Bringing Horses Home

We don’t ask much from horses. It starts simply. On the day that we are thrilled to get the horse of our dreams, the one who we think it going to be the best horse ever, he gets taken from his family herd, kidnapped in a trailer, and taken to a strange place. The trip alone is enough to give him ulcers.

We love everything about him, except for the things inconvenient for us. Those are the things we’ll start to correct. He should be happy to leave the herd without separation anxiety, he should be totally under our control in any situation, and most of all, he should love us. It makes sense to us because we paid good money for him. He doesn’t know what money is.

Or maybe you’re altruistic. You get a rescue horse. Maybe he comes from a rescue or maybe you look at his old home and decide you’d be a better home and call it a rescue. Maybe you get him from a kill lot because your heart is in the right place, but you don’t know it’s a scam. It’s the same trailer abduction to him.

You want him to know he’s safe now, even as you re-tell his sad story to friends who come. Everyone feels sorry for him, and he feels everyone’s anxiety. You think he should show signs that his past has been erased because you hauled him somewhere, like a faith healing on a non-believer. Same ulcers from the trailer trip.

Then there’s probably a big vet bill right away. It’s for the undisclosed lameness or the chronic undiagnosed issue that caused him to be sent to rescue in the first place. Or it’s the injury he sustains in his new environment from another horse who you knew would just love him.

His new life that couldn’t be more different than what’s natural for a horse. Even a domesticated one. It sounds crazy but the anxiety you feel financially impacts him on top of the rest of it.

Change is hard, but for all the challenge it is for you, it’s still harder for a horse.

When I moved to my farm with my horses, so we could all live together happily ever after, you would have thought I had sent them to hell. They were not living my dream. They went lame and lost weight pacing.

The good news is that humans are evolving as a species. Most of us understand that horses have consciousness; they know they are alive, they feel emotions.

For all our enthusiasm for training our horses, for all our jokes about horses training us, how many cues from our horses do we misunderstand? Especially the ones that don’t fit our narrative; our story of who we want them to be.

Maybe the new mare is being mare-ish. She’s pinning her ears in a sour way, she is aggressive at feeding time. She doesn’t like being hugged.

Maybe the new gelding is really friendly, maybe he’s hugging you with his neck and kissing you with his lips. You decide that he really likes you because it’s flattering.

Maybe it seems the new horse is pouting. He seems quiet and just fine. You climb on for a ride and he barely moves or he is head-high, scurrying around short-strided and frightened. Just not who he was when you wrote the check.

And the thought crosses your mind that your new horse was drugged when you looked at him. Maybe you were cheated. Or maybe your rescue isn’t as grateful as you thought he would be.

We think we can move horses around like furniture. Like they understand and agree to participate in our fantasy.

It’s so important to remember that no matter what plans we have, horses have a design by nature. They are herd animals, so they will mourn their loss and it will take time to settle into the new herd. It will take as much time as it takes.

From my vantage point as a trainer, I think it takes a year for most horses to settle into a new home. A year for normal to reveal itself. And we aren’t a species known for our patience.

Sometimes horses act like it’s no big deal. They are stoic horses and that’s their approach to everything. We love them, they’re Quarter horses or draft crosses or older horses.

It’s smart business to pretend to be stoic. It’s the lame horse that predators take when looking for an easy kill but drawing attention of any kind is seen as a sign of weakness in the herd. A smart horse plays it cool, but that might not be dependable.

Humans are likely to be romantic about bringing horses home. We say the horse picked us or there was just a moment when we knew. It’s who we are, also designed by nature, and our joy is nearly deafening to an animal who senses are as keen as a horse’s.

It’s spring and there are lots of new partnerships. Some seasoned riders are starting young horses and some horse-crazy girls of a certain age are getting their first horse, hopefully, a seasoned horse with some tolerance for giddiness.

All the new horse behaviors mentioned in this article are calming signals; communication from horses to humans. You’ll figure out the fine print as time goes on.

For right now, start here: They are telling us they have anxiety. That they are no threat to us and we don’t need to be so aggressive. They hope we will slow down and breathe. That we will lick and chew, and stretch our necks. That we will hold our noise to a dull roar and let them settle in.

