Companion animals are well known for alleviating loneliness and lifting depression in people, but humans aren’t the only species that suffers from these common maladies. Like people, horses and dogs are social creatures that long for the emotional ties and daily interactions of a soul mate. Horses in particular pine when left alone. Despite their size, they are preyed-upon animals and feel much safer in groups.
Throughout our country’s transformation, the horse has served a central role. Horses have been used in agriculture, transportation and war. Native Americans bred horses and referred to them as “sky dogs,” because they exhibited traits similar to canines, including patience and loyalty.
It’s interesting that the cultural development of dog breeds has long shadowed that of the horse. Once primarily useful as hunting companions, dog breeds evolved to guard livestock from predators, gather herds and flocks and quell the rodent population attracted to stocks of grain.
Fast forward to today. The workhorse has been sidelined, replaced by machinery and technology. Suburban horse people, while devoted and passionate about the needs of their animals, are restricted from owning herds by both space and expense. Suburban zoning laws also restrict ownership, generally limiting horse lovers to one animal for every two acres. The result? Not so good if you’re a horse. Long hours of isolation, limited human contact and little or no companionship can lead to a host of anxiety-related behaviors, including chewing wood, cribbing (when a horse pulls on loose boards), kicking walls and circling. Is there a solution?
Fortunately, yes. It seems that horses are adaptable and accepting. The need to socialize is so strong that a horse will, when paired with an equally sociable and interactive companion, be satisfied with a friend of another species. It is important to note that both the temperament of the horse and its companion need to be considered. Sociable animals seek company for many reasons, not the least of which is protection and leadership. A horse with a gentle disposition will seek camaraderie and direction, while a strong, assertive animal will demand an equally authoritative presence to guide him or a yielding disposition to its dominant one. When choosing a horse’s companion, select one that is freshly weaned and of a passive, yielding nature that will – in the absence of people and others of its type – seek the company of a horse.
Here are three species to consider:
Dogs – While dogs can make wonderful companions for horses, the dog’s breed and disposition must be carefully chosen. Herding breeds, bred for farm life, are often too intent on their purpose to relate. Terriers are more focused on what’s below ground than above. Guarding breeds are intent on surveying the territory. Sporting breeds, whether pure or mixed, are often best suited for companionship. Select a young, passive and emotionally reliant puppy that will seek out the horse in the absence of other dogs and people.
Cats – Interestingly, the cats that make the best companions for horses are often not the best mousers. When choosing a mouser, look for a determined nature that even at seven weeks old focuses on a feather over human affection. In selecting a kitten as a social companion, seek more relaxed qualities – joy in human handling, purring when held. These highlight a follower’s disposition that relies on interaction to thrive.
Goats – Nothing is quite so entertaining as the friendship that often develops between a horse and a goat. Given the choice, either species would prefer its own, though when raised together they often form a strong bond. Great escape artists and tremendous eaters, goats need to be sequestered during meal times and require a carefully constructed pen to keep them secure. Goats are also known to eat a horse’s tail down to the nub, so buyer beware!