Horse Herd Management
By: Vicki Aldridge
Animal & Wildlife Council
Horses primary needs are friend, freedom and forage.
They also need safety, comfort, water, food and play.
Horses, like humans are social animals, and need company and the interaction of others. Their need is amplified by the fact that horses are a prey animal, and are potentially constantly under threat, therefore they should ideally live in grazing herds that can help alert them to danger, particularly when they are grazing or sleeping. They can make attachments and bond with various other animals and humans but ideally have access to another horse(s) to be able to groom and play with both as this is soothing, relaxing and an important bonding process for them. A horse on their own can become excessively stressed and sleep deprived. Two horses can live together but this often isn’t a particularly healthy option as they can become pair bonded; overly attached to each other making it impossible to separate them. The ideal herd size is thought to be 5-7 horses. Larger herds often make up ‘sub’ herds.
The aim is to form a stable and calm herd. This can primarily depend on their environmental enrichment but also the attitude of the lead mare, dominant gelding and or stallion. It is worth bearing in mind the constantly changing dynamics of a herd, particularly when introducing or removing members. It is also important to manage herds around food and water as this can also cause additional stress for some. Horses do learn quickly and can be encouraged to manage themselves given guidance and time.
Mares often bond and interact well with other mares, and the same with gelding. Mares and geldings can be mixed but they have different needs and ‘play’ differently. Also, the dynamics can completely change when mares come into season. Depending on where and how they are kept it can be ‘easiest’ herd to have a herd of all mares with one gelding/stallion, or all geldings. Alternatively, there needs to be plenty of room for individual herds to form and move about without overly interacting, particularly at food and water stations. You can have more than one stallion grazing together but it important that they have a lot of room and ideally keep mares away when they are in season otherwise, they will most likely end up fighting.
Horses need constant access to forage. They eat/graze for up to 16 hours a day. This forage can depend on where in the world you are but ideally good quality meadow hay with plenty of biodiversity or access to fibrous long grass. There have been issues in recent years about horse struggling on grass in Europe but this is thought to be due to the poor land management, over grazing, poor biodiversity and use of artificial fertilisers. Once these are addressed alongside good land rotation including cross grazing this should be much easier to manage. It is also important to manage the length of the grass offered to be grazed. It should ideally not shorter than 4” but not long enough to have seeds. Hedges and trees are great for managing spaces as well as grazing.
Land management is of massive importance for any animal grazing on it. Biodiversity Is the key. Balancing nutritional needs of the land with natural products like GANS water, seaweed, limestone, organic manure, cross grazing with other species, land and water blessing all help improve the land and those living on it.
It can work well to have herds resting on hard standing with access to fresh water, hay and a nice sand surface to hang out away from the grazing area to prevent over compaction of the grazing. For more information on this see Equiculture. (They also focus on grass length and biodiversity to improve root length.)
Horse need movement so must have access to space and stimulus to move. In the wild they can travel up to 10 miles a day for varied grazing, water etc. It’s great to make them want to move to hay stations, water stations, mineral licks, salt licks, herb patches, dust or sand bath, water for swimming and much more. This can include things like moving stations regularly to keep them simulated as well as human interaction, exercise in round pens or riding in schools or hacking. Some horses positively enjoy exercise and interaction. There is some great information on natural horse communication and biomechanics such as Dressage Naturally.
In space limited environments tracks can work well for some herds but can also be stressful for the lowest ranking members as they can be constantly driven and don’t get a chance to rest. With the tracks it’s important to have breaks to allow herd reordering and safe interaction, as well as positive reasons to move to another area. Horse tracks can work in dry dusty parts of the world but, can struggle in wet muddy area unless they can be surfaced. For more information have a look at Paradise Paddocks.
In wetter area there is often a need for mud management. There are various options including effective water drainage systems. Other options for surface management can include whatever aggregate can be sourced locally such sea shells, limestone, sand and gravel. Pea shingle is very good for feet stimulation particularly bare feet and sand/dust baths are great for rolling and fur/skin management.
Horses shouldn't need shoes if their diet is managed well, they are in good health for good foot growth and they have plenty of movement to stimulate the foot circulation. In exceptional circumstances horses can be shod but this should on a need only basis and ideally removed regularly to help to foot recover again. Usually, domestic horses need foot trimming or being reshot every 6-8 weeks (ish) however it may need to be more often in the spring with good grass growth and less often in the winter with less growth. However, if they have good regular movement and surface stimulation it can be even less often, if at all.
Horses only really need shelter from excessive heat. It has been shown that given choice they will use shelter in extreme heat and not for getting out of the rain and cold as we would. However, this can depend on the individual. Generally, horses shouldn't need to wear rugs unless its wet and below 6 degrees, again this depends on how well adapted they are to their environment and what work they are expected to do and whether their fur has been clipped or not.
If there is a limited of natural recourses then self-selection for horses can work extremely well. This would happen naturally in the wild, however if this isn’t possible access to various dried herbs, dried nettles, camomile, rosehips, barley grass, essential oil water can be great for increasing biodiversity and managing individual nutritional needs. For more information have a look into equine pharmacology.
Most horses if managed well shouldn’t need hard feed particularly if the grazing is optimal, however horses that work hard, in foal, bad weather or older age/poor teeth may need extra supplementation or calories in winter such as linseed or copra.
It can be useful to have horses’ teeth checked annually to ensure they are eating well and getting the ultimate nutrition out of their forage.
Obviously, it is important to allow for the individual of a herd as well as the herd dynamics. This can vary with age and personalities. It is always great to watch and adjust management to ultimately have the happiest herd. They will give you feedback of what is working and what isn’t if you check in with them if you look for it. Horses are great communicators if they have the opportunity to!
Happy horsing around.
Here’s some great ideas;