Managing horses in family groups. Horses and People Editor Cristina Wilkins talks with veterinarian and pony breeder Tom Davis about his experiences managing a breeding herd as a single family group. 

A passionate advocate of welfare for both horses and people, Tom explains the all-round benefits of allowing horses to express their social nature and social habits, and explains his approach to solving any logistical challenges. Feeding, pasture management, breeding and weaning will be covered in this new series.

Why do you manage your horses as a single family group? 

I keep horses (in my case, ponies) only in groups and they run free outdoors together whenever they wish. I have known for a long time that horses do just fine outside, as long as they can get out of the wind and wet weather when necessary. But, it wasn’t until I began breeding and raising ponies that I appreciated the social structure of horse groups, and the tremendous disadvantages of single and stall-centered housing for the horses, and for their owners and handlers.

My group currently consists of eight Section A Welsh ponies: four mares of breeding age, one stallion of breeding age and three youngstock aged between one and two. I expect three foals this Spring.

Can you describe how your property is set up and the climate in your area? 

The total property is 75 hectares (185 acres), but most is used for growing field crops – corn, soybeans and hay. The pastures now total about 8 hectares (20 acres), split into two plots of 9 and 11 acres. I have no stable barn – only sheds that provide enough space for them all when they want to be out of the wind or rain (but which they rarely actually use). The Summer pasture has a shed, but it is almost never used. There are plenty of shade trees, including a small patch of woods.

My farm is in the north-east of the United States (New York State) about 100 km (60 miles) north of New York City, near the south-eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains. Summer (June to August) temperatures can range up to ~38oC (100o F), but daytime highs are usually 29oC (85o F) or less. Rainfall allows for green pasture growth throughout the Summer provided the ratio of animal days per acre is reduced beginning some time in August to prevent overgrazing. Winter weather sets in by early December and begins to break up in early March. Winter temperatures vary. Some nights can reach -30oC ( -20o F), but the usual range is nights in the -10oC and days at 0-10oC. The heaviest snowfall usually occurs in January and February, and often reaches 60 cm (2 feet), occasionally much more, but the variations in temperature cause enough melting to keep the typical snow cover to 30 cm (1 foot) or so. The ponies have no problem dealing with these conditions.

Do you supplement the group’s pasture intake? 

During the months they are on fully grown grass pastures they get only grass, water and a salt block.

Our main Winter food is hay. I prefer the least coarse varieties I can get and have nothing against mixes that contain clover, alfalfa, etc. that some say are too rich for horses. and

The food for our ponies changes gradually over the seasons (See the discussion directly below about grass pasture), so they never have trouble digesting good hay during the times of the year when they are principally on it.

The most important characteristic of our Winter feeding regime is that food is available to the ponies constantly. I cannot emphasise this too much. They have access to hay 24/7.

We feed little or no grain to our ponies at any time of year. We judge their body condition but, for the most part, hay alone has kept them with good fat reserves in the Winter. So far, we only had to supplement with feed a pregnant mare that is low in the group’s social hierarchy and a couple of young ponies in their first Winter. This points up the need to pay attention to group dynamics in the Winter feeding process. Available food must be dispersed widely enough so that every animal can get its share without being pushed out by those higher in the social hierarchy. We had problems with ponies getting thin through the Winter when we made the hay available in racks on the inner walls of the sheds. There was not enough space for all to get to the hay freely, so the high pony got fat and the low ponies got thin. The problem decreased when we fed the hay in the box that is large enough for all the ponies to easily fit around.

A less apparent, but very important, aspect of this 24/7, everyone-has-access feeding process is the social benefit. Because they live so closely together, my little herd of ponies has to learn to get along and the young ones have to learn how to be polite around the older, stronger ponies. And I have to keep these important aspects of equine life in mind. If I forget about the pony’s social needs, and don’t design the sheds and feeding areas in a way that allows them to interact, but still have room to all get to food and shelter, then problems arise for which I am responsible.

Do you ever need to restrict your ponies’ diet? 

Many horsemen have told me that ponies should be restricted from grass pasture because of the risk of laminitis and colic. I agree that these diseases afflict horses and particularly ponies on pasture, but my experience tells me a year-round pasture-centered system of dietary management controls these problems without requiring restriction. On the contrary, I believe optimal management of ponies and horses requires access to pasture.

