We all know that horses are sociable herd animals that need the company of others, not only for their health but also for their happiness and mental wellbeing. The problem is that these days many owners find themselves in a situation where keeping a horse alone is the only option, while this, of course, isn’t ideal there are things that you can do to minimize the effect this might have on your horse.
If you are keeping a horse on its own (or have to quarantine your horse) then the tips below will help to keep your horse happy.
Do horses always need a horsey companion?
While another horse is, of course, the best companion this isn’t always possible but because they are such sociable animals the good news is that horses can, and will, bond with other animals if there are no other horses around. That doesn’t mean any animal will do though, some are better suited to living with horses than others, after all considering how independent cats are they’re unlikely to make good companions in most cases (although I’m sure we’ve all got stories of the bonds horses and cats can have).
Goats and sheep
Goats are probably the number one choice because they’re also herd animals and are far cheaper to keep than horses. We all think of goats as scavengers that eat anything and everything and while there is some truth in that but in reality, they have similar diets to horses but favorer the sort of plants that horses avoid. For example, while your horse will choose to graze on grass, goats will often opt for the weeds, brush and fallen leaves. This means that most pastures can sustain them both without any changes. If you’re not keen on keeping goats but like the benefits they can bring why not consider some sheep instead? They can be just as good for your horse but without the ‘boisterous’ nature some goats have.
Being part of the equine family, donkeys can also make great companions but the problem with donkeys is that they are still equines and will often need the same (or at least similar) amount of care and attention as horses, sometimes even more. Donkeys are prone to laminitis if they eat too much rich hay but their feet also need to be checked regularly by a farrier who has specialist knowledge of donkeys. If your reason for keeping a horse alone is a financial one then a donkey probably isn’t going to be the best solution for you.
Llamas and alpacas
Both llamas and alpacas can make good companions for horses but the problem with them is that, if you have two or more, they can end up looking out for each other and completely excluding your horse. This will have the complete opposite result to the one you’re after and your horse will be without a companion again.
Chickens, on the other hand, can be good company for your horse. While they won’t be able to interact with your horse in a meaningful way they will provide plenty of entertainment and are far more beneficial (to you and your horse) than you might think. Chickens will spread the manure looking for flies and insects which will help to kill worm larvae (they’ll even eat some of them) which can never be a bad thing. Another advantage to chickens is that they’ll eat any bits of grain your horse leaves behind which will help to prevent rodents.
I know I’m stating the obvious but all horses are different and while some love the ‘normal’ companions such as goats and donkeys other horses will enjoy the company of an animal you probably hadn’t even thought of. The most crucial thing is your horse’s happiness so don’t worry too much about what type of animal their companion is, it’s more important that they have one.
Make sure you keep your horse busy
The more time your horse has on his own the more likely he is to get bored and feel lonely but you can use their natural curiosity to your advantage in this situation. The more ‘distractions’ you can use to keep your horse occupied the better. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a small (or large) fortune on toys for your horse, there are plenty of DIY alternatives to expensive toys. Even hiding treats in different places will exercise your horse’s curiosity and help to keep him busy. I recently wrote an article on boredom busters (both bought and homemade) that you might find helpful.
Don’t always feed your horse in the same place
Watch any group of horses for a while and you’ll notice that they will all move around and play together. While playing obviously helps horses to bond it also has a surprising benefit that you might not have considered. Just like us, horses that don’t move much are likely to gain weight, as horses play they move around which helps them to burn calories and therefore help them to keep a healthy weight.
If you’re keeping your horse on its own of course it won’t be able to ‘play’ with other horses but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t encourage him to keep active. Being natural grazers horses are used to searching for their food so if you feed him in different places throughout the day he’ll have to move around to find his food. You might not realize it but your horse’s digestive system actually works better when they are eating from the floor, it can also help to reduce stress too because with their head up (as it often is if a haynet is too high) horses are in an alert state.
Spend more time with your horse
Your horse will be extremely grateful for any time you spend with him so the more time you spend together the better. That doesn’t mean you need to spend all day but make sure the time you do spend together is well spent. Don’t just turn up, carry out your chores and leave again, instead make a fuss of your horse too. You don’t have to spend long if you’re pushed for time, just an extra ten minutes will make the world of difference to your horse.
If you have the time you could even try some bonding exercises such as teaching your horse a new trick. This article I wrote on bonding with your horse may give you a few ideas.
