One of the things I like about the new barn Dawn moved to on Monday is that all the horses are out in herds, in large turnouts, all day, almost every day regardless of weather. In the late fall, winter and spring, they have multiple hay round bales per turnout, and in the summer, they have pasture. There are three herds: mares, geldings and pasture boarders (mostly geldings with a few mares). After two days in a small paddock next to the mares' turnout, Dawn got to go in with the mares yesterday.
I strongly believe that herd turnout is very, very good for a horse's mental health and contentment. I also believe that larger herds (provided there's enough space) are better than small herds - less stress and every horse can find a buddy or two. That said, herd turnout can be very stressful (mostly for the humans involved) - when a new horse is introduced, there is often lots of running, and kicking, and squealing and striking as the horses work out where the new horse fits in the herd hierarchy. In my experience, mares tend to be more violent, particularly with kicking, in working out their status than geldings, but once the hierarchy is confirmed, there is usually little subseqent sparring and the herd order is stable. Geldings, on the other hand, are always playing games that are really dominance games - chasing, face biting, pawing, rearing - and this tends to go on and on but usually with fewer injuries.
Dawn had been able to meet a number of the mares who were interested over the shared fenceline of her small paddock. But there wasn't a lot of continuous socializing going on - the mares were more interested in their herd and eating from the round bales than making the trek up the hill to talk to Dawn. Dawn was bored in the small paddock, and wasn't getting to move around much - when I lunged her Tuesday night, in one direction (to the left, her easier direction), she held it together at the trot but when we lunged to the right, she scooted and bucked and clearly had a lot of excess energy.
So we were ready for her to go into the herd. The barn manager was there, as was one of the trainers who had several mares in the herd. The trainer, who does hunter/jumper, confessed that when she came to the barn she had to take a long time to get her head around group turnout (which in my experience is pretty rare in the hunter/jumper world), and that she still found new horse introductions stressful, not because her mares fight much, but because they run like crazy and rip their front shoes off (none of the horses have back shoes, which is a policy I agree with). We were all nervous - I've done many new horse introductions to herds before and it's often scary.
Watching herds of horses interact is fascinating to me. This herd had about 12 mares in it before Dawn joined, ranging from a very old mare who doesn't move around much and stays out of trouble, to two pretty dominant mares. When I let Dawn go in the pasture, she walked off, sniffing the ground. Then the other mares came streaming over to her and the fun and games began. Within seconds of the nose sniff/strike/squeal on Dawn's part, all but two of the mares had acknowledged Dawn's status and backed off, leaving her alone. That left the two dominant mares - I'm not sure which one is the alpha because the turnout is very big and they stayed out of each other's way - perhaps there are sub-herds, although I doubt it. There was lots of spinning and kicking and churning around (while this was going on a bunch of the subordinate mares were tearing around like crazy - I'll be there were some front shoes lost as it was somewhat muddy). Dawn kicked and struck at both dominant mares, and got kicked at least once in the side (she was wearing her rain sheet and didn't even have a bruise). I noticed that neither dominant mare really took her on after that - they clearly figured out quickly that she was a mare to be respected.
At one point Dawn and the mare I believe to be the alpha were alone down in one end of the pasture while all the other horses stayed away (some were still galloping around, silly things) - in fact if another mare approached, the alpha would herd them away from Dawn. It was almost as if she were protecting Dawn - "she's mine and you're not to bother her". There was a lot of nose sniffing between the alpha and Dawn but no more squealing or kicking. Then the alpha headed back to the herd (there's an earth bridge over a ditch from one side of the pasture to the other), and Dawn followed, but just as they got to the bridge, the other dominant mare started to come across towards them, and the alpha turned around. Dawn kept going and ended up going across the bridge very close to the other dominant mare. Then Dawn and this mare and a number of the other horses galloped to the far side of the pasture. Dawn then hung out very close to the other dominant mare, who made no aggressive gestures towards her. Dawn was even nibbling some dead grass.
That was it - in 15 minutes things were pretty much settled. The barn owner reported that things were quiet in the afternoon, and that Dawn was eating at the round bales with the other horses. I'm not sure what her herd status is, but I think she's pretty clearly in the top three at least. She seemed tired and happy that afternoon, and I did a brief bit of lungeing and ground driving in the arena - she was very quiet as I expect she was pretty tired.
I'll stop by this morning and take a look and see how the herd dynamics are going, but I'm glad to have that part of our barn move over, and I expect Dawn is too.