Horses are herd animals, which means they feel most comfortable in groups. They are most content when able to socialize with one or more of their own kind. In a situation where a horse is kept alone, companionship can be made with a goat, sheep or other animal — horses aren’t picky. Human company isn’t enough because we humans aren’t around enough. We have jobs and families and have to spend time away from our horses a lot.
It is always best to keep horses in pairs or small groups, but even though they are biologically herd animals, some horses don’t have good social skills and, for safety sake, have to be housed separately. Some horses are too bossy and the herd ends up looking like they fell off their bicycles in the gravel driveway. No serious injuries, but scrapes, scuff marks and scabs abound when horses work out their rank in the herd. Other horses that may need to be kept by themselves are very old or very meek horses. These types aren’t often able to physically cope with the competition for food or shelter and can end up unthrifty or even injured due to the normal activity within a group of 1,000-pound animals.
To save money on ointment, and reduce tension amongst the herd, one horse may have to live in a paddock of its own. Sometimes the owner of a single horse cannot financially support a second horse. In these cases, it is important that the lone horse has a friend, a constant companion.
There are famous stories of racehorses forming bonds with goats or cats because the camaraderie of another animal eases stress in a horse’s life. Some horses become anxious when separated from other horses, and others become depressed. A depressed or anxious performance horse cannot function to its potential. That can mean lost income for a professional, or in an amateur situation, a horse that is no fun to be around.
Even horses that do live with another equine companion sometimes suffer from separation anxiety when they have to be apart. Having an extra friend around can keep the left-behind horse from tearing down the barn or racing around the paddock screaming for its stablemate.
While most horses are not particular about the company they keep, some horses do prefer specific species as companions. My first horse, Ivy, loved cats but threatened to stomp any dog that came around. However, if not offered a choice, horses will latch onto any animal available.
An ex-harness racing horse that I worked with lived with a sheep and the two were inseparable.
Minuet, a tall, elegant horse belonging to a friend of mine, lives side by side with another horse and a pony. The other horse and the pony are fast friends but Minnie found her soulmate in the form of a short, funny looking bird. Minnie and Flipper the Guinea fowl share a mutual affection and even though there are other Guinea fowl around the barn, as well as other chickens and cats too, those formed a special connection. Flipper and Minnie are the Sonny and Cher of Orland.
As much as we enjoy our horses’ company, our limited interaction with them isn’t always enough. If a second horse isn’t practical, owners of solitary horses really should consider the horse’s need to be part of a herd and provide some kind of animal sidekick; a small goat, a friendly cat, or even a funny looking bird. You’ll save you and your horse from psychological stress and you’ll go through a lot less ointment.