Some first-time horse owners asked if their horse can live independently and affect his health? Let’s find out if this is a good idea to keep a horse on his own.
Horses in the natural world are never alone by choice; they live in herds. A horse is a prey animal and living in a herd provides safety. Domestic horses inherited the same instincts and will behave the same as wild horses. Horses who live alone don’t benefit from the social behavior and comfort of living in a herd. Stress-free and happy horses need companions even if the companion animal is of another species.
Let’s take a closer look at the natural social behavior of horses and why they need companions.
Natural Instincts of Horses
Horses naturally don’t live alone. In the wild, they live with other horses thriving in a group dynamic. Living in a herd has many advantages for a horse. Horses benefit from shared responsibilities, social interaction, and the safety of the herd.
A predator would most likely catch a horse living on his own in the wild. Living with other horses increases their survival rates tenfold.
A horse will stand to watch in the wild while the rest of the herd is lying down on the ground sleeping. Alert and ready to raise the alarm if a predator should approach. They are sharing responsibilities and depending on each other for protection and comfort.
When horses are not eating or sleeping, many other social behaviors are going on in the herd. Mutual grooming or playing are just some of the social behaviors that take place in a herding community.
Over the decades, the survival of the equine species has depended on the ability to recognize dangers in the environment. Just because your horse is domesticated doesn’t mean that your horse won’t behave the same way his ancestors did. His instincts are inherited from his wild cousins, and his instincts tell him a predator is lurking around the corner and that he should bolt as soon as he gets scared.
Horses are social animals that benefit from living in a herding community, and keeping your horse alone will only make him feel stressed and lonely. Horses need a companion, and if you cannot afford another horse, there are other companion animals you can provide your horse.
What other animals can be good companions for horses?
We established that horses should not live on their own and that all horses need companion animals to keep them company. However, if you cannot afford to keep another horse, horses have the ability to get along with many other animals.
Let’s look at a few animals that live well with horses as an option as a companion animal for your horse.
Goats are clowns, they make us all laugh at their everyday antics, and they make excellent companion animals for any horse. They have a calming effect on horses and have been used for decades by racing stables and breeding yards as companion animals for nervous racehorses.
Many racing stables keep goats as companions and travel buddies for their racehorses. Keeping a goat with your horse has many benefits. Your pasture will be kept clean as goats tend to eat weeds, bark, leaves, and brush, clearing the way for horse-friendly grass to grow.
Horses and goats can live together without the worry of infectious diseases as they don’t share the same type of diseases. It is very safe for your horse to live with a goat. Goats make great barn buddies for horses and can sleep in the same stall.
A donkey and horse usually bond quickly, and the donkey will get on fine with your horse. A donkey can be a great companion for your horse. Donkeys make excellent watch animals as they don’t tolerate intruders and will chase off any predatory animals like dogs or coyotes.
Donkeys eat the same food a horse does, so no extra effort there. Donkeys can easily be stubborn and strong-willed, though. If you don’t want to deal with a stubborn donkey, other options are available as a companion animal for your horse.
Pony or Miniature horse
A pony or mini horse is a lot less stubborn than a donkey and makes good companion animals. Feeding costs of a pony or a mini horse are a way lot less than an average-sized horse. They take up a lot less space and can even share the same stall with your horse.
Ponies or Miniature horses are often laid back and have a calming effect on shy or nervous horses. Because of their smaller size, they are good escape artists and can quickly get out of the paddock, so make sure your paddock is adequately fenced to accommodate a mini-sized horse.
If you have enough space, a Llama, being gentle-natured, makes a great companion for any horse. Llamas and horses can graze in the same pasture, so they are easy to keep.
Llamas don’t need supplemental feed and do just fine on hay and pasture grass in the summer. In the winter, when the grass is not abundant small quantities of grain and hay can be given as additional nutrition.
One Llama is enough to keep your horse company. If you introduce more than one Llama, they might herd up and leave the horse alone, and you will be back to where you started with a lonely horse.
Llamas have none of the hierarchy problems that you often find with donkeys or mules as companion animals. Llamas bond quickly with horses and have good herd protection instincts.
Llamas may look docile, but they will protect the herd if they spot any predatory animal’s approach. Llamas have been known to chase off coyotes, feral dogs, and bobcats.
Llamas don’t like to stay in stables for an extended period so keep that in mind before deciding if a Llama is the companion animal to get for your horse. Llamas don’t need to be groomed every day, but they need to be sheared once a year.
Cows surprisingly make good companions for a horse. They can share the same eating habits as horses and can share a pasture with a horse. However, cows are ruminants; they eat more quickly, and then they will spend more time laying down ruminating. Horses spend more time grazing while digesting their food on the go.
If you decide to choose a cow as a companion animal for your horse, chose a smaller breed that makes handling a bit easier.
One thing to remember is that cow feed should not be given to horses as some additives in cow feed can be toxic to horses. Cows, on the other hand, will readily eat horse feed if available to them.
How to spot signs of loneliness in your horse when living on his own
When kept alone, just like humans’ horses can get depressed and become withdrawn when they feel stress or lonely. Unlike humans’ horses can’t speak and tell us when they feel depressed, but they can communicate in other ways.
Just as you understand and how to read the signs of pain or anger in your horse, you can read your horse’s body language for depressed behavior.
Horses will show specific behavior that can be interpreted as stress-related or loneliness.
- Showing lack of reactions. Just like depressed humans that show a lack of interest in their surroundings when depressed, horses will exhibit the same lack of interest in life when they feel depressed.
