Why Should a Horse Always Have a Companion?
By guest blogger Juliane Dykiel
When most of us think about why our horses need companions, we think of the obvious…horses are herd animals, right? It seems like isolating one would be similar to isolating a human. As attached as we feel to our horses, most of us understand that our company is not enough for them (and, as often as I insist that I love horses more than people, I understand that it works vice versa as well).
However, when I dug into Margit Zeitler-Feicht’s Horse Behavior Explained once again, I found some facts about horse companionship that I would never have guessed simply from observing their behavior.
Who would have guessed that isolation actually impairs a horse’s ability to rest? In Zeitler-Feicht’s words, “In domestic horses, individual animals staying awake while others sleep” is very common. Horses actually feel more secure sleeping while others keep watch. Can you imagine the life of a solitary prey animal, such as the horse, lacking sleep because it always feels like it has to be on its guard? This seems so unpleasant. Zeitler-Feicht goes on to say that “It can therefore be concluded that management of horses without sufficient visual, olfactory, and auditory contact with other companions will impair their ability to relax and reinvigorate”(72).
Another surprise is that in Germany, it is actually a violation of the Animal Welfare Act to keep “a horse without companions of the same species”( 42).
Who knew that some horses can also bond to goats and dogs when they lack a partner of the same species? To me, this is proof of how dependent they are on having a companion other than a human, with whom “the daily contact is typically very short” as opposed to “full members of a horse group” who spend “day and night united with their band”(43). Zeitler-Feicht believes that “keeping a horse with animals of a different species,” while helpful, “must only be considered as a temporary solution”(42).
How about the common excuse, “I’m afraid that a companion horse might hurt mine”? Well, it’s a fairly valid one: I ride a horse that was, at her old barn, turned out with another horse that beat her up, causing two breaks in her hind leg. While we were lucky and she’s doing well now, it’s definitely a risk. However, all herds have a set rank order, and this must be established when a horse is first turned out with others. Scuffles are usually short and limited to first exposure to a new horse. After all, “as soon as a hierarchy is established, it remains relatively stable”(32). If this is performed under supervision, further risk is low. This behavior is also extremely natural.
While some risk remains, I suppose that we have to pick our battles, and at least the horse is happier. The longer a horse has been turned out with another, the more solid the hierarchy and the less likely it is that one will hurt the other, so if you can find one horse that yours gets along with, you could create a long-lasting bond!