Horses are creatures of habit.
They like their meals at a certain time (as anyone who lives within earshot of a hungry horse will attest to), they like returning to the same stall every evening, and they like seeing the same familiar faces every day.
So when humans begin periods of transition, our horses do not always take the change well. New schedules, resulting from school starting, a new job, or even a new owner or rider, can send the most reliable and calm of horses into a physical and emotional tizzy. Behavior changes, health problems, and nervous tics can all manifest when a horse loses their daily routine. What’s the best strategy for easing transitions for horses?
- Don’t change. Of course routines change, schedules change, barns change, pasture mates change. But if you’re the constant in a horse’s life, be the constant. Horses seek leadership, especially when they are frightened or worried, and they’ll look for you, the herd leader, to demonstrate how they should react to change. A consistent handler, rider, and trainer keeps a horse from constantly having to guess. It is a comfort to the horse. If you continue with all your usual routines, the horse’s worrying over the new environment will start to fade away.
- Introduce changes gradually. Some horses are unflappable: new barn? Okay. New rider? Got it. Other horses need time to think about changes or they’ll simply have a nervous breakdown. Anytime a change can be made gradually, that’s the way to do it. Feed should be changed very slowly, over at least a week. New horses should be introduced to a herd, no matter how large or small, first in hand and over a fence, before being turned out with the other horses. New barn routines that change feeding times should be introduced in increments as well. Some horses are so accustomed to eating at the same time that a new late feeding time could cause them to colic. I wrote about this further in https://equinefacilitydesign.com/equine-care/changing-routine-creating-a-flexible-feeding-schedule.htm.
- Proactive probiotics. Probiotic feed supplements are designed to support a horse’s digestive system in times of high stress. If you’re anticipating a stressful change for your horse, research and consider starting them on a quality probiotic a few days before the routine change begins. High-quality roughage is also shown to prevent colic and promote digestion, so bumping up your horse’s hay ration might be a good idea as long as they aren’t prone to obesity.
Changing routines for horses can be hard, especially sensitive horses who like to colic at the drop of a hat. The keys are introducing change as slowly as possible, providing digestive support, and, whenever possible, offering your horse one constant person to trust and follow. With these tips, you should be able to ease a horse through transitions safely. However, if in doubt, always consult with your vet for advice.