How Horses Make Friends

Horses bond initially in pairs. Freedom and Kroni had become good friends.
Horses bond initially in pairs. Freedom and Kroni had become good friends.

Last Tuesday my friend Alison brought her horse Van to the barn while she finds him a home. I hoped that bringing Freedom a friend would cheer him up, as he’s been acting depressed since Kroni died.

Freedom and Kroni were inseparable.
Freedom and Kroni were inseparable, even when turned out to graze the stayed together.

However, Freedom has made it clear that having another horse in his pasture is not the same as having his best friend. I don’t remember all that much how Kroni treated Freedom when I got him three years ago, but over time, the two became very closely bonded. They were always together when they were out, grazing side by side and calling to each other when they were separated.

While Kroni had started out as the dominant horse, over time Freedom took over the alpha role and started to assert himself. It was clear when I introduced Van that Freedom considers himself to be in charge. When Van walked over to where Freedom was eating hay, Freedom let fly with both back legs. He wasn’t trying to connect, but Van got the message; for the rest of the time that they were turned out together, Van kept a respectful distance away.

They’ve been turned out together now for several days and I can see that Freedom likes Van more than when he first arrived. He nickers when Van is out of sight and the two play over the stall doors after they finish eating. But they still spend their time out together with a good amount of distance between them. When Van comes too close, Freedom shoots him the evil eye and puts back his ears. Van immediately backs off.

Herd dynamics are a ruled by a strict hierarchy. It’s not such a big deal when you have a herd of two, but when introducing a new horse to a larger number, you need to take it slowly and carefully. Introducing a new horse can cause quite a bit of drama as the new pecking order is established. Here are a few tips:

  • Before introducing horses, put the new horse in its own pasture for a few days to let him meet his new herd mates over the fence.
  • If you have a larger herd, try introducing your new horse to one other horse before integrating him into the group, preferably a non aggressive horse that’s in the middle of the existing hierarchy. Horses tend to bond in pairs before the bond with the herd. Giving your new horse a buddy will make him feel more secure. In addition, the buddy will help ease his transition into the larger herd.
  • When you first turn out new horses together, make sure they have plenty of space, that there are no places where a new horse could get trapped, and that there are no obstacles or potential booby traps that could injure the horses if they start to run. It’s always better to make introductions during daylight hours, if possible.
  • If you put out hay, spread it out into several piles to minimize conflicts over food.
  • Trailering horses together is a good way to forge a bond. I’ve seen that with Freedom. Several times we’ve trailered with Fortune and now he’s quite attached to her.

Try not to get too worried about superficial cuts and scrapes. Horses do play hard and there are bound to be some marks. Kroni and Freedom often used to gallop around and then rear up at each other play fighting. They often came in with a few bite marks and missing patches of fur. It didn’t seem to bother them.

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