need to capitalize on the shed space available in each paddock and stock fields at a rate that will minimize the damage to the turf – known as a “stocking rate”. Each field has its own stocking rate that is determined by the square footage of the paddock, the size of the shed(s) and the drainage of the footing (some fields tend to be muddier than others, so fewer horses can be housed in them). This is why you might sometimes see an entire group move to a new paddock: the group itself is cohesive, but they need more space, especially if they are to accept a likely new herd mate.

Goof fences make good neighbors.

In considering where a new horse might move in, we also have to consider the neighbors. Horses will have social relationships even over a fence line, and they can be as friendly or aggressive over a fence as they are in direct contact. So often we have to consider if we are putting two dominant males next to each other (nope) or a mare next to a gelding who tends to be a little too interested in the ladies (again – nope). The risks might be less for actual physical contact that could cause harm, but if you’ve ever lost an entire day to rebuilding a fence that has been busted up by two disharmonious horses you’ll appreciate this point.

After all this, you may be better able to appreciate the forethought that needs to go into moving horses into new paddocks, and more importantly, it may help you understand why some changes are changed again in short order.

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