Your horse is a herd animal and he needs the companionship of other herd animals.
Without a herd – even a small one – your horse can’t help but feel stress as his physiology isn’t registering any herd members around.
When your horse is stressed due to the lack of a herd, he will become flighty, anxious and hard to manage because his body is in a state of constant stress (fight or flight), telling your horse that he is in danger because he is alone.
Sometimes you’ll have to isolate your horse in order to treat an illness or an injury, during this time you should still take his needs into consideration and provide whatever companionship you can while he’s isolated – or at the very least place him so that he can see other horses.
When your horse is kept in near-complete isolation – especially when in a closed stable where he can’t see any other animals – you should provide him with a companion such as a goat, mule, donkey or small pony.
A horse that is kept with other equines is less likely to get bored and start showing signs of stress through stable vices.
How horses organise socially in the wild
In the wild, horses live in large herds that are usually made up of smaller bands that share a territory.
A band can be as small as two individuals or as big as twenty-five. Each band is led by a dominant mare and is made up of other mares and foals.
The composition of these bands is very fluid, as young animals are driven out of their natal band to join other bands, or as stallions challenge each other for dominance over a particular band.
A band will typically have one (most common) or two lead stallions as well as colts and even subordinate stallions that live on the fringes of the group.
Within a band every horse has a place on the social ladder of the group and this social matrix provides both safety and structure in life.
It’s better for your horse’s physical and emotional well-being to belong to a herd, even if part of the day is spent alone in the stable.
Owning a horse is costly and if you’ve only budgeted for one, you may not be able to afford or have space for two horses.
There are a few options if you can’t accommodate more than one horse, though, and your horse’s well-being shouldn’t suffer simply because you can’t afford to keep two full-size horses.
Here I’ve listed some ideas on how you can find a companion for your horse without breaking the bank.
Idea #1: Think small
When you don’t have room for another horse, consider a miniature horse. Mini horses may be small but tend to make up for that in personality.
Their smaller size means their upkeep is both cheaper and less demanding than a big horse’s – you should ask your vet, farrier and dentist if you can get a good deal on the cost of treatment as you’re treating two horses at the same time.
If your horse and the mini-horse really hit it off, and the stable is big enough, I’ve seen these kinds of mini-herds insisting on shacking up together in one box stall.
Idea #2: Find a free companion horse
Sometimes you can find people who want to give their old or unsound horse (that can’t be used anymore) a good home.
You may be able to find a horse like this for free or for very cheap but take into consideration that if a horse needs extra care it means extra costs.
However, if you’re not in need of a horse that can be used for anything than companionship, finding an otherwise unwanted horse may be the perfect solution – you provide a loving home for a horse that may be running out of options and your horse gets a companion.
If you’re able to care for a horse with special needs you may very well be saving a life because many people will put down an animal with special needs rather than care for them.
Just keep in mind that a horse that doesn’t cost very much or is free, doesn’t necessarily equate to free or cheap upkeep.
Once you’ve determined what kind of horse you can accommodate, ask at horse rescues if they have any horses suitable for companions, check out classifieds and just start asking around if someone has a companion horse available.
Idea #3: Offer to board another horse
If you’ve got the space you can offer to board another horse. You may even find someone who wants to place a young horse in a herd while they grow up.
Naturally, not all horses get along automatically and getting them to form a herd may take some work.
If you’re only offering boarding in order to provide your own horse with companionship, make sure that you get a boarder that is agreeable to you and your horse.
Prepare contracts for the boarder to sign that outline what responsibilities they have and what responsibilities you have.
Set the expectations clearly from the beginning and you may even end up making a little money while your horse gets a friend.
Idea #4: Get a donkey or mule
A donkey or a mule would be the natural go-to if you can’t get another horse. They both tend to be easy keepers and mini-donkeys can be extremely manageable due to their size.
Normal-sized donkeys and mules can be very territorial and help keep foxes, coyotes and other wild canines away from your horse and even help keep your chickens safe.
Mules and donkeys are generally cheaper to buy than horses. They typically don’t wear shoes, but do require regular hoof maintenance to keep them from growing too long.
Idea #5: Get some kind of small ruminant
Goats lead the list on this one but sheep and cows, especially small breeds such as Dexters, can be great horse buddies. They can share a pasture and graze together contentedly.
As fellow herbivores, they share some of the same behavioural characteristics with your horse and will also wish to be in a herd.
You often don’t even have to buy special feed or change vets.
Pygmy goats may seem like a good idea because they’re cute but be ready to reinforce your pastures and stables because they are great escape artists and get through a much smaller hole than a full-size goat.
They also have a tendency to get into a lot of mischief and you may come home one day to find they’ve gotten into exactly where you didn’t’ want them going.
Normal-sized goats will happily travel with you to shows and competitions and wait in the trailer (with food) while your horse is away.
Idea #6: Get a dog
A dog can be a great companion for your horse, so long as he’s trained to not chase or nip at your horse.
A well-behaved dog can accompany you on trail rides or sit in the carriage when you go on drives.
Dogs tend to stick around the barn anyway and when well-trained can even travel with you and your horse to competitions and shows.
A dog will also provide additional security, typically barking if a stranger is around your horse or your property.
Many horses develop close bonds with the barn mascot dogs, but the drawback is that dogs tend to follow people around, and when you go into the house the dog will often come with you.
This doesn’t mean that a dog isn’t great extra company around the stable.
Idea #7: Get a cat
A good mouser will help keep your grain, hay and even tack safe from rodents.
On cold days you can often find your cat snuggled up with your horse in the hay or curled up on your horse’s back, having a rest.
Horses will often form very close bonds with horses and the internet is full of pictures proving it.
However, like a dog, a cat won’t necessarily stay with your horse 24/7 and going on long hacks or travelling is usually out of the question.
Idea #8: Get some poultry
Chickens can also add to the companionship of your horse. Chickens are known for their insatiable appetite for ticks and can really help to keep your animals tick-free.
Guinea fowl also love eating ticks and can serve as alarm animals when someone or something unwanted shows up in their territory.
Geese also love to eat bugs and are the Rottweiler equivalent of birds when it comes to protecting the territory.
In some horses, the dander of poultry can cause allergic reactions. The birds will also need their own feed and should be housed in a space of their own, because the can be quite messy.
However, birds don’t necessarily form strong bonds with a particular horse (except for some lonely roosters that I’ve seen form extremely strong bonds with horses on occasion) but are definitely a good addition to any stable. Horses, just like people, can really enjoy having chickens, ducks or geese around – plus you might get fresh eggs!
Idea #9: Get llamas or alpacas
These camelids are quickly growing in popularity as horse companions. They mix well with horses, keep the weeds down, help reduce the worm burden and are relatively cheap to keep.
Llamas and alpacas can be really fun pets, when well trained, and great companions for your horse, when introduced to your horse gradually.
What’s the difference between them? Llamas were primarily bred as pack animals and alpacas for their soft, luxurious fibre.
Llamas and alpacas don’t tend to challenge fences the way goats or sheep can and they’re protected from electric fencing by their thick woolly fleeces.
They’ll need their own feed which is now widely available in regular feed stores. They will need shearing once a year but you can have a professional shearer come over and sell the luxury fibre fleece to a spinner.
Above all, consider your horse!
The kind of companion you can get for your horse will largely depend on your horse. You may have to try a few different animals to see what works for you.
Providing a companion for your horse will mean some extra costs for feed and vet care as well as extra fencing if needed – but it’s an expense for your horse’s well-being. Certainly, it’s more cost-effective than adding on another horse and the psychological benefit to your horse is priceless!