According to a 2016 survey, moving home is in the top five most stressful “life events” – and that’s just for people.
Inevitably, most horses change homes during their lifetimes. But do we put enough thought into making the process as painless as possible? And can you also go too far and create problems because you’re trying too hard?
A dealer friend who specialises in riding club all-rounders advises customers to get their new horse home and get on with it. She tempers that with a few warnings: lunge the horse before you get on him for the first time; ride in an enclosed arena, if possible, and get the horse listening to you without putting him under pressure; and finally, don’t stuff him full of hard feed from day one.
She reckons that the owners who ring up claiming that the nice all-rounder she sold them has turned into a fire-breathing monster have inevitably ignored her advice to feed nothing but forage and a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement for a few days. Instead, they give the horse a week “to settle down” while feeding for the work they aim or simply imagine they’ll do, not appreciating that they might as well just light the blue touch paper and stand back.
It’s easy to anthropomorphise, but I love the analogy someone gave me many years ago when I was anxious about how an unbroken three-year-old I’d bought from his breeder would settle. He had been with the same group of youngsters from birth, so how would he adapt?
This wise woman told me to remember how it felt to move from a primary school to a much bigger one. It was strange, and sometimes a bit scary, but there were reliable people in charge and you soon made new friends and adapted to a new environment and routine.
As a new owner, you have to be that reliable person in charge. Your horse will settle, even if some things are more challenging than others.
Just as country kids can find cities overwhelming, and city kids can take time to adapt to a country environment, horses have to adapt. In my part of the world, we know it takes time for any equine which has been in a busy, built-up area to adapt to our wide, open spaces.
It can take up to a year for them to get used to our particular challenges, which include hares taking off from under hooves, field irrigators rotating and spraying you just as you ride past, and herons lurking in drainage dykes to lumber into the air at the wrong moment.
Give him time, keep him thinking and lay off the rocket fuel. And if you’re building a relationship with a new horse and have tips to share, we’d love to hear them.