Horses are herd animals.
We all know that. But what does that really mean?
We think it means, “Horses are happier with a friend.” But it’s more than that.
Horses don’t feel safe alone. They are a herd animal because there is safety in numbers. In a herd, someone is always watching so it’s safe to rest. Horses who live alone can be in a constant state of stress, hypervigilant, and some can even suffer from sleep deprivation as they don’t feel safe enough let down their guard and rest.
The social aspect of living with other horses is so important. Behavioural issues in young horses who live alone are much higher than those with a horse friend, and studies have shown that horses who live in a herd with space to express natural behaviours learn more quickly and retain what they learned better than horses who live alone in a stall.
Horses form strong bonds with herdmates. They remember each other after years apart, and grieve when they are separated. Family bonds are particularly strong. In the wild, fillies will often stay close to their dams their whole lives, raising their foals right alongside their mother. Foals nurse until the mare’s next foal is born, nearly a year, or sometimes even longer.
We don’t think enough about how important these bonds are to our horses. We wean them at just four months old and send them to a new home, separated not just from their dam, the most important bond they have, but all that is familiar to them, sometimes without any other horses at all. We rehome horses and expect them to not skip a beat, incorporating into a new herd and environment without any change in their performance. We cause trauma that results in herdbound horses and unwanted behaviours, and then we call them problem horses.
It doesn’t mean we can never wean our foals or sell a horse or keep them in a stall.
But if we do so mindfully of the potential effect on our horses, we can make changes to minimize the impact and help our horses to be confident and well adjusted.
Horses are resilient. Many of them have dealt with early weaning and isolation and multiple homes without outward signs of stress. But others weren’t so lucky, and if we can do better for them, why wouldn’t we?
Learn more about What Your Horse Needs inside the Understanding Your Miniature Horse ebook – register below!