Updated June 18, 2021
When a new horse arrives at your sanctuary, there are a number of critical steps that must be taken to ensure safety for the incoming resident, your existing residents, and yourself!
While horses, in general, have certain diet, housing, and care needs, you must also consider if the new arrivals require any special accommodations based on their age, breed, health status, known history, or the circumstances of their recent living situation. Each new resident and situation will be different, but some things to consider include:
- If you’re taking in foals or younger horses, you will have to learn how to properly care for them in terms of heat, food, and shelter.
- If you welcome a mother horse along with her nursing foal, you should not separate the two of them unless absolutely necessary for their health. If you separate them, allow them to be close enough to touch if they choose to!
- If the new horse is from a starvation situation, you must work closely with your veterinarian to determine what to feed them. Offering unrestricted food sources to an individual who has been starved can result in serious health complications.
- If the new resident is a stallion (unneutered male), certain temporary measures may need to be taken in terms of housing and handling. As with any incoming equine resident, you should take time to closely observe a stallion’s behavior before entering his living space, and make sure staff who will work with him know what physical cues to be on the lookout for that may indicate he is frightened or feeling confrontational. Not all stallions are Behaviors such as chasing, cornering, biting, kicking, problematic mounting, or otherwise engaging in consistent behavior that may cause mental or physical discomfort or injury to another individual, or using these behaviors to block an individual's access to resources such as food, water, shade, shelter, or other residents., but many have a strong biological drive to be with female residents, for obvious reasons! Sometimes this can lead them to behave in ways that can be potentially harmful to themselves, other residents, and care staff. Rearing up, pacing back and forth, kicking, or jumping fences are possible behaviors to look out for. It is possible that some stallions may be so motivated to join the herd and interact with mares (female horses) that their housing should temporarily be out of sight of mares. However, if the stallion arrived with a female companion, it could be challenging and possibly dangerous to separate them, as the stallion may resist the separation and potentially exhibit confrontational or stressed behaviors that can put everyone at risk. Steps should be taken to have stallions neutered (gelded) as soon as possible to help alleviate these stressors.
- If any incoming horse is fearful or confrontational, be sure to keep human safety in mind when working with the horse. Being in a confined space with a fearful or confrontational horse has the potential to be quite dangerous. Make sure anyone working with the horse is trained in safe practices and is well-versed in horse body language and behavior.
- If the new horse is very agile and appears to be fearful, or if the new resident is assumed to have escaped from their previous living situation, be sure to assess if your quarantine space can safely contain them. A frightened horse may try to jump a fence, and you might be surprised just how high a horse can jump if they feel they need to. Not only do you want to avoid the new resident getting loose, they could also seriously injure themselves while trying to escape. Any time you take in fearful individuals, it is important to find gentle ways to help them become more comfortable around their caregivers. They may never become horses who crave human attention (though some individuals who arrive very fearful certainly do!), but you should be able to ease their fears and hence increase their comfort, even if they choose to keep their distance from humans.
Adhere To A Quarantine Policy
The new horse must be housed in a strict quarantine area on your premises away from all established residents (not even nose-to-nose contact through a fence), even if you know exactly where the horse came from! At a minimum, new horses must be kept away from other equine residents, but could potentially spread disease to other resident species as well. Quarantine is absolutely crucial to protect everyone from possible infectious diseases that may not be producing visible symptoms in a healthy-looking arrival; an entire herd could be easily infected, and possibly killed, by certain diseases, and some diseases can contaminate pastures and live in the soil for over a year. Even if the horse was previously healthy, a new environment can produce stress that might cause an illness flare-up or make them more likely to shed certain diseases. On the other hand, existing residents might be carrying a disease that the new resident isn’t healthy enough to fight off yet!
