Equine social structures and a horse’s social needs can be pretty complex, but designing your farm to take your horse’s social life into consideration doesn’t have to be. Kelly Munro of Lighthoof has the details.
In my quest to develop guidelines for designing a horse friendly farm, and as part of my mission to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for the horses at my boarding facility, I’ve spent a lot of time observing horses of different breeds, ages, activity levels, and backgrounds.
I’ve found a wide range of tolerance levels that different horses display to different situations. For example, some horses act relaxed and comfortable on stall rest with no view of the other horses, while some weave or paw in one grooming area but not another, and others aren’t okay unless they can see the location of every horse on the farm.
This lead me to believe that while it can be difficult to predict what exact combination of factors will allow every horse to have optimal mental and emotional well-being, there are a number of things you can plan for that will help your more sensitive horses and your steady-eddies will appreciate them too.
The Herd Is Everything
In the wild, horses live in herds. For a long time, herd behavior and social connections were thought to be fairly simple and based on a “pecking order” or hierarchy in which the stallion kept a “harem” of mares who he led and defended against predators and theft by other stallions.
Then it became clear that herd movement and activities were driven by a lead mare who the stallion also followed. Now, after researchers have spent countless hours in wild horse country observing and documenting different herds, it’s emerging that equine social structure is even more complex than that.
So how does this affect horse friendly farm design for our domestic horses, who seem to speak a different language and have different priorities than their wild cousins?
The complexity of horse social behavior leads us to believe that interactions between horses are extremely important for their mental and emotional health. For example, both domestic and wild horses form deep relationships with fellow equines and who they form these relationships with is based on personal preference. Some researchers have even observed a pair of mares, who were close friends, leaving their herd together to breed with another stallion whom they preferred over their own. The two mares would help each other resist their stallion’s advances, whereas other mares in the herd were happy with the herd stallion.
Examples like these, and many other more subtle means of communicating and divvying up resources within a group of horses, show us that horses have quite complex social lives and seem to benefit mentally and emotionally from being allowed to have these interactions.
This tendency to form subgroups within the herd, and the fact that many family members and herd groups tend to stay with each other for most of their lives, comes into conflict with our own stable management practices much of the time. For example, we necessarily choose our horses’ herd-mates and most horses tend to be turned out in smaller groups that “force friendship” rather than allowing natural subgroups to form.
The challenge, from a farm design perspective, is that most farms do not have the thousands of acres that wild horses have access to. Additionally, new horses enter our lives and others leave, somewhat artificially, creating some emotional turmoil that a wild herd wouldn’t necessarily experience.
We know that horses generally seek out the company of others to feel comfortable and safe, so planning your farm’s layout to accommodate this can improve their mental and emotional well-being. Even if your horses can’t be turned out together, laying out your areas to promote a feeling of togetherness where horses can communicate over fence lines is horse friendly.
There’s a philosophy of “natural horsekeeping” that seeks to maintain the domestic horse’s living environment as close to a wild horse’s as possible with the goal of optimizing both their physical and mental states. These methods have been used to fix horse “problems” ranging from hoof care to depression or aggression.
One major pioneer of a horsekeeping environment modeled after wild horse behavior is Jaime Jackson, with his book Paddock Paradise. He was one of the first to develop a track system to mimic a herd’s natural range and environmental stimuli.
This relates to a discovery that researchers made while observing wild horses: the realization that a wild horse herd has a specific range. They aren’t exactly nomadic, instead each herd has a consistent path that they take through their vast territory that revolves around a water source.
They move as a complete group along this path, generally at the request of the lead mare. From this, we can determine that horses with natural social tendencies prefer to be a part of a group moving through a familiar area at the request of a trusted leader on the hunt for resources. How can we help them experience that essential component of their “horseness” at home?
We’ve seen horse friendly farm owners create track turnouts of various levels of complexity, from a full Paddock Paradise style natural environment, to a simple loop around a grassy area for pasture management.
However deep into the natural styles of horsekeeping you decide to go depends on your own comfort level and goals for your horses. It’s possible to be horse friendly, while still making it easy to ride and train. There’s a wide spectrum of ways to create an environment that complements your horses’ minds and bodies, while being convenient for the humans as well.
Your Horse Friendly Design
Here’s a quick litmus test to determine if your design choices support your horse’s natural mental and emotional priorities.
This is the most important thing to prevent! A design is not horse friendly if it causes a horse to be isolated from other horses. Can they see, hear, and feel close to at least one other horse at all times?
Does the horse have multiple opportunities to communicate with other horses via body posturing, facial expression, vocalization, even smell? Practicing communication with other horses is beneficial for the horse’s socialization. Some horses who haven’t had opportunities to communicate naturally with other horses lose the ability to socialize, which is a very sad loss indeed since horses’ social lives are very important to them emotionally. Horses who aren’t well socialized often have problems with unreasonable aggressive behavior toward humans or other horses.
The horse’s mind is naturally attuned to resource seeking. Whether he is grazing, locating his water in the field, trying to get treats out of a ball, using a hay feeder, or bickering with friends for a salt lick, seeking resources is a great way for a horse to occupy his mind and feel a sense of purpose that will help eliminate issues with depression, boredom, or anxiety.
Is your horse able to choose her companionship? This means having a subgroup in a larger herd, or the ability to avoid the company of other horses. Often a turnout situation with just two horses becomes un-horse-friendly if there is no way to avoid the undesirable companion. The best way to address this is to have flexibility in your turnout design to allow for bigger or smaller groups, or individual turnouts that are configurable. Researchers recommend spending many hours over days observing the group interactions. There’s not much you can learn about the complex social lives of horses by standing by the fence line for 15 minutes after putting them out together for the first time. Bring a chair, and snacks, and plan on doing your observations monthly because horse social groups are constantly evolving!
Our next article on horse friendly farm design will focus on setting your facility up to reduce stress and make your horses feel safe. Thanks for reading!