Q Two months ago, I moved my 10-year-old Quarter Horse mare from a small barn (where she’s lived for the past eight years with the same caretakers) to another, much larger and busier full-service boarding stable in a nearby town. Because of my schedule, I’m able to see her only a couple times a week, so I pay for all the extras, including grooming and exercise sessions. Even with the same level of care, however, she doesn’t act like herself. She seems unhappy and skittish—almost unrecognizable to me when I see her. Is she having trouble adjusting, and what more can I do to help?
BETH HOLCOMB, Georgia
A Moving to a new home is stressful for horses. Without warning they’re taken from their home, family, and friends, and suddenly life is completely different. Their grazing, routine, field mates, and handlers all change, and it may take them months—or even years—to feel relaxed in the new environment.
Your mare has had one home for most of her 10-year life, and contact with a limited number of people. That means this move will have been particularly hard for her, and the inevitable stress is making her feel unsettled and nervous. This may be in part why you’re feeling a lack of connection with her. She may be wary of all the new people now handling her, and this can affect her relationship with you, too.
There are several things you can do to improve your relationship with her in her new home. First, to help her relax, make sure her species-specific needs are met and she has the freedom to display natural horse behaviors. Think of “the Three Fs”—friends, forage, and freedom. Ask the stable managers to maximize her time turned out with calm, friendly horses, and ensure constant access to forage. If she must be stalled at all, even with the paid exercise sessions, make sure she has plenty to do to keep her occupied (see box, below).To regain her trust at the new stable, make sure she associates you with good experiences. Give her a holiday from ridden work and have some fun together. Hang out with her as much as possible, even scheduling an extra visit to the new barn each week for a few weeks, until she adapts. Spend time grooming her and scratching her favorite itchy spots. Scratching around the base of the neck, mane, and withers area will simulate mutual grooming and lower her heart rate, helping her relax
Take her for walks in hand with another calm horse to graze nearby. This is a great way for her to learn about her new environment and re-bond with you. In every interaction with her, focus on the behavior you want and reward that, either with a treat or a big, lip-curling withers scratch. This promotes calmness and trust, whereas punishing her for unwanted behavior does not.
Finally, consider arranging for just one staff member at the new barn to work consistently with your mare for her grooming and exercise sessions. With just one person to adjust to rather than a varying crew, she might adapt to her new surroundings faster.
Certified Horse Behavior Consultant