If you’re taking in a whole herd that was living together previously, you can probably quarantine them together since it’s likely that any diseases they have will be already spread throughout the herd, and staying together may put the new residents more at ease. However, if the herd includes a mix of females and unneutered males who are sexually mature, you will need to take steps to prevent breeding. If an individual horse seems very ill or is behaving oddly, they should be isolated from the others until a veterinarian determines exactly what’s wrong. Monitor the herd to ensure that the current social situation is safe for everyone. Just because they came in together, doesn’t necessarily mean they get along well. If anyone appears to be getting picked on, find a way to split the group to reduce tensions while avoiding anyone having to live alone unless absolutely necessary.
Anyone coming into contact with the new horse should wear gloves and full body covering or immersion suits and should either wear boot covers or use foot baths. This is true even for healthy looking horses, but is imperative if the horse is visibly ill, has diarrhea, is missing tufts or full patches of hair or has skin lesions, scabs, or abscesses, or is producing undiagnosed discharge. These protective coverings should not be used outside of this quarantine space or you will defeat the purpose of wearing them in the first place! The new horse should remain in quarantine for a minimum of 30 days, and until all blood work and fecal exams come back with a clean bill of health. Make sure any external parasites have been eradicated before discontinuing quarantine, taking into account the life cycle of the parasite to ensure enough time has passed since the last instances of live parasites being found.
Ideally, you should have designated tools used only to clean the new horse’s space that are not used in other living areas. If this is not possible, all tools and cleaning supplies must be thoroughly disinfected before being used in other areas. It’s best to keep all bedding from quarantined areas away from other residents and their living spaces, especially if the arriving horse seems to be in poor health or is showing any of the symptoms listed above. If you typically spread old bedding on your sanctuary’s pastures, wait to do so with bedding from quarantined spaces until new residents have been evaluated by a veterinarian. Depending on their evaluation and any testing they recommend, they may advise you continue to keep bedding separate pending certain test results.
Evaluating A New Horse’s Health
When welcoming a new resident to your sanctuary, it is imperative that you assess their overall health to ensure you are addressing any issues as soon as possible. This is accomplished through initial observations, an intake examination, diagnostic testing, ongoing observation, and possibly a veterinarian’s assessment of the individual, especially if the new horse shows any signs of concerns.
Whenever you welcome a new resident to your sanctuary, it is crucial that you spend some time observing the individual upon arrival to determine any immediate needs they may have. If you or your staff picked up the individual and transported them back to the sanctuary, this observation process will actually begin before the new resident sets foot on sanctuary grounds. Through thoughtful observation, you may be able to identify signs of concern that warrant immediate veterinary care or further assessment on your part. This part of the intake process will also help determine if an intake examination must happen immediately or can wait for the new resident to settle in a little bit. In instances where you are taking in multiple new residents, this process will also help you prioritize individuals who appear to require more urgent assessment. This is also an opportunity to observe their general demeanor and reactions to the situation so you can begin to understand them as an individual and how they may cope with stress.
If you are taking in horses who look very similar, you must have a system of identifying and documenting individuals while you are getting to know who is who. Every individual will have their own unique characteristics; these differences may be more difficult to pinpoint depending on the residents’ breed, but you can almost always find a feature that can be used for identification (perhaps a unique marking in their coat or a scar). It may be helpful to take lots of pictures- both of the unique identifier as well as close-ups of their face- and write out thorough descriptions for staff and volunteers to refer to while learning everyone’s names. In some cases, additional, temporary identification may be needed to help everyone learn who is who. One option is to use a horse-safe temporary paint. By placing a small mark or possibly their first initial on their side, staff may be better able to learn each individual’s name. These marks will fade overtime, and hopefully, by the time the mark wears off, staff will have a stronger sense of how to identify who is who. Some horses may arrive with microchips, or perhaps your sanctuary chooses to microchip equine residents. While microchips aren’t helpful in every scenario where you might need to identify a new resident, they can be very useful as a way to confirm an individual’s identity and to ensure that two residents who look similar are not mixed up.
Prioritizing An Intake Examination
It’s important to perform an intake examination on all new residents, ideally within 24 hours of arrival, though some may need more immediate assessment. An intake exam includes conducting a full health examination to evaluate their overall health and to learn more about the individual, as well as gather important information for their permanent record. Be sure to follow quarantine procedures while conducting the intake exam. To learn more about the intake examination process, including how to prioritize assessing and addressing a new resident’s needs, check out our resource here! If, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform a full health examination shortly after their arrival, you will need to closely observe new residents for signs of concern and take steps to address those concerns appropriately.
