How Change Affects Young Horses

If you buy a young horse from the place where it was born and reared and take it to a new environment, even a placid type of horse is going to become confused, unsure of itself and apprehensive at first. A nervous horse, that was manageable when you first saw it in its home surroundings, may become very difficult to control in new surroundings. The animals and people it knew and trusted are no longer there. Every sight and sound is different, and the horse may have travelled in a vehicle for the first time.

All of this adds up to a very traumatic experience and unless patience and understanding are shoWn, the horse’s character can change.

If possible, put the horse out straightaway in a field that it cannot jump out of, with a quiet companion of the same sex that is unlikely to bully it, and give it a couple of days to settle. If you must put it in a stable, have a quiet horse or pony nearby, where it can be seen. Give the new horse a small feed and some hay to keep it occupied.

If the youngster starts tearing round the box, threatening to jump out over the door, fix a grill over the top part of the doorway or tie a strong bar in the gap above the bottom door. Position this so that the horse cannot get its head through the gap between this bar and the door. Shutting the top door is not a good idea; it will make the youngster feel claustrophobic and if the horse is unable to see other horses it is unlikely to settle.

Whether in or out, treat the horse as if it is completely unbroken. Start from the very beginning of the training described in the first chapters of this book. Put a headcollar on and lead the horse round the box, saying ‘Walk on’, ‘Whoa’ or ‘Stand’ or whatever are to be your regular words of command.

Let the horse get to know you and your voice. Handle it all over and then leave it alone for an hour or so. (Do not leave it tied up at this stage.) Progress gradually through this early work until you know how the horse will react to everything you want to do. If you discover something that the horse is unsure of or worried about, repeat this action until the horse is calm and confident about it.

All of this will take time but you and the horse will learn a lot about each other and you are much less likely to have trouble than you would if you immediately tried to ride it. This advice still applies even if you have previously seen the horse ridden and going quietly or even if you rode it yourself before buying it. A new environment can completely change a horse’s reactions to things it previously accepted in familiar surroundings.

Some horses settle very quickly and you can progress to riding them within two or three days. Others could take a week to settle enough to be ridden again.

An unbroken horse is likely to take longer to break in new surroundings than would have been the case if this had been done in its own home. If possible, turn the horse out in a field for some part of every day even if you cannot keep it out all the time, which would be preferable and is likely to give you a calmer horse to deal with. Some sort of freedom in which to buck and kick, gallop and roll is really essential. A safe cattle yard, a well-fenced outdoor manege or an indoor school could be used to give a taste of freedom each day to relieve any mental tension.

Horses that have lived out most of their lives and drunk only from streams, ponds or water troughs will often adamantly refuse to drink from a bucket in a stable, no matter how clean both it and the water inside it are.

They are also likely to be more worried by the restriction of being shut up in a stable.

Instead of an ordinary tall, narrow bucket, you could try putting water in a wide, more shallow feedbowl, but if the horse has drunk nothing at all for twelve hours, lead it out to a trough or to somewhere where it will drink. In time, it will gradually get used to a bucket.

You must be aware of how much your horse is drinking and keep its water fresh and clean. Ignore people who tell you to leave it thirsty if it will not drink on the principle that you must be cruel to be kind. A horse that does not drink enough water can quickly become ill.

Find out how the horse has been fed, if at all. Was it kept in a very poor field that was short of grass or was it in a field with very lush grazing? Has it had any hard feed?

Coming up from very little grass into a very lush field can give a horse colic, but if you have no alternative, put it out for half an hour at a time and make sure it has had a feed of hay first so that it will not quickly gorge on a lot of lush grass on an empty stomach. Gradually increase the time it is allowed out to graze but take into consideration the horse’s bodily condition. If it is very fat it will need to have its hours of grazing controlled in any case.

If the horse has come from plenty of lush grass to your field which has very little grass, it may need to be fed hay so that it will not lose too much weight. It is likely to lose weight anyway through anxiety over its change of environment and may lose more weight when you begin to work it. Weight lost in this way can be difficult and slow to put on again, so feed good hay ad lib if you are short of grass.

If the horse is really thin, sugar beet, bran, mollychaff, carrots and horse and pony nuts could be fed, plus a little boiled barley, starting with 450g (1 lb) per day and gradually building up to 900g (2 lb) per day (dry weight before cooking), but do not give any form of corn, high protein nuts or energy feeds as these can very quickly change your quiet sensible horse into a strong, lively, difficult-to-control animal.

A thin horse should have a worm count done from its droppings and should in any case be wormed regularly every six weeks. If the worm count does not show a worm problem, and the horse is lethargic and does not put on weight, a blood test should be done. An anaemic horse will not thrive.

Check that the horse is chewing comfortably in a regular rhythm and swallowing without ‘mouthing’ and spitting out lumps of half-chewed food (quidding). This is a sign that the sharp edges on the outside of the teeth of the top jaw are catching on the inside of the cheeks. These top teeth may need rasping by the vet, or it could be that the horse is teething. The back milk teeth are rather like flat caps; as they loosen they can move sideways and press on the gums and cheeks before they fall out.

Your young horse should never be so thin that you can feel its ribs. lts hindquarters should be round, not hollow with a protruding backbone and hip bones. Feel the horse’s ribs, backbone and hip bones with your fingers. When you hold the horse’s crest between your fingers and thumb, the neck should feel firm and muscular, not like two pieces of skin with very little between them.

Check your horse’s bodily condition in these three ways regularly and notice any changes. This applies particularly during the winter when weight loss can be difficult to replace and can be hidden by a hairy coat.

If your horse loses weight it may become lethargic, drag its hind toes or begin to stumble or brush. Possible causes of weight loss are:

  • Not enough food for the work the horse is doing.
  • Not enough food for the horse’s size.
  • Poor quality food with little nutritional value.
  • Worms.
  • Anaemia.
  • Difficulty in chewing because of sharp teeth or loose milk teeth.

If your horse loses weight, try to establish and remedy the cause immediately. Ask for expert advice as soon as you notice any unexpected physical or mental change.

Always put your young horse in the same stable so that it begins to think of it as home a safe place to relax. Use as big a loose box as possible, or even a cattle yard where the horse will have even more freedom to move around. At first, look after the horse entirely by yourself if possible. Always handle it in exactly the same way, use the same words and tone of voice (most important) and do things in the same order so that the horse begins to learn its routine and knows what is going to happen next. Only when the horse has settled in and is calm and confident should you begin to vary your routine.

If a horse lies down in a new stable, this is a good sign because it shows that the horse feels safe there. In the wild the horse is at its most vulnerable When lying down because flight from danger is its main form of self-preservation and precious seconds could be lost when getting up.

When you approach the horse in its box, do not sneak up silently and throw open the door with a crash, giving the horse heart failure and causing it to flounder to its feet if lying down. Make some sort of noise as you approach the box; call its name or whistle so that it knows you are coming.

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