- Restlessness and Pacing. Restlessness and pacing are also telltale signs of a horse feeling lonely and depressed. When your horse constantly paces up and down a fence line, it could be interpreted as a sign of loneliness.
- Vocalization or Whinnying. Horses might often constantly call out in high volumes in an effort to contact their companions.
- Unwillingness to eat or drink. Horses that are stressed and lonely will often lose their appetite and refuse to eat or drink.
- Weaving and stall walking. Horses can express their loneliness by weaving from one side to the other. Horses will often also walk in circles in the stall.
- Cribbing. Cribbing is when a horse compulsively bites on a fence or rail or anything similar then sucks in air through his windpipe. This behavior is an addictive fixating behavior that occurs when a horse is lonely, stressed and bored. This bad habit, once started, is almost impossible to break afterward.
Separation anxiety in horses
Your horse might show signs of separation anxiety when he is living on his own. Suppose horses are separated from their herd or companions and kept alone, even if it is short. In that case, they will suffer from separation anxiety that can affect their mental wellbeing.
Although separation anxiety in horses is a common condition, it can be very stressful for the horse and owner. Horses that suffer from separation anxiety will exhibit signs of anxiety by constantly pacing up and down, excessive calling out, loss of appetite, pawing at the ground, sweating and shaking, rearing and kicking out.
If you don’t find a solution to alleviate the anxiety for your horse and it does not subside, your horse might develop ulcers that could have a detrimental effect on his overall health and wellbeing.
How to help your horse deal with separation anxiety
Regarding supplements and medications, there are no quick fixes for separation anxiety in horses. However, some supplements and medications used to calm horses, like Ranvet’s Calm is a paste that contains Tryptophan, Magnesium and Vitamin B, have proven to be very helpful.
Get a companion animal as soon as possible. Some owners have found that pairing their anxious horse with a companion animal helps tremendously. Any of the animals listed above can make an excellent companion offer your nervous horse to calm him down. It has been found that most horses find comfort in the presence of a companion very quickly.
What is the best calming supplement for your anxious horse?
When you can’t provide your horse with a companion animal immediately, you might want to give your horse a supplement that helps calm him down. There are a few options available on the market that are safe to give to your anxious horse.
The most recommended product is an herbal product that contains Magnesium and Tryptophan as ingredients like Quietex and Quiessence. There are many other options available that have combinations of other ingredients like valerian root and VitaminB1/Thiamine that can be given to your horse.
Another alternative is Mare’s Magic that is made of raspberry leaf extract that can also be used in geldings. Closely follow the dosing instructions and remember to check if these calming supplements are on the prohibited list and are allowed when competing in a show.
Tips to prevent loneliness when keeping a horse on his own
When you are unable to provide another horse or a companion animal to your horse immediately, there are some things you can do in the meantime to alleviate your horse’s boredom and anxiety until you can find him a companion.
- Give your horse some stall toys to keep him occupied in the stall. You may even place toys out in the pasture for him to use for play. There are many options for horse toys available on the market these days.
- Don’t always feed your horse in the same place. Promote movement in your horse’s pasture. When horses live together, they tend to move around a lot as they graze. When your horse is out in the pasture on his own, he will tend to be more sedentary. Try to place your horse’s hay in different parts of the pasture to encourage your horse to move around more.
- Groom your horse more frequently. A horse kept on his own will miss the social interaction of mutual grooming while living with other horses. Make sure to spend more time than usual grooming your horse. This resembles the mutual grooming horses give each other in a social environment.
- Spend more time with your horse. You can help your horse by providing him companionship and entertainment until you can get him a companion.
- Provide music. Playing a radio softly at the barn can break up the silence throughout the day. It has been found that most horses like listening to classical music and that it helps to relax them.
- Go for group rides. Set up a group ride with friends or other local horse owners. Your horse will enjoy the interaction by just being around other horses. A group ride will have a positive and calming effect and alleviate his loneliness and boredom. If you don’t have anyone nearby and have a trailer, you can always drive a few miles to get to a group ride.
- Make sure your horse feels safe. Whether or not your horse feels safe has a significant impact on his mental wellbeing and affects your horse more than you can imagine. A wild horse would typically turn to the herd for safety; a solo horse might feel more anxious for not having anyone to turn to for comfort. Try to make sure there are no dark corners where he might think something is hiding. Make his stall as inviting and comforting as you can.
- Provide your horse with a horse-safe mirror. Horses enjoy looking at themselves in a mirror. This will help keep your horse entertained and calm him down when he feels anxious or lonely.
- Get a companion animal as soon as you can. The best option to alleviate boredom and stress for a lonely, anxious horse is a buddy.
Ideally, a horse should always be allowed to see and touch another horse. Humans don’t make suitable substitutes for horses. Humans can’t be with their horses 24 hours of the day and night.
Horses benefit from the social interactions they get from living with another of its kind. Mutual grooming, companionship, protection and finding a mate are all beneficial to a horse’s wellbeing that comes with living in a herd.
A horse’s health and mental wellbeing are severely affected if he has to live on his own. This seclusion can trigger anxiety disorders and repetitive behavior that can affect your horse in the long term.
Horses that have been separated from other horses and forced to live on their own will show a lack of interest in their surroundings and become depressed.
Horses being herd animals, don’t like to be on their own and should never be expected to live their life out alone. If you have no other option for another horse, many other animals can live together with horses.
A horse can bond with any other animal if another horse is not on the cards. Even if it is of another species, providing a companion animal is the best thing you can do for your horse living on its own.
It is not acceptable practice to deliberately keep your horse from the company of other horses or animals.