An intake examination is conducted in much the same way as a routine health examination- you should check every inch of the horse, looking for any signs of concerns, and providing any necessary treatments. Be sure to consider the individual when conducting the exam. While there are a variety of issues you may find during a new horse resident’s intake examination, there are some health challenges that are especially common in new horses. These include:
- Hoof Issues– Because sanctuaries often take in individuals who may have had their needs neglected, very often new horses arrive with overgrown or cracked hooves. Be sure to evaluate their feet and check for any signs of hoof rot, hoof abscesses, cracking or other abnormalities. Schedule a visit from your farrier or veterinarian to trim their feet and address any issues and set a trimming schedule for the individual based on their needs. Hoof issues, whether it be hoof rot, cracked or overgrown hooves, or something like white line disease, must always be treated seriously. Without proper treatment what starts as a small hoof issue can result in serious complications. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose any issues and establish a treatment plan.
- Mobility Or Joint Issues– You should assess the horse’s mobility by watching them walk and looking for any abnormalities in their gait or shifting of weight when standing. When checking their legs, pay extra attention to their joints, looking for any swelling and listening for crepitus (popping or crunching). If safe to do so, you can feel the joint for heat as well. Mobility and joint issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan.
- Respiratory Issues– Watch closely, both during the intake examination and during the quarantine period, for any signs of respiratory illness. Horses are susceptible to a number of respiratory issues, some contagious and others self-contained. Of the contagious conditions, Strangles (equine distemper), Equine Herpes Virus, and Equine Influenza are those to look out for. Signs to watch for include coughing, yellow discharge from the nose, swollen throat, fever, enlarged glands under the lower jaw, clear discharge from the eyes and redness around eyes, depression and loss of appetite, and signs of edema in lower limbs (“filled legs”). Many of these conditions have vaccinations for future use. Respiratory conditions should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan.
- Parasites– Like other residents, horses are susceptible to parasites, both external and internal. Incoming horses should be examined for lice, mites, and ticks. Signs of a possible parasite infestation include itching, hair loss, stamping feet, and rubbing against objects or biting themselves. A fecal test must also be performed to check for a number of internal parasites. Signs of possible internal parasites include low body weight, anemia, diarrhea or clumped stool, and colic. In addition to the more commonly known intestinal parasites, horses are susceptible to lungworm which is as awful as it sounds. While an infected horse is unlikely to pass this to another horse (they can contract them from donkeys), care should still be taken to isolate incoming horses if they show signs of respiratory distress or more specifically, chronic bronchitis until the cause is diagnosed.
In addition to looking for signs of concern, you should determine the following information. In some cases this will require veterinary involvement:
- Assess spay/ neuter/ pregnancy status: New males should be evaluated to determine their neuter status, though in some cases you may need a veterinarian to help with this if you are unsure. Intact males should be neutered as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate. They will need time to recover after the surgery, which could delay their introduction to other residents if done towards the end of their quarantine period. Females who are sexually mature should be evaluated for pregnancy through an ultrasound and/ or blood testing. If an incoming resident is early on in their pregnancy, some sanctuaries choose to induce miscarriage. Sanctuaries interested in seeking this treatment should speak to their veterinarian about the extra-label use of Lutalyse and Estrumate for this purpose or if there is another treatment that is recommended. Sanctuaries should not perform this treatment themselves unless directed by a veterinarian. The decision to induce miscarriage ultimately depends on an individual sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care.
