Horses Living Alone

Julie's herd

I first started riding horses more than half a century ago. I was a shy and introverted kid, so growing up on a small horse farm was like heaven to me. The horses in the pasture were the only friends I needed and I learned a lot about their herd life from my tree fort, in the shade of a towering live oak tree in our pasture—a favorite hangout of the herd on hot days.

That was way back in the day when kids were left free to climb any tree that was climbable and play outdoors without supervision, as long as you were home by 6:00 for dinner. It was also only a few decades removed, one generation really, from the time when horses were work animals—beast of burden, helping to pave the way to civilization.
The human relationship to horses was much different back then and I have seen my own philosophical outlook change through the decades, as horses have acclimated to new societal norms wherein horses fill a much different role in our society.

Just as our knowledge of human psychology, the brain and human behavior has grown exponentially in the last half century, so has the study of animal behavior evolved. It wasn’t long ago that behaviorists believed that animals did not feel pain and suffering, or that animals may share the same emotions as humans—like happy, sad, angry, bored or frustrated.

It’s only been in the last decade that some behaviorists have begun to accept the idea that animals can form friendships—defined as a reciprocal altruistic relationship between two animals of the same species that are not related by blood. A friendship based on, “I’ll get your back if you get mine,” or benefitting others at a cost to yourself. Not all species demonstrate this kind of relationship, but research has shown that horses do. This comes as no great surprise to anyone who has been around horses a lot.

Thirty years ago, if you asked me if it was okay to keep your horse at home alone, without the companionship of other horses, I would’ve said, “Sure, he’ll get used to it.” Today, my answer would be much different.

Horses are incredibly good at adapting to their environment and to changes in society. They are the most sensitive domesticated animal and the most easily DE-sensitized. They can adapt rapidly from a hot climate to a cold one; they can get used to the most disturbing stimuli in minutes. Over the millennium, their relationships with humans have evolved from a source of food, to transportation, to mechanisms of war, to sport, to entertainment, to items of luxury, to powerful tools of therapy.

Today, our use of horses is much different and our understanding is much greater. Plus, we have the undeniable luxury of not being reliant on our horses for surviving and thriving. We can afford more perspective on the horse’s well-being.
Indisputably, horses are herd animals. They get great comfort and security from the herd and they are very tactile animals—rubbing and massaging each other, nipping and biting, providing shade and tail swishing to each other.

Their herd behaviors are very distinctive and the structure of the herd is quite complex—rankings within the herd, cooperative behavior, bonding. Seeking acceptance into the herd is a huge instinctive drive of horses and banishment is the ultimate punishment. Simply put, horses are happiest in the herd, where they can touch other horses, push each other around and give each other comfort.

There’s safety in numbers and all horses know that. He feels safest when other horses surround him and he may only lie down to sleep if another horse remains standing. He relies on the senses of the other horses in the herd to help keep him safe, so that he does not have to be hyper-vigilant at every waking moment.

I’ve known horses that have adapted well to living alone. I’ve also seen horses that are frantic or severely depressed. Often, circumstances dictate the living arrangements for the horse and not ideals. Not all horses can run free 24/7 in belly-deep grass with a herd. Many horses are separated from the herd for their own health or well-being. Some may be separated because they are aggressive or dangerous. Often health and nutrition, as well as daily usage, means that our horses are separated part or most of the day.

Location and logistics sometimes limit the choices we have, but what most horses want is life in the herd. So how would I answer the aforementioned question today, about whether or not it is okay to keep your horse alone? I’d say, you owe it to him to provide some sort of 24/7 companionship, even it if cannot be another horse.

A companion horse is best—they share the same behaviors and motivations. An older horse that needs a home, an infirm horse that can’t be ridden, better yet, a friend’s horse that will share chores with you or off-set your costs. A miniature horse is perfect, since they don’t eat much, but the upfront cost may be high. A miniature donkey can fill the bill as well.

There are lots of options to fill the horse’s need to live in a herd and deciding what is right for you and your horse may be challenging. If all else fails, get a goat, a duck or a pig. I’ve even seen horses bond with barn cats, but a similar species is best.

Goats have long been used as companion animals for race horses that are kept in stalls. To help keep the racehorse calm in his isolated stall, you give him a goat for a roommate. The term, “Get your goat,” refers to the nasty trick of stealing your opponent’s goat the night before the big match race, thus leaving the horse frantically pacing all night and exhausted on the day of the race.

The biggest downside to horses living in the herd is their undying mission to stay with the herd. This is an instinctive behavior of horses, but highly inconvenient and sometimes downright irritating to us humans. Barn sour, herd-bound, tantrum throwing, nappy horses are a drag. Fortunately, not all horses are that bad.

To me, the ultimate honor my horse can bestow on me, comes with his willingness to leave the herd with me—happily and voluntarily. To do as I ask, take me where I want to go and respond to my signals, because I give him the same sense of safety and security he gets from the herd. To get that kind of relationship with your horse, you must give him fair and strong leadership, give him the comfort, the structure, the praise and the discipline he deserves. Once again, horses make us better people.

But in his free time, let him be with other horses as much as you can. As much as I want my horses to look up to me and work hard for me, I know I can never replace the contentment he gets from being a part of the herd.

Rearing To Go

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Dear Julie,
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse that has decided he must be in the lead on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse, he arches his neck and sets his head as if he’s ready to attack. Then he’ll hop and rear. It all happens so fast, I don’t see it coming. He’s rearing more and more often. I have been working on the behavior by allowing another horse to lead off on the trail and having my horse follow. As soon as my horse gets excited, I ask him to move away from the lead horse. I’ve also thought about outfitting him with a tie down. What would you do?
Trail Woes

Dear Trail Woes,
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others. It’s a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and in need of further training (and/or disobedient.) It’s certainly not an issue that a tie down could resolve, since these behavior problems are related to herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
I choose not to use tie downs to resolve training problems. When it comes to rearing, a tie down simply masks the symptoms and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. If your horse were to rear with a tie down in place, it’s possible he could lose his balance and turn over.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that his aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is under saddle. Any transgression should be met with a firm, direct correction. Aggression and rearing are potentially life-threatening behaviors. Young horses should be taught this rule from an early age and this fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times when you’re riding alone or in the company of others. Saddle horses must be taught not to fraternize or interact with other horses at any time that they are being ridden or handled by humans. Horses are good at obeying rules when the rules are clearly explained and enforced.
Your horse’s behaviors—arching his neck and rearing— are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be. He is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might in a prideful manner. It’s a warning to “his” subordinates that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordination.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the arch and whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures.
Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There’s no quick fix to repair this relationship between you and your horse. You’ll have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. For an more in depth review of ground work, check out Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (www.JulieGoodnight.com or 800- 225-8827).
Your horse must learn that certain behavior is simply not tolerated while under saddle—specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front and it must not deviate from the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.”
Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second), since this behavior is dangerous for both the horses and the humans. The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it’s not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it’s enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier.
Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It’s always best when the motivating factors are something that come naturally to the horse. One of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you’re out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, at the very first flick of an ear, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times.
Remember, there’s an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you’re up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners. From the sounds of it, this horse might be a tough customer. But in the right hands, he can learn these fundamental manners in short order.
Until next time,

Julie Goodnight