Written by: Mary Knetter
There’s nothing more beautiful than watching a herd of horses galloping across an open field. The group ebbs and flows around the hills and trees as beauty in motion plays itself out.
By nature, horses are herd animals. They thrive on the safety, companionship and mental health that the group provides. Each animal has a place, responsibility and expectations in the group and each knows in its mind where it belongs.
Photo by Alisa Atkinson
BENEFITS OF COMPANIONSHIP
There is strength in numbers–In the wild, a single animal is able to warn others of predators. Groups can huddle together in the summer heat to switch flies or keep warm in winter. Animals kept alone must be blanketed or sheltered.
Companionship provides a normal herd dynamic and group behavior–Young foals learn about group psychology by watching adults. Other mares, stallions and geldings teach foals about how to be a horse and act in a herd. During the first two years of life, it is essential for young animals to be kept with adults to learn normal group behavior.
Improves mental health–Often animals will nap in groups, with several others standing to keep watch. Animals are able to rest and relax their body and mind, trusting their companions will warn them of coming danger.
Herd members know their place and know what to expect–Dominant members of the group establish the rules of the group and determine where they will graze, drink and travel. Lower ranking members learn when they can eat or drink and how they fit in the big picture.
Some members get abused–Dominant members often abuse less dominant, unhealthy or older animals, forcing them away from food or water.
Group behavior determines what happens–One animal influences what the group does, which can be harmful to the psychology of the group. Older, unhealthy or weaker animals can get abused, chased or injured by other members.
Herd dynamics change constantly–As the seasons change, hormone balances also change. Mares and stallions are more sexually active in spring and summer and reduces in fall and winter. New members can be introduced, and current members can be eliminated from the group, causing the herd to reassess the hierarchy.
Humans have to establish themselves as herd bossIt can be difficult because humans don’t spend a large amount of time within the herd. Owners and handlers have to establish to each individual that they are the dominant horse.
HOW TO PROVIDE SAFE COMPANIONSHIP
The best way to provide companionship is to keep two or more animals together. Keep bossy or aggressive animals away from those they might attack or fight with. If a horse is kept alone, provide another animal for companionship, such as a cow, sheep or goat.
It is also important to understand the hierarchy in a pastured herd at feeding time. When feeding grain to a group of animals start by feeding the dominant horses and the less dominant animals after. A better alternative may be to separate the animals, feed them, and turn them back out to pasture.
Companionship can also be provided by the owner or handler. Learn new disciplines together or set goals that can be enjoyable to reach. Make some “playtime” for the horse and it will look forward to the time spent bonding.
Foals can be kept with their mares and older mares and geldings to learn normal group behavior. When the mares are removed from the herd to wean the foals, the older animals continue to provide companionship and lessen the trauma of suddenly feeling abandoned. Foals are also less intimidating to older, weaker animals that may be abused in a normal herd situation.
Introduce new horses to the group over several days or weeks. Introduce less dominant members of the group to establish companions. Then, bring them into the herd and watch as the new member is being introduced, taking action to remove animals if needed.
By understanding the normal psychology and group behavior of horses, owners can provide the best companionship possible. It is up to the owner to assess the individual needs of each animal and provide the healthiest, safest companions possible.