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Structuring Your Turnout Groups


Few sights are as relaxing as watching a group of horses peacefully grazing and frolicking together in their field. Behind this picture perfect scene, are barn managers and horse owners who had the stressful task of determining which horses would make good pasture mates. Do you know how to use herd dynamics to your advantage when structuring turnout groups?

Basic Herd Dynamics

Anytime you have two or more horses sharing a common area their natural instincts take over and a "herd" is formed. Even if you only have two horses turned out together, one will be more dominant while the other horse will be more submissive. Generally, a herd is made up of a leader, the leader's favorite buddy, some sidekicks and the low man on the totem pole. Although they have an established pecking order, each horse will have moments where he exhibits dominant and submissive behaviors throughout his normal day.

When introducing new horses to a pasture at home, it's important to understand the dynamics of those already in the field. The body language of horses can help you to tell if they are submissive or aggressive to others. Dominant horses may greet others in their herd with pinned ears, tail swishing or by showing teeth. While the more submissive horses will retreat, chomp the air or put their head low. Knowing how your herd reacts to each other can enable you to keep the herd harmonious should you need to add a new horse to the field. 

Mixed sex turnout

Structuring your turnout groups is not an exact science. There are no absolute rules when it comes to having single sex versus mixed sex turnout groups. Ask a group of horse owners which is best and you will get a variety of pros and cons for each option.

Typically if your horse is at a boarding barn, turnout will be split into mare-only and gelding-only fields. Many barn managers believe there is less chance of skirmishes and rough play in a single sex field. Even though the majority of males are gelded, problems can arise in a mixed field as mares go in and out of estrus (heat). While the geldings may not show interest in the mares, they may become aggressive with the other geldings to show off or protect "their" mares.

On the other hand, many horse owners have no problem mixing mares and geldings in the same field. If you do mix mares and geldings, the dynamic tends to be the most peaceful when you place one gelding with a group of mares, thus eliminating competition between geldings for mares. At the end of the day, the decision to have mixed fields depends on how your horses interact with each other.

Other Considerations

When you are developing your turnout group strategy, you may also want to consider the size, age and personalities of your horses. Grouping by age can keep smaller, younger horses from getting hurt by larger horses and likewise keep older horses from being annoyed by the energetic youngsters. Knowing your horses' individual personalities will also help you best match pasture buddies.

Creating a happy turnout group is sometimes easier said than done. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, it's impossible to know how horses will react when they meet new "friends". Take the time to watch how the horses socialize when turned out. Remember if one turnout group doesn't work out you can always try Plan B.


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