I'll never forget the image of my first pony frothing with sweat, eyes wild, frantically pacing up and down the fence line. As a young teenager inexperienced with horse ownership, I thought at the time that he was simply spooked by something in the nearby woods. Looking back, I now know that it was because he had been placed in a secluded field without a companion, and without any visual contact with other animals or people. My parents didn't know much more than me about horses at the time, but luckily they somehow eventually came to the conclusion that we needed to get my pony a companion. Within a few days or weeks, we had a donkey to keep Buck company, and we never witnessed that frenzied behavior again.
My story is a cautionary tale, but it's also an example of something I see all too often. Driving through the country, I see single solitary horses standing in pastures, or I read posts in social media groups written by new horse owners who have bought a horse without realizing their horse also needs a companion. Horse ownership should never stop at one horse by itself - if one cannot afford two horses, or a horse and a miniature horse or donkey, or a horse and a goat at the bare minimum, then one should not be buying a horse. (The exception, of course, is in boarding situations where the horse will be turned out with other boarder horses).
What I wish I had known years ago, and what I wish more people knew in the worldwide equestrian community, is that horses are herd animals. It's not something often emphasized - in fact, equine ethology as a whole is relatively and almost criminally obscure in almost all areas of recreational and professional horse-based activities. So much of what we do with our horses is based upon what humans need, what humans want - we want ribbons, we want earnings, we want a sense of achievement in our chosen riding discipline, we want the one horse because it's what we can comfortably afford and it's easier. But though not often considered enough, horses have needs of their own that need to be met. And companionship is one of those things.
Horses have not changed to become stall-loving hermits, even after centuries of human interference.
How do we know this? As always, a look at equines in more natural environments is our most informative baseline. Rarely in the feral environment is the horse found to be living as a solitary individual, except in instances where they might have left a herd and not yet joined another (such as in the case of bachelor stallions, who might be on their own for a while). Horses typically group themselves in family, or natal bands: one or more stallions, mares, and their offspring. As the younger colts get older, they tend to split off from their family bands to form bachelor bands.
These bands, and the herd structure as a whole, are essential to the well-being of each individual horse within them. Mares often have a dominant role, helping show the way to water or leading the herd to grazing and resting spots, and stallions often have a protective role in helping defend or move the other horses away from threats (including stallions from other herds). When there's a threat from a predator, they all run together as one mass; they graze together, each with the ability to spot a looming threat on the horizon and to alert the others. Living in groups helps ensure each individual horse's survival. s
But beyond the benefit of physical survival, horses form emotional bonds with one another. Mares and their fillies, especially, seem to retain close bonds throughout lifetimes. But many horses also form pair bonds with another horse - basically, in human terms, their best friend. They mutually groom one another, graze together, nap together. It's something observed in feral herds and also common in domestic herds, when horses are allowed to be turned out together.
These intrinsic social needs don't go away just because a horse is born into a domesticated life. Horses have not changed to become stall-loving hermits, even after centuries of human interference. Socialization with other horses is key for foals in their development and in learning how to navigate the world around them, for example, and it's essential to happiness later on. This isn't just information extrapolated from ethological review, by the way: academic studies* have found that horses display fewer physical signs of stress and exhibit fewer behavioral stereotypies when they have physical and/or visual contact with other horses.
The bottom line is this: when it comes to the management of equines, we absolutely need to consider their needs. It's the ethical thing, yes, and the kind thing. But beyond that, considering their need for socialization can also prevent stress-related stable vices and other behavioral maladies that are often seen in stalled horses who have little contact with others of their species (cribbing, weaving, head-bobbing, etc.). When we use behavioral science as a reference point for the treatment of our animals, both horses and humans stand to win.
Kelly Yarnell, Carol Hall, Chris Royle, Susan L. Walker,
Domesticated horses differ in their behavioural and physiological responses to isolated and group housing, Physiology & Behavior, Volume 143, 2015, Pages 51-57, ISSN 0031-9384,
Katherine Reid, Chris W. Rogers, Gabriella Gronqvist, Erica K. Gee, Charlotte F. Bolwell,
Anxiety and pain in horses measured by heart rate variability and behavior,
Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 22, 2017, Pages 1-6, ISSN 1558-7878,
Clémence Lesimple, Emmanuel Gautier, Haïfa Benhajali, Céline Rochais, Christophe Lunel, Samia Bensaïd, Adala Khalloufi, Séverine Henry, Martine Hausberger,
Stall architecture influences horses’ behaviour and the prevalence and type of stereotypies,
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 219, 2019, 104833, ISSN 0168-1591,