Just like other farm animals, horses usually live in herds. Each herd has a leader and the others are the followers. A social ladder exists in every herd followed by everyone in the herd. Like any other social group, horses feel safe among their group and are happiest when they interact with their fellows. To answer the question of this article, yes, horses do tend to get lonely when they are by themselves. Since they cannot speak about their feelings, they display signs and symptoms that will show you how they feel. When a horse finds himself or herself alone, they are bound to get display destructive behaviors like wood chewing, stall walking, and paddock pacing.
Ideally, your horse should be kept with a companion or among other horses. There are situations when this is not possible like economic restrictions and other medical reasons. The horse personality is another reason why people often choose to isolate their horse. However, some horses can live alone without feeling lonely, but most are not cut for living alone.
In this article, we will look at how horses can be kept alone and for how long. The type of companions that are best and activities that keep them busy.
Signs of Loneliness in Horses
Let us first understand the signs that display a horse’s loneliness.
1. Lack of Reaction
Similar to humans, when horses feel lonely they tend to become depressed. You can identify depression in horses by identifying the symptom of becoming withdrawn. Your horse will show a lack of reaction to his or her general surroundings and show no interest in anything. A study was conducted on 50 horses by playing rare animal sounds to gauge their reactions. Those horses who did not feel lonely showed interest in these unusual sounds. They turned their heads, stiffened their ears, and licked their lips in anticipation.
On the other hand, horses who were depressed showed no signs of reaction or interest. They showed no acknowledgment of the new and strange sounds and seemed to be unaware overall. In order to understand your horse’s loneliness, you do not need to conduct a study. Simply notice the behavior and see for how long he or she stands still for long periods of time. Their ears too will be unmoving and necks will be fixed in one direction. There will be no movement in their eyes but they will be open – wide and unfocused with blinks after longer movements. If you notice their symptoms in your horse, it means that he or she is lonely.
Another sign that shows loneliness in horses is being restless. They tend to pace back and forth for no reason at all. This is a sure sign that your horse is longing for companionship. The reason behind your horse pacing at the fence line is that there is a friend who is kept at a stall far away from him or her. Another reason could be the possibility that there are no other animals in the barn, so your horse comes out in the hope to see other animals.
Pacing restlessly is a bad sign for both mental and physical health. When a horse paces, extra strain is put on the legs causing tendon and joint damage. The repetitive movement can also lead to the risk of ringbone, a type of arthritis in horses. The lower legs of the horses can be damaged because of the constant turning causing strain on the joints.
Just like a toddler who is under-stimulated, horses will display restlessness by pacing, moving in circles, or stamping the hooves on the ground. This happens when the horse is bored with nothing keeping his or her mind occupied. Boredom tends to make horses excessively fidgety. A companion is a great way to keep your horse calm and active the right way. If such behavior continues, your horse is at the risk of mental, emotional, and physical damage.
Horses tend to thrive in open spaces and should only be kept in a confined stall during recovery from an injury or sickness. Living in a stall for the most part of their day is unnatural for a horse so if they are kept in the stall alone, they tend to call out. This calling is unnatural, not the usual whining and neighing that horses make. This call will be sharp and more urgent and the horse will repeat it more often. This is referred to as the cry for help or a cry for companionship.
This is a stress sign in horses which often leads to ulcers in the stomach. If a horse suffers from stomach ulcers or that of the colon, he or she will lose appetite. Your horse will lose weight and have a dull coat instead of a shiny and healthy one. Your horse will lose interest in work and show issues with behavior among other problems.
If you notice your horse compulsively biting the fence rail or something similar, it is called cribbing. This is neurotic behavior that shows that your horse is unable to cope with loneliness anymore. A cribbing horse may also suck wind. You will notice that your horse arches his or her neck and sucks in the wind, the muscles on the lower side of the muscles with a contract. At the end of the “wind suck”, there will be a loud grunt. This behavior in a horse can be addictive and does nothing good for the mental state.
5. Appetite Loss
Horses that are lonely will not eat as much as they should when they feel happy. The neurons in their brain focus on the feeling of being depressed instead of food and other things that bring joy. Since more time is spent on being restless and fidgety behavior, no sufficient time is spent on eating properly. When a horse is just on the edge of feeling alone, their hunger will disappear – similar to what happens to humans. Keep in mind that loneliness is not a direct physical threat, but it leads to other behaviors that can trigger the “flight or fight” reaction. This puts your horse and you in imminent danger. The state of alertness in your horse is higher than usual.