- Approximate their age by looking at their teeth: We are not talking about evaluating their dental health here- that definitely requires an experienced veterinarian or horse dentist. In fact, many sanctuaries rely on the age determination of the dentist or veterinarian upon their first check up. However, there are several ways a caregiver can learn to roughly determine age by examining a horse’s teeth. It will take some research and practice to improve the accuracy of the observation, and while you can learn quite a lot online, this should ideally be taught by a horse care expert or veterinarian. Having a general idea of their age can be very helpful when considering their needs. When examining their teeth, never put your hand inside a horse’s mouth as they have very strong jaws and could seriously injure a hand or finger. For some individuals, it may not be safe to put yourself that close to their head, in which case you will need to skip this step for now.
If you have not already done so, work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate incoming testing protocols for new horses you welcome to your sanctuary. While individuals showing signs of concern may require additional diagnostics, there may be certain tests your veterinarian recommends for all incoming horses. At a minimum, all new residents should have a fecal sample submitted to check for internal parasites. If they have diarrhea, you should also test for Salmonella. If the resident has internal parasites, your veterinarian will be able to recommend deworming treatments based on the fecal results. Be sure to submit another fecal sample 10-14 days after any deworming treatment to evaluate its effectiveness. In order to help prevent the ever-increasing resistance to available deworming medications, it’s important to only use dewormers when necessary and to work closely with your veterinarian if resistance to certain dewormers seems to be an issue.
If a new resident arrives with infected, scabby skin lesions, your vet may recommend acquiring a sample to check for possible infectious diseases. Additionally, if an incoming resident has nasal or eye discharge that is undiagnosed, then swabbing and sending a sample in for testing can help determine the cause so you can begin appropriate treatment. Some states require regular Coggin’s testing to be administered to prevent the spread of Equine Infectious Anemia. Be sure to talk with your vet about this and other region-specific testing that may be recommended. Certain disease confirmations may require an official report to your local government- if testing for screening purposes only, you may want to have a conversation with your veterinarian about what a positive result would mean for the individual and the sanctuary.
Some health conditions may take time to show outward symptoms. While all residents should be observed closely each day, extra attention should be paid to new residents during their quarantine period to ensure any potential issues are caught and addressed as soon as possible.
Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccine protocol for your horse residents based on the specifics of your resident population and your region. When new horses arrive, your veterinarian can help determine if they are healthy enough for vaccination, which will depend on the vaccine. It is often best to wait to administer vaccinations if a horse is sick. However, your veterinarian may advise immediate vaccinations in certain circumstances. Make sure you know about any age restrictions as well. Some vaccines are not meant for foals under a certain age.
Introducing The Newcomer To Other Horses
If the new resident is a young foal who is much less mature than the existing herd, you may want to let them grow up a fair bit before introducing them to the rest of the herd to ensure that they have built up enough immune system strength to handle any disease that might be lurking in the herd. You might consider choosing a calm, parental resident to reside with them during this time. They can teach them how to appropriately “horse” which will help them later once they are introduced to the rest of the herd. Close observation is important to note if there are any residents in the existing herd that may bully the younger horse.
Keep in mind that newly neutered horses are still fertile for weeks after the operation, so make sure to wait until they’re completely sterile before they’re around any impregnable herd mates as they may still have a strong desire to mate! Aside from the reproductive consequences of that, they may also still feel motivated to join the mare residents, wherever they are. This can be potentially dangerous to other residents and staff if they are intensely motivated to get to where the female horses are. Planning ahead about what to do if this situation arises is a good idea. Options include special fencing and providing visual barriers between the newly neutered resident and resident mares.
Once you’ve ensured that the new horse is healthy enough to join the resident herd, it can be a good idea to give the horses time to get used to each other by living in separate, but adjacent, spaces. Consider letting the new horse live in the same barn as the resident herd without having full physical access to one another- sniffing or grooming each other over a fence is a good way to get to know each other! This will give them an opportunity to meet and begin working out their new relationship with the individual and the herd. However, it is important to ensure you have solid, horse-safe fencing before doing this. Horses may paw and kick at the fence, and it needs to be strong enough to withstand any blows, while also ensuring hooves aren’t able to get caught in the fencing. You should consider giving the horses at least two weeks of this transition period before attempting to put them together, though every introduction is different.