Groom your horse more
Horse’s don’t just groom each other in order to look nice, it’s also a way of them bonding, establishing their place within the herd and also acts as a way of reassuring a horse it’s safe. This type of grooming is known as allogrooming (or social grooming) and if you groom your horse in the same way you’ll help to make him feel like he’s part of a herd as well as strengthen the bond you two have.
While horses can groom each other anywhere they tend to favor areas such as the neck, withers and along the back. Gently grooming areas, such as the legs and belly, that are difficult will also help, especially if you can do this a couple of times a day.
Play music around the yard
Having music (or a radio station) playing soothing sounds in the background can help to make your horse think that he’s not alone when you’re not there. While there have been no definitive studies into the benefits of playing music to horses there are plenty of owners who’ll tell you that their horses are far more relaxed when they play music.
Horses are sensitive animals so something like thrash metal is likely to make them tense but soothing music will help to keep them calm and give the illusion that you’re there with them.
The only caveat I would add though is that don’t have the music too loud, the reason I say that is because there is some evidence that suggests if background noises are too loud they mask out the sound of any potential dangers. This can have the opposite effect on your horse because not being able to detect potential dangers is likely to increase his anxiety and stress.
Go for group rides
Horses will always appreciate the company of other horses so if you’re keeping your horse alone why not set up a riding group with other local owners. This will give your horse a chance to interact with other horses but will also give you the opportunity to make new friends.
Even though your horse won’t be making a physical connection with the other horses, just being around them will have a positive and calming effect on him. Don’t worry if you’re not able to do this locally, if you have a trailer then there’s nothing stopping you traveling to join a ride.
Make sure your horse feels safe
Whether or not your horse feels safe can have a far bigger effect on his mental wellbeing than you might think, in fact, this is one of the biggest factors of being in a herd. While its no longer the case most horses haven’t forgotten that they were once predated and their instinct, understandably so, is to survive.
If your horse doesn’t feel safe then he’s not going to be relaxed and while a horse would normally turn to the herd for security they obviously can’t do that if they’re on their own. This is why you need to make sure your horse feels safe and that if there is something that spooks him he has a place he can go to for reassurance.
Try to make sure there are no dark ‘hiding’ places where your horse might think that something is lurking but also make sure his shelter and/or stall is inviting and comforting to him. If you’re able to, why not install a horse safe mirror in them, this will make your horse think that there’s another horse around which will help to make him feel secure and safe from danger.
Use aromatherapy to keep your horse happy
I know you probably think I’ve gone mad here but there is some method in my madness, just bear with me a minute and let me explain. The art of aromatherapy is, simply put, the aromatic use of natural plant extracts to promote health and well-being which is where the use of lavender comes in. Now I’m not saying that if you hang dried lavender (or use oils or a spray) everywhere your horse will suddenly be perfectly happy being on his own, but what I am saying is using a little bit of it will help to relax your horse and keep him calm. This, in turn, will help him to feel more at ease which will mean he won’t be stressed and of course, the more relaxed he is the more relaxed he’s going to be.
The great thing about lavender is that it doesn’t matter if it’s dried, used as an oil or in an atomizer, it works just as well. And on top of relaxing and calming your horse, it’ll also help to relax you without you even knowing!
What should I look for when buying a horse to keep alone?
If you’re looking to buy a horse and know that you’ll be keeping him alone then it can help to know what to look out for. Of course, every horse is different and there’s no guarantee that any horse will be happy being on his own but these characteristics are good indications that he will be happy:
- Willing to leave the herd – Horses that are happy to leave the rest of the herd behind generally aren’t so attached to them which is more likely to indicate they’re happier with their own company.
- Will stand his ground – If a horse stands his ground rather than running to the herd for security and reassurance then he’s likely to be confident and better able to cope on his own too.
- Doesn’t have an established relationship with another horse – When horses with long-established bonds are separated they can find it very stressful, moving to a strange environment (without other horses) will only compound the problem which is why it’s better to avoid theses horses if you can.
- Is used to being stabled alone – Horses that have been stabled one their own for a long time, for whatever reason, are more likely to have adapted to this which makes them a better choice for living on their own.
Hopefully, some of these tips will help to keep your horse happy, relaxed and not missing other horse contacts. If you feel that I’ve left something out or have any tips yourself why not let me know? You can either leave a comment below or let me know on social media.
- Keeping a horse at home
- Feeding a hard keeper
- Where to keep a horse at night?
- Do alpacas make good companions?
- Boredom busters
- Are horses smart?
- Do horses suffer from depression?
- Do horses like being ridden?
- How do horses sleep?
- How to load a horse
Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.