Even a normal tempered horse can develop bad habits when they are left alone for long periods of time. Being sad and lonely tends to feed feelings of frustration and anger in horses. You will notice your horse repetitively kicking the stall door because of unused social energy. They need someone to spend this energy on and spend time running in the wild with a friend. Take this as a reaction to being lonely and sad not bad behavior. Although, keep in mind that if this behavior is kept unchecked, it can lead to aggression.
Stress sweat is another sign that is common in lonely horses. You may notice this on a cold day without any physical exercise. Know that your horse is stress sweating. Understand it like how we humans tend to sweat when we are nervous. As we have understood that horses tend to get stressed when they feel lonely, sweating more than usual is a common sign.
Horses and Companionship
Although most horses will handle being alone just fine, they will thrive in companionship. You will notice your horse being happier with a companion and have a higher quality of life. This is because horses are social animals and will be happy with any other animals around them. If you cannot afford to keep another horse, you can always choose the following non-equine companions and see how their friendship blossoms.
Dogs are great companions for horses if they are trained well. As long as they don’t nip or chase your horse, they will love to spend time with horses. While you are away, your dog would be great to keep your horse company while keeping your barn safe from predators and strangers. They are also great accompanying partners on trails and other activities.
Being a farm animal themselves, goats share similar characteristics as horses and make great companions. Both horses and goats thrive when they live in a herd so they understand the stress of being lonely. Keep in mind that smaller goats can be mischievous and tend to escape.
Donkeys and horses create great companionships as well. Both eat the same food and love staying among a herd. However, some horses might not like the company of a donkey because of their constant braying and noise.
The feline creatures are known to adore their equine friends. Cats make excellent companions to horses and horses adore smaller creatures. They are also great at keeping rodents away from the stalls. On the downside, they cannot travel as well as dogs do.
How Long Can You Keep a Horse Alone?
The answer to this question depends on every individual horse. Some horses can stand to be alone for weeks or even a few months. Their emotional reactions to surroundings are similar to those of humans. Some horses depend on other horses or a companion from stopping them from acting out. While others do fine for some time.
If your horse is used to being with a friend, it is highly unlikely that he or she would want to be left alone for long periods of time. If you keep your horse in an area that has paddocks and pastures, where other horses are visible, your horse can stay alone for a long time. The trick on finding out how long you can leave your horse alone is to notice his or her behavior. If the horse is young and gets scared easily, it is better not to leave them unattended.
Make sure your horse does not go without any other living contact for more than 24 hours.
Tips on Getting Your Horse to be Alone
Here are a few tips that can help you and your horse to find peace and comfort when alone.
1. Providing a Source of Entertainment
Being bored is the leading factor of feeling loneliness and depression in horses. One way to overcome boredom is by investing in a stall toy that keeps your horse busy in the stall during the day and night.
2. Jolly Ball
A jolly ball is versatile and comes in different sizes. It is rugged and highly helpful in alleviating boredom and stress in horses. A bigger sized jolly ball can be used in the pasture to promote movement.
3. Jolly Stall
This is a snack system that you can hang your horse’s treats from at wither level. You will notice your horse happy to play with it and every few licks will keep it entertained. Keep it positioned far away from the side of the stall so it does not get pinned to the wall.
4. Wall-Mounted, Spinning Toy
The Boredom Breaker is a popular spinning toy that can be mounted on a wall. You can load the toy with treats for your horse. It spins when the horse licks it keeping him or her entertained for hours on end.
5. Spread Out Feed in the Pasture
When a horse is left in the pasture with other horses, they will run around and play with each other. However, when your horse is alone, spread their feed out in the pasture so he or she moves around and gets physical activity.
6. More Grooming
Increase the number of times you groom your horse. This a great chance of you and your horse to spend time together. Currying them is a great way to bond and it will help your horse used to being with you and without any of their own kind.
7. Spend More Time with Your Horse
Even if you cannot ride with your horse every day, spend more time with them. Being present lets them know that you care and that you are there for them. Walk your horse around while you get your work done and groom them every day. Visit them in the stall and the pasture whenever you can, multiple times a day.