Horses are very social animals and in a natural setting will form harem groups or bachelor groups. Harem groups are typically one dominant male and a number of females and foals.
Living in a herd is what horses do best. As horse owners, we need to take this into consideration. To provide domestic horses with the best opportunity for happiness, both play and social stimulation is desirable. As a general rule, the best social environment for your horse is the company of one or more horses in a large open environment. However, this may not always be possible. As a horse owner of a solo horse, you will need to provide your horse with the company and stimuli they would otherwise get from horses. Regular riding, opportunities to socialise with other horses, companion animals and regular care and affection can help to ease the loneliness blues. There are of course some horses that seem to cope better on their own than others, though nearly all horses prefer an opportunity for some company and connection.
Where possible it is good to provide your horse with good visual stimulation of other horses and/or humans. Horses are naturally curious, playful animals and like people, they enjoy variety. An environment that minimises stress but maximises variety and allows for maximum socialisation with other horses is ideal. When considering the formation of a harmonious herd dynamic, you may need to factor in gender balancing. Putting stallions in with stallions is most likely to end in injury. Naturally in the wild, stallions fight for their place in the herd, and this may lead to serious injuries to any one of your horses.
Enriching your horse’s environment will help to improve their welfare and social behaviour.
During the process of domesticating horses, the horse has inevitably been removed from its natural environment and limited and restricted in movement. So what affect has this had on horses, and how well have they adapted?
The process of confining horses into small areas including stables and stalls has contributed to the formation of behaviours we commonly label as ‘stable vices’. These behaviours may include crib-biting and wind sucking, weaving, box-walking, pawing and wood chewing.
When a horse’s ability to perform natural behaviours is compromised, displacement behaviours that are repetitive and meaningless can instead be formed. These are all signs of boredom and reduced welfare and are not normally seen in extensively grazing horses. Sometimes mistaken for naughtiness, these habituated behaviours can become highly addictive and habitual.
There are likely to be many reasons for behavioural problems in horses but studies indicate that accommodation is a major contributor.
So what can we do for our horses to help minimise these behavioural displacements?
Begin with allowing your horse open grazing time whenever possible. Include some opportunities for social interaction. Start to think like a horse when it comes to eating routines. Traditionally horses graze most of the day, and much of their forage is high fibre and high roughage. These type of foods are perfectly suited to a horses digestive system, and they also serve to keep a horse entertained all day long.
If you see displacement behaviours or stable vices in your horse, it may be the result of habits formed previously due to undesirable circumstances, or exposure to other horses with similar behaviour traits. Attempt to interrupt these patterns by stimulating your horse through play and connection. Is your horse trying to communicate something to you? Flower essences can assist in balancing emotions and clearing past behavioural traits.
Your horse requires play and creativity as well as safety and comfort to be happy within their environment.