Small farm owners: how do you judge compatibility of new horses?

I’m not currently horse shopping, but have been thinking about this lately. For those of you who have your own small farms, how do you judge before you bring a horse home whether they will be compatible with your herd, setup, management, lifestyle, etc? Or whether they will have separation anxiety in a small herd that may not manifest in a larger boarding environment?

In my 6.5 years of farm ownership it’s been a bit of a crapshoot and I’ve had surprises in both directions. Examples:

  • I leased a fancy GP horse who’d always been on minimal solo turnout, never overnight. I planned to build him his own paddock if needed, but it turned out he thrived on full turnout with my retiree. He was available for lease partially because he was super-attached to the owner’s other FEI horse (a mare), to the point that it made showing both of them impossible. At my place (with no mares, but also a pretty different lifestyle) he showed no separation anxiety whatsoever.
  • One of my TBs was described by the longtime owner as pretty easygoing and flexible in his turnout needs. He was turned out with an older gelding when they were up north, but in the winter in FL he’d go out alone because the paddocks were smaller. Here he is quite the little dictator, who likes to move the other horses around just to show them who’s boss, won’t share hay easily, has to drink water first, etc. It’s fine most of the year when there’s plenty of grass to go around, but a pain in the winter when they need to share hay. (To be clear, I don’t think the previous owner was deceptive…I just think these aspects of his personality may not have existed or expressed themselves in her setup.)

I did set myself up for failure a little by planning for a single turnout group. I can do (and have done) two turnout groups in a pinch, but it really impairs my ability to manage my limited pasture (only 3 acres).

So anyway, I’m just wondering if other people have a better way to judge compatibility ahead of time. I guess one thing to do is look for horses that have been successfully managed in a similar setup/lifestyle, but that could really limit one’s options and even then there are so many variables that are hard to account for with sensitive living creatures. Curious to hear your thoughts!

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The personality of the horse is not breed dependent. Some are anxious, some are confident.

Dominance is situational. A horse may be dominant in one herd and submissive in another. In general as they age they become less competitive.

Most horses can get along in stable herds with enough space and resources.

You should always have more hay piles than horses in a field.


I have been lucky I guess. With the exception of an older rescue mare all my new horses integrated beautifully into my existing herd. The mare was just too timid to want to eat with the others so I kept her separate.

I like a horse with a good personality and tend to shy away from the nervous, crazy types so maybe that helped. It is always a crap shoot no matter what.

This. There is really no way to determine ahead of time. The hierarchy can change over time, even with the same herd members. I have seen a horse go from new outcast to leader of the pack over the period of several years. Some horses are never herd/buddy-bound until they suddenly meet the right other horse and lose their mind. Some will just not do well in a certain barn environment/routine even though there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. I know of horses that just wouldn’t settle in and ended up returning to their former owners or being sold on if there was no management solution that seemed to work. I know people who have horses that just wouldn’t work at home and had to be boarded. Pretty much you just have to work with whatever you end up with, and that may not always be convenient.

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You know, I have always been told that, and in my experience it creates more chaos than one per horse. I have found that with more hay piles the horses start to shuffle just to shuffle. When they have to pick a pile they eventually just pick a pile and stick with it. Yet, many people I respect swear by it… SO, no argument, just a different opinion…

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Interesting that.

We have always put out more flakes of alfalfa out than horses, some times with just two horses, some times 30 broodmares in a pasture and rarely have any trouble with them just playing musical chairs to just play.
They settle on one and eat their fill.

Now, once they are finishing the piles, some will mosey around looking for leftovers and the bossier ones get a free pass without fireworks, the submissive ones just move on.
Now, we never have horses where they are crowded, but are sure there is plenty of room to stay out of other’s way as they wish.

Now, that is not when a new horse is introduced.
That is a different situation, as they tend to then reshuffle who is who more than busy eating.
That should only be a couple days, after that the new horse settles into it’s newly acquired spot.

Can’t say what would happen if there were only as many spots as horses?
Have not tried that, we did fine with more spots, but is an interesting idea.

Interesting! I’ve always done either the more piles than horses thing, or a Hay Hut where in theory they can share more easily.

The horse I mentioned believes that all the hay is his. Doesn’t matter how many different sources there are. He reached a detente with my (fat) retiree but not with my current hard keeper (of course). Horses!

I’m feeling anxious about this same topic. What if I buy another horse and my current horse hates him/her? What if they have wildly different turn out preferences? What if they end up with wildly different nutritional needs? What if they Uber bond to one another and I have fireworks every time I try and groom a horse? ITS ALL BAD!!!