When they look away or have sour ears or eyes that are just way too quiet and turned inward, it isn’t disrespect from them. It’s just them asking for a little respect from us, a little empathy for their feelings. Asking us for a minute to get ready. Take the cue.

The shared change of life that is our dream coming true, is going to start as a nightmare for a horse. It’s good to remember that partnerships need trust, and trust is still the most valuable commodity. It can’t be bought along with a saddle and bridle.

Trust must be earned, one breath at a time, and celebrated in hindsight.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

62 comments

  1. Thank you, once again, for a very timely and insightful article. I’m going to save in my “worth keeping” file.

  2. It is stressful. We never bring anyone new home in the dark and always keep them in a pen by themselves until they have plenty of time to adjust.

  3. So much truth here.

    I try to tell my horses what’s going on. We have a small herd of four, so anyone’s absence is keenly felt. This weekend I’m taking two of them to a clinic, and I’ve told them all who is going, where we’re going and when we are leaving, when we will be back, and who is taking care of the ones who are staying home. I know they don’t understand English, but I like to think they understand the concept. Maybe it helps, I don’t know, but at least I feel like I’m not suddenly snatching two of them away, never to be seen again.

    One of the hardest things I’ve done was to take my competition dressage horse to my trainers for a few months, to learn how to do flying changes (I don’t know how to do them either, so we learned together). I knew things were bad because he was so listless while he was there, despite truly excellent care. He’s usually a withdrawn horse (at home he gets extra cookies and scratching sessions and quiet breathing time), but at the big barn he just a shell. I kept telling him that he’d come home soon, and tried to spend extra time with him, but there’s really no consolation for a horse being taken from his herd. When I finally took him home, his reunion with the other three brought me to tears. In the future I’ll have to find another option, because I will never break up the herd for so long again. It’s just too hard on them.

  4. thank you anna. have you ever done an article about horses and grazing muzzles and their response/tolerance? thank you , daisy

  5. I love this. I know people think I’m crazy when I say that it’s “only” been a year since my two new horses came to live with us after being in a very bad situation. They went from ‘behaved” to acting out (once they felt safe) to now settling in. This is such a beautiful post and a reminder to be patient and truly give them the time they need and to just let them “be”. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this, and for all your writings about seeing the world from the horse’s perspective.

    I really experienced, first hand, exactly what you’ve described when I brought my senior gelding home last year. He is a retired Arabian show horse, whom I image was really ALL THAT in his day. However, the show barn where he lived had long-ago lost interest in what he had to offer in favor of younger, more expensive horses. He was put to paddock (no pasture) with a half a dozen “random geldings” at their boarding facility. Given hay with the rest of them every day, and vaccines in the spring but little other care that would support his advancing years. He was a bag of bones, with a significant cut on his back leg when they gave him to me as a companion horse for my mare.

    I took him home, gladly, because he had a cute face, and my mare was desperate for companionship since I had moved her from the boarding facility to our own little spit of land two weeks earlier. (She was having her own issues with the transition.) They had been boarded in stalls next to one another, so while there were countless people willing to give me “companion horses”, he seemed a good bet because they knew each other at least a little. He absolutely screamed on the abduction home, and was completely stoic all through the summer and fall last year. Never mind that he now had his own ration of senior feed, a couple hours of turn out on a green pasture every day, and didn’t need to compete for his hay or shelter; he would stand alone at the corner of the pasture and look toward his old home hour after hour, day after day. It nearly broke my heart.

    I just let him be sad, and cared for him the best I could. I could have taken him back anytime, but with the senior feed, vet care, farrier care and daily Percocet for his PPID, not to mention blanketing on the cool evenings, etc. etc he is no longer a banged-up bag of bones so I believed his chances might still be better with me. And sometime over the winter he decided that I am his person and this new home is going to be all right after all. He’s rounded out to a healthy weight, and is sound as a fiddle for a bit of arena work and gentle trail rides. I’ve become very fond of the old fellow. I have a 12 year old friend who has taken some riding lessons, and she comes to ride him sometimes. It seems to me to look so proud when she’s riding him around through his paces, you can really see the show horse he must have been.