We are advised to keep away from grass an animal that evolved to live on open grassland and whose digestive tract is designed to handle grass. Those who advocate this restriction claim the horse’s evolutionary history is not relevant because domestic pasture grass is much richer in nutrients, particularly carbohydrates, than is grass in natural, wild environments.

All herbivores depend on bacteria (and some fungi and protozoa) to digest the fibrous material they eat. The cow’s rumen is the best known example. It is a fermentation vat, where bacteria break down the cellulose and complex carbohydrates of the grass, hay and other fibres the cow eats into simpler and absorbable carbohydrates.

In equines, the food is fermented primarily in the cecum, which is at the junction of the small and large intestine, and lays along the lower part of the belly toward the animal’s right side. Its location is not obvious from the outside. The fermentation that occurs in the cecum depends on bacteria. The mix of species of bacteria that most efficiently ferments the food in the cecum changes according to the type of food the horse eats. Some species of bacteria are best at digesting very coarse fibers of late grass or of hay, some are best at digesting early, lush grass, some are best at digesting grain, etc.

When the food changes, the mix of the bacterial species must change if digestion is to be efficient. But, this cannot happen in an instant. It takes time and, until the bacterial populations have time to adjust and reach the proper mix, undigested food will accumulate in the horse‘s intestinal tract causing diaorrhea, increased gas formation, fluid accumulation, and possibly, if severe enough, colic. Accumulation of undigested carbohydrates is also one possible cause of laminitis.

My experience tells me the solution to the problem is to make the transition to good grass very gradual and the best way to do that is to keep the horse out on the pasture during the pasture’s entire growth cycle. In the Spring, the grass doesn’t grow overnight from the short brown stubs of the Winter to the tall green of early Summer. The awakening of grass in the Spring is gradual and, therefore, gradual also is the change in the pastured horse’s diet from the hay and other stored forage of Winter, through the short stubs of early Spring grass, eventually to full pasture, then later in the year to hay. This gives the horse’s intestinal tract time to adjust to the changes in food.

Under this system, none of my ponies has had laminitis. The absence of grain supplements from their diet, and the constant exercise from being outside and free to roam may also help in keeping them free of that condition.

Some owners are concerned about injuries caused during play or fighting when horses are kept in groups. Have you experienced any situations like this with your group?

I experience this situation almost every day (the kicking part, not the injury part), and I am happy to see it. If a dam never kicks or bites her foal, she is not doing her job as a mother. And if you, as owner or caretaker, keep horses apart because they quarrel, you are increasing the chances of having an unruly horse who is impolite and doesn’t know how to interact with other horses or with humans.

Horses are social animals. Many people do not understand how important and fundamental this fact is. In my opinion, it is the single most important fact to know and to live by if you handle horses. Their social nature and their social habits are the most important factors in determining how horses get along with other horses and with humans.

How does a horse become properly socialised?

If you watch horses, the answer is as clear as it could possibly be – it is not ‘by being properly trained by people’. The answer is ‘by being properly socialised by other horses’. The most important horse in that process is the mother.

The first thing a foal learns is to move when his mother tells him to move. She spends its first hour making it stand up and, when she swings her head, move. She spends the first several days teaching him to walk at her shoulder when she walks, run at her shoulder when she runs and stop at her shoulder when she stops. These lessons are partly about physical skills, but they are more importantly about dominance and submission. She is telling the foal “I am your mother. My job is to keep you from danger, your job is to follow me. If I ask it, you do it. Period.”

Some time during the second week of life, the aunts and uncles and father and cousins and older brothers and sisters begin to enter the picture. They put up with the young foal to a degree, but at some point they all draw a line and make certain the little one knows how to act and knows his/her place; and that place is not at the top of the heap.

And so, the struggle goes as foals grow. The young ones constantly seek more privileges, other horses in the group seek to maintain their access to resources. But, because safety is to be found in numbers and within the group, disruptive fights that would fracture the group are avoided. 

Watch any group of horses that has been together for a long time and has a well-established hierarchy. They still push each other around, lay back their ears to one another and even kick one another. Once in a while, they may rear up and strike at one another. All this is a routine part of equine life. I call it discussion, not fighting.

This constant social interaction with other horses, particularly older horses, teaches a young horse how to behave, how to accept the directions of a higher ranked member, how to seek higher status or be resigned to a lower social position.

Membership in a group reduces anxiety and builds confidence. Because my ponies live, eat and sleep in an established, extended group, I don’t have to teach any of these lessons. The ponies teach themselves and each other, and do it better than we humans could.