I too have a small amount of available turn out space. Setting up for rotational grazing with more than one turn out group will be near impossible (unless I have tiny ponies).

I am thinking about these issues as I horse shop. I feel like there isn’t much I can discern if I’m buying sight un seen other than what the seller may tell me. Maybe I can find out a little more about an out of town horse that I go see in person. Looking at local horses provides a better picture. I have two prospects that are currently at local farms where I have friendly connections with the management. I’ve made a point to come and observe at meal times and turn out and turn in. Trying to get an idea of what these horses are like management wise. Even then, these horses may act completely different at my home. And the local offerings are not flush with suitable horses.

Some things I’m noting about horses: if said horse has a nervous meltdown in individual turn out, it may be more of a challenge to deal with him/her at home. If horse is aggressive at meal times, he/she may be more of a challenge at home. Has to be separated at meals when the other horses are all being grudge fed over the fence is another “red flag”. Can’t be on 24/7 turn out bc he needs to eat in a stall is another one. Hacks out alone is a big green light. While I don’t trail ride alone myself, a horse not too attached to his buddies to quietly hack out by himself seems like a positive trait. Etc etc etc.

Still all a crap shoot. So I’m setting up with an eye for solo turn out if needed. Yes that’s gonna put a big damper on rotating paddocks. I think this is a situation where we hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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Dumb Luck?
Honestly, in my 16yrs on my small - 5ac total - farmette, I had 2 geldings that got along fine.
Different ages, breeds, etc.
1st pair was my TB who I had & boarded for 15 years before bringing him home.
With him came #2 - TWH I got to replace DH’s Walker who died 6mos before my farm was ready for horses.
AFAIK, TB had never been alone.
Bred to race, failed his 2yo Speed Test & spent the next 4yrs ponying at the track. The next 7 turned out in a small herd of boarders, then with DH’s horse at 2 different barns for the next 4yrs.
Turned out he was fine Home Alone.
I could take the Walker away for a weekend & TB cared less.
OTOH, when TB had to overnight at the vet clinic, TWH spent the night calling for him & walking the pastures.
Lost those 2 in the same trailer accident :sleepy:
Next came my WB, who was fine solo for 6mos until I got him a companion: freebie Hackney Pony from my shoer. Those 2 got along from the getgo.
When I lost the WB after 5yrs, friend gifted me with an alleged (no papers) TWH. He had been her Herd Boss of the 6 she had & pony was fine with that.
The next year I added my mini.
He had a 1-day isolation in my smaller pasture, then integrated into the new Gang of 3 without a problem.
TWH is still boss, and pony sometimes makes faces at the mini - who gives 'tude right back.
But mini also routinely shares a stall (they have free access 24/7/365) with TWH, eating hay together.
They separate for grain.
On occasion all 3 share a single 12X12 stall.

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For me with 60+ years of horse ownership --it’s been a crapshoot —for years mares and geldings got along great --then added a new mare (old one had died, 2 mares, 2 geldings), and had to separate by gender into separate pastures --mares were attacking each other! After those two died (old age), I decided all gelding herd (4 generally, sometimes 5 depending on who was on-off show circuit) --life was peaceful --until it wasn’t.

One gelding became herd dominant --had to eat/drink first, be first in the barn. Ok, separated into two pastures --and then no matter which horse the herd-dominant one was placed in --there was a massive vet bill when he’d severely kick the other horse (probably for not bowing as he passed.) Finally put him with an ancient gelding who apparently did bow as he passed, and they got along famously --until the old fellow died. Now the herd dominant horse lives in a pasture by himself, the two other geldings are in a pasture beside him. Life would be much easier if I could keep all three together, but no --Mr. Herd Dominant always has to lunge at the other horses when in reach or passing their stalls . . .meanwhile, he’s the gentlest horse I’ve ever owned --incredibly people-oriented --no one in the now 14 years we’ve owned him has ever been hurt by him --even by accident. He’s is/was a wonderful children’s horse (too bad I have no kids on the place anymore).

@lenapesadie Thank you for understanding!! I totally get the stress/anxiety. “IT’S ALL BAD!!!” is how I sometimes feel about horses/home horsekeeping :rofl: (not too often thankfully). It sounds like you’re doing your homework as well as you can and the rest is up to luck. Like you said, they can change so much in different environments. I have ideas about how I would set up more flexibly if I had more/different land, but it’s purely hypothetical right now.