    Sorry for the ramble, but wanted to share and thank you.

    • Kelly, this is no ramble, it’s a very important point. Both of you were right all along, in your separate journeys to get to the same place. So glad he’s home! Thank you.

  7. Having boarded at a barn with a hack line years ago – this hits close to my heart. The hack horses were usually brought from an auction (Unadilla-NOT a happy place) never knew where they came from or what they came from – but brought there & used for trail rides. When they first came, most were underweight and not thriving, seemed to hold themselves a little apart – kind of look away – no differently than a dog, or for that matter a child, that wasnt wanted or cared about. Most settled in – they were fed & cared for, most times there would be someone who actually paid them some attention, so I think they were better off – for a while. I know thats not the same as just moving a horse from the home they were used to – which I did after 4 years at that barn. It was hard for my boy, but a friend of mine moved her 2 mares at the same time & they had been turned out together (along with 30 or 40 other horses!) And it did take a while for him to feel comfortable at the new barn – much small barn. I understand this better now than I did!

  8. As usual, Anna, you have done a great job reminding us to consider the horse’s perspective.

    Three years ago, we bought a young colt from a neighbor. We planned to leave him with the neighbor until he was weaned. But…our neighbor, a more experienced horseman than I, had a better suggestion.

    “Take the colt and mare, both, and carry them home now,” he suggested. “Keep the mare until after the colt is weaned. It will help him adapt to his new home.”

    “And be sure to ride the mare. Take her on pasture rides with the colt on a lead line. It will help him get used to being led and to you being above him.”

    We followed his suggestions, and the transition went really smooth. Even the weaning (several months later) turned out to be a very low-stress event.

    Thank you, for another great post! Have a wonderful holiday weekend!

  9. Oh this brought me to tears! Thank you so much! It reinforces that I need to listen to my inner guide and my horses about their transition to my place (their new home) and just kindly acknowledge (with a smile) all the people who inquire about when I’m going to ride…whether I’ve trailered them anywhere yet, etc
    The first few months they we angels (but not in a good way, in a stoic, “I need to behave” kinda way). Then over the winter they showed some emotion and got crabby, now I’m starting to see glimmers of who they really are. But gaining their trust is more impt to me than a ride so I’ll wait for the trust.

    • I so appreciate your comment about kindly acknowledging all of the people who ask if I’ve ridden my new horse yet! It can be challenging to stick to the slow path and hearing your comment made me feel less alone in that!

  10. Thank you, Anna , for putting into words things I have always believed but couldn’t quite put organize into a way of understanding my horses. I am sincerely grateful!

      • I am a new reader of your blog and it’s wonderful. I just bought a new horse who is 5 and had never left home. I moved him home (4 hours away) and he is struggling to adjust. He had a horrible allergic reaction after only 5 days in his new home. We recovered from that (He was a trooper!) but am now struggling to integrate him with my other 2 horses who are really close! Today was the second day they were out in pasture together and there was less kicking and fighting between the 2 dominant horses but they are still not ready to be in a paddock together. I am struggling with giving them the time to figure out the new herd organization and my hew pony becoming more unsettled while he waits to find the security that I think he will find once he is living with the other 2 horses.

  11. I’m bringing my 2 horses back home after being away (the local college equine program was using them) for 3 years. I wonder if they will have less anxiety because they are coming “home”. I’m glad i read your article either way because it reminded me to pay attention to them and watch & listen to them for cues. And, as always, go slowly.

  12. This is another one I am keeping as well as sharing. Thank you, Anna, for putting this so well. The horses left behind are also deeply affected. When Tattoo’s buddy, Geronimo, was taken away, Tattoo ran the fence line for a long time and kept watch in the direction Mo had gone. He was heartbroken. Mo had gone off for a trail ride many times and Tattoo never batted an eye, but that time he knew Mo wasn’t coming back. Humans so under estimate the attachments, emotions and intelligence of animals.

      • Thank you to Jean and also for your reply, Anna. We know our gelding’s pasture mate has been sold and will be moving out in the next few weeks or months. He seems very attached to this friend, more than other horses who have moved out. I keep telling myself I don’t need to find another horse to keep him company, just provide the continuity of us being there.

