Does your horse have friends? (Does your horse need friends?)

We all know that horses live in herds in the wild, I assume I am not bringing new information to the table when I say that. You may not be sure why horses live in herds, so just to clarify, we will visit with that briefly.  Horses are prey animals, they are hunted by predators and living in a group brings safety in numbers.  A herd has more eyes and ears to see and hear danger.  It also has more bodies to confuse predators and protect youngsters. They have the protection of a stallion who proves his worth by fighting (if necessary) with others (that also officially makes him hot stuff in the eyes of lady horses!).

So, armed with that information, why do we normalise keeping horses in total or partial isolation when we keep them as domesticated pets?  Why do we take the information we know about wild horses, who are evolutuonarily speaking, identical to our domestic horses and shut it away in a little compartment in our brain entitled ‘Inconvenient Information’?  Any horse kept in a stable or on individual turnout, in my opinion, is being kept partially or totally isolated.  If you have watched horses in groups, they can be just as upset by being separated with a physical barrier as they are with total isolation (for more on herd dynamics, take a look at my ‘Mutual Grooming, there’s more to it’ Blog).

What I want to do, is help you discover just how mentally and physically outstanding your horse can become when given the opportunity to live in a group, make close friends and behave, well, like a horse!  It stands to reason, and should make sense that a horse is at its most settled when it has the safety of a group around it.  This then translates to a confident horse who has the potential to bond with it’s human better and feel much more comfortable coming away from its ‘equine’ herd.

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(Above picture shows the Graveney herd eating together whilst one of the geldings takes a turn to survey the horizon.)

I am priviledged to be able to watch the power and influence of a herd.  I have seen first hand how a stable group of horses produces group members that are calm, at ease with each other, capable of being adventurous individually (which is something that doesn’t come naturally to a prey animal) and much more reliable mentally and behaviourally, which lets be honest, makes our job as caregivers easier.

Equally important, are the friendships forged within a group.  Having the opportunity to observe a fairly stable group of horses you can see friendships being developed.   Sometimes, allegiances change when a new member joins the group depending on who takes an interest in who and what they can achieve out of that relationship.

I have been honoured, in particular, to witness the development of an equine friendship so strong that if I didn’t know otherwise, I would swear these horses had been friends all their lives.  They provide companionship to each other which is unquestioning, unfaltering, yet not restictive.  Not stressed when they are apart, but taking many opportunities to spend time and space together. Being peaceful, supportive and inquisitive together.  Chastising each other in the way only a close friend can.

I then think on to the many horses who are not allowed access to this kind of constant (and i mean 24/7 constant) companionship from another of their own kind and to gain the kind of confidence and reassurance that only this way of living can provide (remember what I said about herd living earlier and the benefits it brings?).  I do believe that the vast majority of horse owners want the absolute best for their horses but sadly ‘the best’ has become lost in translation.  We anthropomorphise and project our own desires onto our horses.  We shudder at the thought of cold, dark nights and believe they much prefer ‘comfortable’, ‘toasty’…… ‘isolation…?’

I hope every horse owner or admirer has the opportunity to see domestic horses being the absolute best horse they can be because they have all of their needs met.  Their needs.

 (Pictures below – Tammy and Jasper. Best of companions.)

 

5 thoughts on “Does your horse have friends? (Does your horse need friends?)

  1. I want my pony to be domesticated and easy to handle.
    I am new to the horse world but My understanding is that allowing an animal to live as close to it would in the wild then you can’t expect them to be domesticated?
    You have to treat them domesticated if you want to ride and work with them?

    Also my pony cannot be on fresh grass – she’s eats to much too fast and has put on large amounts of weight in just 10 days so she has to be separated – how can I get round this issue ?
    She likes her routine , in her paddock ( with less grass) then stable

    Is this the right choice for her ?

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    1. Hi Julie – all of our horses are kept as a herd and are all totally at ease with being handled, exercised, trained and having contact with us. In fact we put a completely terrified and unhandled Colt out with the group and he has learnt from the others that we are not a threat and in fact we bring lots of nice things like scratches and the occasional treat to make his life even more fun.
      Our horses are all on a track system where they eat ad lib hay instead of fresh grass so they are not at risk of obesity and grass related laminitis.
      I would be concerned with putting large amounts of weight on in ten days, was it weight or was her abdomen distended with gas from hanging her forage source too quickly?
      The only reason she ‘likes’ her routine I imagine is because she is fed in her stable, it doesn’t take horses long to learn they get a nice feed when they come in. Given the choice, I doubt she would stay in the stable more than half an hour. Ours only come in to rest or shelter briefly then they are off out again. They have complete freedom of choice as to where they want to be. I believe this the right choice for all horses.

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  2. I have a 12 year horse that has been living out his entire life with one or 2 horses, and never had any problems. We recently moved, and we had a pony that came to live with him. I tried everything to make this arrangement work short of putting them in 2 different fields. the pony constantly injured my horse. running him off his hay even when I fed it in different areas. I fed their grain to them in stalls to assure he got his feed. 3 weeks ago the pony bite my horse dangerously close to his eye. it was a nasty injury. I was done with trying to make this situation work. My horse is now alone he can see other horses all around our place but is alone. His wound is healing slowly. What do you suggest we do next? Thank you

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    1. It sounds like the aggressor has some behavioural issues that could do with being addressed. Sometimes this kind of aggression is due to past trauma and they respond very well to a more superior horse taking charge. They will often bully a more laid back horse because they’ve been given the mantle of being in charge but aren’t behaviourally stable enough to do the job calmly and quietly.
      It’s also worth speaking to a vet to rule out any medical reasons for aggression which may be hormonal or a result of pain.

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