“Hacks out alone” does seem like a good thing to look for, although I’ve had a couple that are fine riding out alone but still have separation anxiety meltdowns if not under saddle.

Good luck in your horse search!! If it helps, I will say that of the…eight (?) horses I’ve had on my farm, only two have been difficult beyond the typical minor separation anxiety that you can get with a small herd. One was only here for about 60 days while the owner was injured, and probably would have settled in eventually. The second is the a-hole TB I mentioned in my OP, whose issues I’m mostly able to work around and who is thankfully worth all the trouble.

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Well, you just don’t know. Sometimes you shuffle them around a bit until you find out what works. My routine varies based on the personalities of the animals we have at the time.

Kudos to you for keeping the “IT’S ALL BAD” moments to a minimum!!!

You make a very fair point about hacking out alone. Sometimes it might be meaningful and sometimes it might not. So many things with horses are “it depends” items.

This is my fourth time setting up shop so to speak. Maybe I’ll get it “right” this time? At least I hope to avoid some of my past errors! Mr. Sadie conveniently reiterated my long litany of complaints about boarding the last time I whined about the stress of bringing my horse home. He’s useful like that.

Hopefully you and your tough customer horse will find a good accord! Hypothetical discussions seem to be a staple here lol


you pray…I am currently dealing with difficult dynamics, I think they will settle eventually but right now the super alpha horse is making life extremely difficult. Space, as much as you can, and no tight corners.


I have added additional cross fencing every year for the last three years, LOL. I started with 4 (large) turnout pastures on just under 7 acres. I now have 8 paddocks and 2 “bucking paddocks” for my 4 horses which is a lot more functional. I can separate the ones who don’t get along, or who play too hard, or destroy fencing when next to the “wrong” horse or whatever. Makes life a lot easier.


I agree hacking out alone is an indicator, but it’s not fool proof. I have a lovely mare that has hacked out alone for 13 years. Take her away from her two geldings for any reason and she’s fine. Total meltdown if I take both of them away from her or try to stall her alone where she can’t see them.

Mildly dominant gelding #1 became a behavioral nightmare when gelding #2 was added so I now manage a 2/1 separation in neighboring paddocks. The irony is that gelding #2 was in part purchased to manage the mare’s problem.

It’s a crapshoot. Lovely if they all get along, but be prepared for extra work, drama and re-configuring if you don’t currently have separate spaces.


Take up cycling instead? :rofl: Mr F’s collection of bicycles all live happily together in the garage – no drama except that we’re running out of space :grin:

But seriously you just have to cross your fingers and hope. I think the best solution is when you find some that are happy together but not best buddies.

If you’re worried about separation anxiety there’s quite a bit of information on line now on how to help with it and train to overcome it – it’s a lot of work to start with but more than worth it to have sensible horses. I try to bring in both big horses on their own to my tack up area (out of sight of all paddocks) almost every day. That way it’s just part of their routine.

Mine live out 24/7 except for really wet or terrible weather. I use electric tape – gives me so much more flexibility on how I use my pastures. I also think it’s a safer way to separate them to start with, when they’re in the getting to know each other stage. As long as they understand that it’s hot they tend to respect it and not stick legs through it.

When we moved to our own little farm I started with my riding horse and I got given a mini mare to keep him company – he doesn’t really like her. Honestly, he gets on with everyone, so I was a bit surprised. I think he’s finally found someone he can boss around. I just keep them separated by electric tape – they have different dietary needs anyway. They often chill near each other.

I’ve just added a 3yo gelding and while shopping I kept in the back of my mind that I wanted a horse that -
Had lived at a few different places with different groups of horses – not at the same farm/stud his whole life. Had hacked out and done things alone. I asked very specific questions of the sellers as to behaviour when turned out – fencing walking, separation anxiety, behaviour when asked to leave another horse if you’re riding together etc. And I wanted one with a fairly soft personality - which is what I like anyway.

So far it’s worked out ok – the new one gets along well with the older one, but he’s a bit more playful that my older one would like sometimes. So far I’ve only put them in together when I’m around to keep an eye on them. Plus the new one was rather underweight so needed all the grass and hay while the older one is tubby.

There is a bit of calling when I take one away from the others – occasionally the ones left behind will run around a bit, but it’s more playful than distressed. The new one is loud! So I’ll hear neighing – check on camera and he’ll be eating grass. I often give them hay/access to more grass when I take one away so they are happily occupied.