  13. Thank You! The timing of this post is amazing. I moved my sweet gelding May 1st for the 2nd time in 8 months. We went to “a better place” – from a dry lot with 12 horses surrounded by an off leash dog park, a shooting range, and a 6 lane highway, to a ranch with a green pasture (admittedly it is currently very wet and for the 1st week he was alone) but now he has an adoring yearling and another gelding. Still, when I went to see him, he would be wild eyed, jumping around when I tried to groom him and went mostly sideways in the arena. I know moving is stressful, it’s stressful for me and it was my idea, but I somehow expected him to bounce back. Today when I went, I listened to him. Instead of jumping into grooming, we stood and breathed, I talked to him softly and rubbed his neck. Eventually he sighed and chewed. I wanted to shout and cry. We spent the afternoon breathing and exploring, no rush, no agenda, and he came back to me. He misses his mates and the familiar life he left. This new life and new horses will become familiar, but until then, I must be the one thing he can still count on.

  14. Hi Anna, just had 3 weeks away (thanks Hawaii, rain, volcano, shit happens), took Furry (remember him? Melbourne, Andy, on the spectrum?) to the trainers. He’s stayed there 4 or 5 times before, all fine. This time he never settled, lost weight, weaving, calling, very distressed. So I took him home, he ran to his friend, they touched noses, Furry bit Luke, back to normal. The next week I go to my trainers for a lesson and he becomes ill. Very strange, fluid from the nose, huffing and coughing. I take him home, no temperature, symptoms disappear and do not recur. Can I think that he was worried about being left behind? I don’t know but I’m never taking him away again.

    • I can’t make assumptions when I can’t see the situation. It could be an allergic reaction or a physical situation that wasn’t obvious in the moment. And change happens. Even if you make the decision to never separate them, one will die before the other. I think we need to create small changes and train confidence, because life is change. Mostly, we need to acknowledge them. Thanks, Christine. Keep listening.

  15. Hello Anna , I only discovered you a month or two ago . I am reading your book, Relaxed and Forward. I love it! When I get your emails from your blog I stop whatever I’m doing and read them! I would love to attend one of your clinics I will watch your 2019 calendar, Hopefully you may have one somewhere near Ohio. Thank you so much and my horse thanks you for our improved relationship!

  16. Wise words Anna! I try to remind myself to see things from my horse’s point of view and remind myself how different his view, his concerns and his survival instincts are.

  17. We had a beautiful young Clyde we named Dawson who came to us for about a year. He was never meant to be ours – we were just the place between where he needed to be away from and where he (I beleive) was destined to go. He arrived a few weeks after my young QH, Chevy who wasn’t quite fitting in with the established pair of elders we already had so the new youngers became buddies pretty quickly.

    A year ago, Dawson left for his new home – and while we were happy Dawson was moving on to a good future, Chevy took a while to come around after the loss of his friend – even with a few new buddies in the group.

    How much they remember and how attached they do get was really brought home recently at a clinic I attended with Chevy. My normally quiet boy who ground ties like a champ was all of a sudden pawing and moving restlessly – very unusual behaviour for him. I look around to see what might be bothering him and across the arena a woman has brought in a young Clydesdale, about the same age, size and colouring of his buddy Dawson. We could not get Chevy to settle – he just had to go check this guy out – i am sure he thought it might be his buddy – it was the first Clyde we had seen since Dawson left.

    We finally walked him over and asked if it would be ok for Chevy to be introduced- and have a sniff just so he’d know it wasn’t Dawson. The woman agreed and the horses touched noses…. Chevy snuffed and sniffed but I think he realized it wasn’t his buddy but he was still out of sorts for the rest of the weekend. Every time that horse would leave the arena he’d get worried. It was very sad to watch.

    Even though Dawson was never meant to stay, it really made we aware just how attached these guys can get to each other and that they do remember – even after a long time. It was about a week before he was back to his usual self.

