Updated: Dec 4, 2022
If your horse had opposable thumbs, an inclination to communicate in a way that was clear for humans, and access to pen and paper, their top three demands for a happy life might look like this:
But, if you asked the average horse owner to answer for their horse, the list might be different, perhaps:
1. Their own personal stall, complete with warm blankets, fresh shavings, lights, and a radio playing in the background.
2. Grain and supplements, twice a day, in addition to their twice daily feed of hay.
3. A safe paddock, without other horses to bother him, to spend half their day in before retiring back to their stall for bedtime.
There’s a great phrase, "anthropomorphism by omission", that describes what happens when we fail to consider that other animals (don’t forget, we too are animals) have a different perception of the world than we do. Without even realizing it, we can attribute human traits, needs, or ways of perceiving other species simply by failing to realize that how they perceive the world is probably completely different from how we perceive the world. As it applies to this blog, what we think the horse wants or needs might not be what they want or need. I believe that most horse owners want their horses to be happy. So in the interest of keeping our horses happy, this three-part blog will examine their top three demands, starting with friends.
Horses are highly social prey animals, and they have a complex and subtle communication system that utilizes body language, in part to avoid detection by predators. Being predominantly gestural communicators, they are in near-constant visual contact with other horses so that they may transmit non-verbal messages back and forth to one another. They have an intricate social structure and form strong bonds with other horses called pair bonds. Horses rely on being in visual and near physical contact with others to detect food and predators, for play, for procreation, for mutual grooming, and for safety. It’s vitally important for horse owners to understand that even the most pampered or selectively bred horse still retains these instincts and needs. Horses need other horses, period.
How do people isolate horses socially? Two traditional ways are stalling or paddocking them alone, in facilities designed to minimize physical and/or visual contact with other horses. And here are a few commonly cited reasons why that I hear from clients:
1. Doing so will prevent the horse from becoming overly attached to other horses, and therefore will minimize behaviour problems such as being herd bound.
2. The belief that isolating horses keeps them safe from injury or cosmetic damage incurred during "horseplay".
3. The belief that their horse does not appreciate the company of other horses.
4. Monetary or perceived worth.
5. And so on…
Let’s briefly address these concerns:
1. Horses need other horses. Isolating horses can actually create the very behaviour problems people are trying to avoid (i.e. herd bound), in addition to creating anxiety, chronic stress, or other behaviour problems for the horse when their social needs aren’t being met (i.e. weaving, stall walking).
2. While socially isolated horses may receive fewer bites or kicks, in most cases the consequences of isolation are more damaging physically and psychologically than allowing them to simply be part of a stable herd. Horses need to have the chance to form pair bonds, and express normal social behaviours such as mutual grooming, play, and simply being near other horses. Horses find the company of others comforting and pleasurable. The minor scuffs and scrapes incurred during social interactions could be thought of as being similar to when we gain a skinned knee or bruise such as would occur during a team sport we enjoy – the odd injury is well worth the many benefits gained.
3. In my experience, the horse that does not enjoy the company of others might be hanging out with the unicorns –he’s that rare of a creature. Those few horses that don’t enjoy social interactions are often the result of inadequate or inappropriate socialization during early development. This belief may come about when people fail to appreciate that just like us, horses prefer certain horses, and that may not be the one he or she is turned out with; if careful thought isn’t given to herd dynamics, or if the herd members are constantly changing, the horses in the herd will likely display signs of stress, and will not display normal social behaviours as a result of what, to the horse, are abnormal living conditions.
Going to back to seeing things from the horse’s perspective, what would be the ideal way to meet the horse’s needs for socialization? Of course, this would always depend on each individual horse, but most horses are happiest with constant visual contact, in addition to having the choice for physical contact (or not), with one or more compatible companions in an established herd. Horses desire to see other horses, and have adequate space in which they can choose to interact physically with, or simply remain near their companions. Perhaps most important in the above description is the word "choice" – having the choice to be near, mutually groom, play, stand watch while another sleeps, and simply stand close together is important to the horse. Having the space, as in paddock/pasture size, or facility design to allow this choice is important. If we are going to pasture our horse with other horses it is important to consider the social dynamics of the group to ensure that no one herd member is bullied and all have equal access to resources such as hay piles, salt and water. If it is necessary to confine our horses (see more on this topic in part three of this blog series, "Freedom"), we should consider how confinement affects the horse: Can they see other horses? Are they housed next to another horse that they would choose to be near when turned out?
Do they have the choice to avoid being seen by other horses? For example, is their area designed in such a way that they can choose to not be seen when eating if housed next to a less-than-friendly neighbour? On the flip side, if they want to remain in visual contact at all times, can they eat while observing other horses?
Behaviour problems are often just "the tip of the iceberg", and resolving them can require a holistic look at how each horse perceives their current living and working situation. Part of this examination is a close look at the horse’s top three demands – friends, forage and freedom. If the horse’s social needs aren’t being met, it can affect their life in more ways than people often fully appreciate.
In the next blog in this series on the 3F's, we will look at the horse’s needs and requirements for the second “F” - Forage. (I coined the term the 3F's, and wrote this series of articles for the IAABC's website. You can find the original post here.)