I can’t lie - I also get a lot of the “ALL THE BAD THINGS MAY HAPPEN!!” thoughts about horses/horse keeping - I’m working on increasing my levels of zen :rofl: :joy: (3yo challenges don’t help!) Honestly, the biggest, bestest thing for this is just going and hanging out with them and seeing that they’re quite content :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:


I’d never run into issues…until I bought this place. I’ve had more problems here than anywhere. I think smaller farms are harder. At my old place, I guess I got lucky. I had 6 max and everyone got along and nobody was overly bonded (there would be some calling when I rode off down the road, but nothing bad). Trouble started when I took two of those horses to another barn for training and you would think the world ended. One didn’t care, but the other was pathologically bonded to the point of being dangerous to himself and the trainer. We got them successfully separated again, but when they went to a show, he tried to climb out of a stall to get to her and he was unshowable because he was way too bonded. Moved the two of them to a separate place in another state with a lot of horses, threw them in separate pastures and he could care less about her… He had not been buddy sour before all this happened either…

So fast forward to this farm… started with 2 (my mare and an old guy), added two more with not much difficulty, aside from my dominant mare having to push all the newcomers around. They all learned to stay out of her way. Nobody cared who came in to be ridden or was left outside. She left earlier this year and the three geldings were completely lost without a leader. Acting totally stupid. They finally settled in and I tried to add a new gelding. All of a sudden the former mellow middleman was a tyrant. Tried to run new guy through fences, even after a long intro in separate paddocks. Tyrant horse had never been this aggressive. He would run the new guy from one pasture to the other. New horse ended up leaving. I thought the issue might have been new horse was an old friend of bottom horse and the tyrant was having none of that… Enter next horse, complete stranger to all horses. Tyrant seems to get along but after a few days, he starts trying to kill the new guy too. Since I have boarders, I can’t have this behavior and tyrant has to leave. So now I have the three amigos. All nice and quiet, no clear leader, all get along, nobody gets buddy sour. New horse comes from a boarding stable where he lived in a private paddock and was fine. Now one horse (roan) leaves for vacation out of state. New horse and the 30 year old are just fine. Enter new horse # 2. She comes while roan is away. Suddenly new horse #1 is a raving lunatic and can not be separated from new horse #2. If he is in the barn alone he smashes himself into the stall door to get out. I don’t trust him to leave him out while she is in. He’s better with a person around, but still not the quiet gelding he was. So we start working on separation exercises so that New Horse #2’s owner can actually use horse…making some progress, but they are still overly bonded… Eventually roan guy comes back and now New horse and roan guy (who were best friends prior to vacation) are fighting over New horse #2. ay yi yi… I’m tired of all the drama!

In the end, it all resolves, New horse#2 chooses the roan guy and new horse #1 no longer cares and is back to being quiet and unflappable. New horse #1 and the roan get back to playing bitey face like they used to and the 30 year old just stands in a corner alone like he always did…

But it struck me that I never had this kind of drama when the herds were bigger, but on a small farm, they get weird… I didn’t imagine that horse #1, who previously lived in a private paddock and was way more bonded with people than other horses would become so buddy sour, but changes in living status brought it out. There were a lot of changes in a short time and that probably led to the issues. We’ll see how it goes this summer when people start trailering out…

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new horses are a crapshoot. Pasture politics is just one part of it.

When I first started keeping horses at home, we had just 4. At one point, due to training on one and a lease on the other, I had just two at home. They immediately became neurotic-attached-at-the-hip-idiots, and buddy sourness was a real problem. We’ve since determined that 3 is a minimum number for us (now generally have 4-8).

When determining compatibility, I do ask questions about turnout situation to the seller. Ideal is if the horse has been turned out in mixed groups before, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
When I get the horse, it gets turned out next to the herd initially, then with the easiest going horse. If that goes well, it goes out with the herd’s self-appointed ‘protector’ for a few days. Once that horse accepts the newbie, it’s fairly easy to integrate the horse into the larger group.

I feed winter hay in a feeder (DIY hay hut scaled for large squares) and the horses work it out. No one parks at it the whole day, as there is still some green grass to nibble on. So the horses rotate at the feeder and it works fine, with minimal drama. If I had a bigger herd though, I’d break into two groups with their own hay feeders.

In my experience geldings are fairly easy. They’re derpy and goofy, and once they accept each other, they get along great. They can share a small run in space, or even a large stall in an emergency. The mares, however, are catty bitches, and even the ‘friends’ don’t share small spaces well. And the alpha mare will hurt anyone deemed in her personal space, except her grown daughter. So I think small herd dynamics is highly dependent on the genders of the horses.

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