A word about the kicking and possibility of injury: Observe a group of horses from afar and watch the kicking carefully. When you see a horse kick out, at first it looks like a violent and hostile unrestricted act meant to deliver harm. But, on closer observation, you can begin to understand how controlled and well directed these kicks are. They are usually aimed and very accurately placed. More importantly, the force of the kick is carefully and effectively calibrated to the intent; and the intent is rarely, if ever, to cause true harm. The intent is to speak in a shout rather than a whisper: GET AWAY FROM ME!

In their day to day interactions, I have seen my ponies kick one another hundreds of times. I have never yet observed the occurrence of an injury more serious than the temporary loss of a little hair. On two occasions a pony has been observed in the morning to be limping a bit and have a spot on a leg where the hair is lost. These may have resulted from kicks or from some other cause – I can’t be certain which. In any case, no real harm was done.

That is not to say accidents can’t happen. Horse hooves are hard and they can be delivered with great force. Not all strikes necessarily hit the target as intended. But, in my view, the mental damage caused by not allowing horses to have a normal social life that satisfies their needs and mentally prepares them to safely interact with humans must be weighed against the small chance of significant physical injury.

Are there human safety concerns when moving among a free-living group of ponies? 

Absolutely. Risk of mishap or human injury, possibly serious, is inherent to association with horses under any circumstances. For instance, horses can be startled or frightened by something totally out of their control, and, if you happen to be moving among them, they can hurt you without meaning to.

You can also be injured through the carelessness of a horse or yourself. You must always be alert to possible untoward circumstances when you are around a group of horses.

If you know something new or strange is about to happen – for instance, hunters are about to fire guns, dogs are about to be let loose, whatever – let it happen, but don’t be standing in the middle of the horses when it does. If you see some horses are arguing, let them argue and step a safe distance away. If you approach the group and see they are nervous for some reason, let them calm down before get too close. You shouldn’t need major safety precautions, just alertness and a little common sense.

However, the biggest danger if you want to keep your horses running free as a group, is that you will be at great and constant physical risk if the horses have not learned to give you space – that is learned to move away when you ask them to do so.

This is where ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ are usually mentioned but in this context, it just means that horses should learn that you can control access to resources; that you can confidently move them around without asking permission and can go wherever you wish.

Horses understand and establish this type of social order between them and part of our responsibility is to set some rules to make sure young foals and horses don’t learn they can push you around, invade your space or ignore your requests.

Horses are rough but they are not mean and unruly, they are just playing by horse rules. And, the hierarchy is never set in stone. You can change their behavior by changing your own behavior. Educating young horses to move when you ask whilst staying calm is the most important skill in horsemanship and too large a topic to be dealt with in this article, but before you handle horses as a group you need to check this.

Take a simple test. When your group of horses is out together and in a relaxed state, go out and walk among them. No ropes, no halters, no treats. Just wander about between them, greeting each quietly, walking in front or behind them, running your hand over them or through their mane and tail, or maybe doing nothing but standing there.

What is your reaction to that idea? If it is “Yes, it is always a pleasure to do that”, then keeping your horses under group conditions is generally safe for you. But if your reaction is “No way! That is too risky”, then you should not keep your horses in a free-running group until you have the skills necessary to feel and be safe around them. 

Some of the signs that indicate you are not safe, more or less in increasing seriousness:

  • When you go to the pasture or corral, the horses either ignore you or they run away.
  • When you bring food, they push you away so they can just take the food. 
  • If you walk among the group, they bump into you and step on your feet. 
  • If you are walking near them they block your path or otherwise obstruct your movement. 
  • They pin their ears back in your presence. 
  • They turn their hind quarters toward you. 
  • They bite or kick. 

These behaviors can be exhibited by one, more than one or all of the group. One is enough to make you concerned. The situation must be corrected.

But it should be corrected anyway. Bad behavior indicates bad horse-human interactions, not a bad housing scheme. Keeping your horses individually in stalls is not the solution to bad behavior – it just makes that behavior less obvious.

It is better to establish the proper relationship with your horses, enjoy them for what they really are and let them enjoy the 23 hours of the day they are not with you.

Once you try, I promise you will never want to go back.

In Part 2, Tom Davis talks more about his group’s behaviour, including introducing new members to the herd, how he manages the breeding aspects and the reasons why he maintains the family group intact and does not wean his foals.

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