Horses need for Companionship – Social behaviour

Horses are social animals regardless of whether they are wild or in a domesticated environment and have adapted to live with others. Wild horses live in herds comprising of a number of mares, their offspring and at least one male horse. Herd life is vital as a survival strategy and it provides much needed companionship, security and social behaviour is needed to help minimise conflict and enhance herd stability. The mares will often stay together regardless of whether the male horse leaves the herd and the horses will commonly form pair bonds which can last a lifetime. Allogrooming is a common sight with pair bonded horses but is also seen in non pair bonded horses. Allogrooming has been suggested to be an important social behaviour as it builds social bonds and can even lower the horse’s heart rate. Play is another behaviour which is commonly observed in herds, especially within juvenile horses and helps to develop their social skills, physical motor skills and group cohesion.

It is commonly observed that once a colt or filly is 1-3 years of age they will leave the family herd to join another or even establish their own. In addition to this, colts and stallions may join a “bachelor band” which is a herd consisting of up to 16 males. Social isolation is rarely seen in the wild, although old and infirm stallions have been seen to live alone on occasion.

The horse’s innate need for companionship

Compared to their free range counterparts, the variety of behaviours observed in domesticated horses has been altered due to modern husbandry practices. Domesticated horses are housed in a variety of different systems which provide varying  levels of social interaction and companionship which can range from full interaction to no interaction at all, which some horses find frustrating and stressful.

It has been recognised that both long term and short term social isolation can impact horse welfare in a negative way as it has been found that horses are highly motivated to seek social interaction. Consequently confinement and social isolation, along with other management factors, may all contribute to the development of stereotypies including crib-biting wind sucking, box walking and weaving which are rarely observed in the wild. However, it is important to mention here that the individual’s coping style will determine how they cope with stress. This means that a stressed horse will not always stereotype in order to help them cope with a suboptimal environment. It is therefore vital that horse owners and yard managers keep the behavioural needs of the horse at the forefront of their minds remembering that the behaviour of the horse has remained relatively unaltered by the domestication process. Although it can be difficult to mimic all of the natural social interactions a horse would usually encounter in the wild there are natural enrichment and limited options for behaviour enrichment that can be used to help satisfy the social needs of the domesticated horse.

Thanks to the BHS for the information!