When you’re ready to introduce the new horse to members of the herd, be sure to have multiple trained humans on hand to monitor their introduction in case you need to intervene! There may be minor fighting at first, but as long as no one is getting injured or overdoing it, it’s generally best to let them sort things out for themselves. However, if things get out of hand, you’ll need to break up conflicts quickly.
Once you have moved the newcomer to a space with shared fencing, observe the residents’ reactions. After the initial excitement dies down, do you notice any horse resident in the established herd spending time near the shared fence and exhibiting neutral or positive behavior? Consider this horse or another horse who is in the middle to lower end of the established hierarchy (so long as they haven’t exhibited concerning confrontational behavior at the fence) and move them into the living area of the newcomer. It is important that they have enough space so no one is cornered. Extra water and food can be spread out to help ensure there is no conflict over resources. Observe their behaviors, only intervening if their behaviors are causing serious, constant stress to either resident or if there is the potential for serious injury. Assuming these two settle in okay, allow them a couple weeks of living together and bonding next to the established herd. This pair-bonding with a member of the established herd can be helpful before introducing them to the herd. In cases where you have 2 or 3 new horses come in together, follow the same steps but introduce a couple horses instead of one to the newcomer’s space, ensuring there is plenty of space and resources for everyone.
During introductions, watch closely to make sure no one is causing injury and that no one is exhausting themselves or showing signs of overheating. Also, be sure you are familiar with the health of the individual and note if they have fallen fetlocks. If a horse has fallen fetlocks, what might be normal, relatively safe behavior for a herd of horses can turn dangerous to the new horse. It can result in severely fallen fetlocks that prevent them from walking, or even being able to stand. Consider creating a separate herd for seniors or individuals with serious health issues. If things escalate and you are worried a horse resident is going to be injured, you will need to intervene, but this must be done extremely carefully. It is not safe for a human to try to physically intervene during an altercation between mature horses. Instead, try to create a diversion to distract them. This may be done by making loud noises or creating another type of distraction. When the altercation is interrupted, you can encourage them to move away from one another.
Always be very careful when working around horses who are agitated. This is why it’s important to have multiple people who can be on the lookout and can alert others to a dangerous situation that may be headed their way. Typically negative, but normal, interactions manifest as chasing or charging, lunging with pinned ears and head down, biting, kicking, and occasionally attempts at mounting. You can watch for pinned ears (confrontational), flaring nostrils (excitement or exhaustion), increased whites around the eyes (can indicate fear or upset), an open jaw with teeth exposed (confrontational), and tail held especially high over their back (indicates alarm in this situation). If you have to separate the horses due to dangerously confrontational behaviors, don’t try to introduce them again that day. It can take a little bit of time for them to become comfortable with each other and figure out the social order.
With all introductions, monitoring their first few days together is especially critical to make sure everyone is getting along. You may need to offer additional food and water sources away from where the herd typically eats and drinks if the new horse is getting pushed away or seems wary of the others. If the herd needs to be closed in a small space for any reason while everyone is still figuring out their place in the social order, you may need to offer the new horse their own space during these times since conflicts may be more likely to arise in confined spaces.
Other good techniques to help the horses get along include changing out bedding material with each other’s scents in order to familiarize horses with one another (after the new resident has completed quarantine), ensuring plenty of open space where the horses socialize, eat, and drink, and providing lots of space for newly introduced horses to avoid each other. If the horses are having constant trouble with each other, don’t give up hope! It may take quite a few introductions before they all get along. However, if it seems like the horse will never be fully accepted into the herd or if they are too rough for some of their herdmates, it would be better to create a second herd with a few individuals who get along well with each other, being careful not to separate bonded companions. A herd with a constantly bullied horse is an unacceptable living situation for the individual horse.
It may seem like a lot of extra steps than just releasing a new horse into the stable, but if you follow the above guidelines, your new friend will have a much greater chance at a happy, healthy life with you and the herd!
8 Tips To Quarantine A New Horse | I Love Horses (Non-Compassionate Source)
How To Introduce Horses | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)
Introducing A New Horse To The Herd | Horse Channel (Non-Compassionate Source)