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.
(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.)