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Horses Are Like Potato Chips


2013/04/03


By Leigh Ballard

Non-horse loving friends and family might jokingly ask the owner of several horses, “What? Are horses like potato chips? You can’t have just one?” Aside from the fact that horses are like a potato chip addiction for those who love them, the answer is: No, you shouldn’t have just one horse, alone in a field day after day after day, with no other companion. Horses are herd animals, mentally geared for being with other horses. Their health and well-being is enhanced and balanced by living in a group or “herd” setting.

The Kentucky Equine Research’s EquiNews article “Equine Behavior Basics” explains: “For a horse, there's safety in numbers; being alone is uncomfortable. In a herd of horses, many eyes and ears are alert to danger. A lone horse is under a certain amount of stress because it does not have the safety provided by its herd mates. Management strategies must be planned to accommodate this need for security. Although they can eventually adjust to being alone, most horses don't like to be out of sight of at least one other equine. Both in the pasture and in the stall, horses are calmer if they can see, hear, or smell a familiar animal. Solitary horses may benefit from having a companion animal in the field or stall. If another horse or pony is out of the question, goats are traditional favorites, and many horses get along well with llamas.”

As members of a species with strong social structures, horses thrive in company. The horse’s instinct tells him he is safer in numbers, since in the wild he is a prey animal. Living in a domestic environment changes the danger of being prey, but the instinct of social grouping is still present. Without a social group or “buddies,” a horse can start to exhibit anxiety and/or behavioral problems like pacing, not laying down to sleep, and losing condition. In Chapter 15 “Disordered Behavior and Stress” in The Behavior and Welfare of the Horse, 2nd Edition, Andrew F. Fraser MRCVS, MVSc, explains: “It is an old adage among thoughtful horse keepers that ‘a horse on its own is in bad company.’ Isolation is a stressor, which obviously contributes to disordered horse behaviour.”  Some horses are seemingly stoic about accepting their solitary confinement. It may not be evident they have a “problem,” so owners think they are “fine” alone. However, with a companion, the horse may prove to be a better animal. The Internet horse blogs and forums are full of anecdotes about horses that were unhappy, anxious or depressed when they were pastured alone, and how they became healthier and better performers once they had company.

The herd setting doesn’t have to be a traditional herd, made up of large numbers of animals. One other animal may be all the horse needs. If the goal is simply companionship, consider giving a home to a horse that is retired due to age or injury. Many owners would be happy to find a home for such a horse to live out its years. Rescue horses that need to be saved from neglect seem to be in abundance. While the ideal companion would be another horse, it may not be in the budget to provide for a second horse. A smaller version like a pony or a mini that eats less might be an option; but remember they have their own special personalities and care needs that are different from a horse.

As mentioned above, goats are popular companions, although many report that goats can be hard to confine in certain types of fences. Donkeys, burros or alpacas are also used for horse friends. Dogs and cats are not the best companions because the likelihood of their spending the majority of the day with the horse and giving him constant companionship is very small. Owners should be aware that any companion animal other than another horse will probably have specific nutritional requirements that can’t be met with horse feed. And horses usually should not eat feeds formulated for other animals. For example, certain ingredients in some goat, sheep, and cattle feeds can be fatal to horses.

All animals have their own personalities and the human can’t just assume the horse and the companion will actually like each other. But once the solitary horse is bonded with the right companion, it may be a problem when they need to be separated. If there are only two horses, and one goes away to ride, the one left behind can run and pace frantically, even injuring itself. The previously-mentioned horse forums are also full of stories of goats that went into panics calling for their horse friend when he went away! So, if you are going to keep horses at home in your own pasture, everyone is better off if there’s more than one animal for keeping company.  If one goes away for a while, there’s still somebody home to keep everybody happy, whether it’s a horse, goat or you!           

Resources:

Kentucky Equine Research staff, “Equine Behavior Basics,” Kentucky Equine Research Nutrition and Health Daily: http://www.equinews.com/article/equine-behavior-basics
Fraser, Andrew F., MRCVS, MVSc, The Behavior and Welfare of the Horse, 2nd Edition. Chapter 15, “Disordered Behavior and Stress:”
 

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