  18. I had a small herd (5) well established as a unit, from a boarding barn, happily establish in a new farm I had rented. Life was good, they all settled in to the new place with such ease, I barely knew they had been moved! (unusual, I know). After a term there, my husband and I bought a farm, very similar , still with mostly turn-out, stalls only during storms and such. Again, the same 5, plus another made the move-the extra one they were familiar with, had shared some turn-out for about a month. Everyone, with the exception of one, rather happily settled in, yes, things were different, but all but that one gelding handled that move very appropriately. That one gelding never did get settled in, even 4 years later. He was never the same horse, never again “my horse”. I always felt like he never forgave me……. story forward: I eventually sold this gelding, to a good friend who is very in tune to her horses needs and feelings. He. Adored. Her. Settled right in to her place, and was the horse I had originally thought him to be…… she at one point had a communicator “read” him (I’m not sure how I feel about communicators, but have seen them pin point some truths….). Communicator brought up a catastrophic event in his life, not exactly what the event was, but that it was very significant. And it was that exact time frame, when we moved. Poor guy, I knew he struggled, but really had no way of helping him get over it, just felt his dislike for me for a really long time…… but he is now a very happy horse, back to the horse I knew he was when I was so thrilled to bring him home for myself. Ah, horses.

    • Such individuals, and for whatever reasons we find out or never knew…Horses are such individuals. I have a mare happier living somewhere else, too. Thanks, Laura

  19. Six years ago I bought a horse from a friend. Over the past few years he had been passed from owner to owner for various reasons, all of them with good intentions. He was quiet, easily rideable, stood for grooming and farrier, never spooked, easy to vet, but I always felt he was holding back. He got along ok with my mare. I told him over and over he had a forever home. After about a year there was a subtle change. He just seemed to relax. There were no overt behavior changes, just a subtle sense of relief from him, as if he suddenly understood I would be there for him and he could settle in and enjoy life.

    He went on to teach my grandkids to ride. He was a very kind old soul with a subtle sense of humor. He had lots of little tricks he’d play on anybody who wasn’t paying attention – taking the bit in his teeth and walking to the shade, turning around and walking back to the barn. If you caught him early you could feel him say “darn, she caught me” and start looking for another chance. I always felt he was enjoying some private joke.

    But I’ll never forget how long it took him to breathe that unheard sigh of relief that he was going to stay. I moved both horses a few years later to a place where they had daily turnout. The old guy took one look at the green pasture and said “I’ve died and gone to heaven”.

    He stayed with me until earlier this year when his cancer finally took its toll and I had to put him down. The barn owner turned him out in the pasture with his herd early the last morning. When I got there he was back in the pen. I spent a lot of time feeding and grooming him. When the vet called to say he was on his way, I went to bring in the rest of the herd. To my surprise they had come in from the pasture and sorted themselves into the appropriate pens, which they don’t ordinarily do. I believe they all knew what was about to happen and came in to say goodbye.

    We are so prone to think horses are like furniture, but they aren’t. They are beings with souls who have been entrusted to our care. If we listen they tell us so much. Even knowing this I still find it hard to slow down and listen.

    • Bless this good horse, and thank you for sharing his story, Janet. It reflects many I know. Horses know everything and they continue to try to domesticate us. We are the lucky ones. Thanks.

  20. Thank you! Somehow I feel vindicated. It makes my stomach wrench when I see a sale ad for a horse. For the very reasons you mention. I have more than my share of pasture ornaments . Most have came to me as ‘throw aways’ I refuse to send them back out to conveyer belt or down the pike. They have an established herd and the care they need.

  21. “…our joy is nearly deafening…” so perfect!

    Thanks…this helped me decide to keep Dodger and his mini pal together when I have to sell this place…sadly looking inevitable in my life’s new “single” chapter. Each may need the other as much as I need them.

    Great to see you in Snohomish…will keep in touch.

  22. Thank you so much for this. I was trying to express this at work recently, the trauma of moving for horses. And then the stoic ones- we have so many at our barn. People say “they seem fine.” And I was trying to convey that they’re not, by nature, fine after a sudden change. I’ve described trailering as “being kidnapped” and people look at me like I’m being dramatic.

    Thank you for getting it. Thank you for writing so eloquently about it. Thank you so much.

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