Alice MacGillivray, PhD, is author of “Riding Horseback in Purple” written for “women of age” who maybe considering horse ownership – first timers and re-riders alike.  Alice guides readers through scenarios that help dissect the reality of horse ownership from our childhood fantasies. An expert in adult learning, Alice explores ways we connect with horses as leaders, care givers and riding partners. A great read for casual and professional WARHorses who want to make their horse purchase the start of a long, fulfilled partnership.

Today’s post talks about the dynamics of horses living alone or within a herd, a challenging subject with which Alice and her horse, Bocina, have confronted  first hand.

Herd Dynamics

When exploring horse ownership, I was very much aware that horses are herd animals.  In Riding Horseback in Purple, I wrote about advice I received about companion animals.  At the time, I thought I would have my Fjord horse Bocina on a small rural property and I was seriously considering a miniature donkey as her companion.  The question I posted in a horse forum generated dozens of replies, most of which highly recommended a companion animal.  Eventually Pat—a respected horsewoman—posted the following reply.

I’m going to stick my neck out—and say from past experiences you may NOT even need a companion. Yes, horses are pack animals, etc. I have had good experiences with the care of singular horses and ponies. It can be done, and they will not die, and they thrive.

I have found when one seems to think they NEED a companion for their horse it often leads to a major domino effect.

You buy a buddy for the one horse, then the pecking order rules come into effect. One horse is assertive over the other, so then you feel sorry for the horse getting picked on. So you get him/her a companion because horse #1 is beating up companion #2. Now we have three: a REAL herd is made. Two become best friends, and the 3rd is an outsider, thus a 4th animal is brought into the mix. Then one is a mare and babies are soooo cute, and Mr. Smith down the road has that beautiful stallion…hummm baby on the way. Eventually you have 16 horses, a new barn, indoor, trainer, trailer, tack room full of stuff, farrier and vet bills, and a husband that says: ‘didn’t we only buy one?’

OK I tend to elaborate, but I will add that I once had a client who did indeed purchase a mini donkey for companionship for their Fjord. Every time it rained, the donkey would stand at the gate and bay, bawl or whatever they do, until I brought HIM in alone to a stall cause he didn’t like to be wet! No joke. Good luck.

I have learned a lot since I got that advice, but every new twist is fascinating.  For several years, my mare has lived on a farm with an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB).  They could not be more different in temperament.  My mare is generally calm and confident; the TB is generally dominant, insecure and potentially a split second away from bucking or rearing.  If I want to take Bocina off the property, the TB has to be stalled.  She screams and kicks the door, but with the protection of a stall, she is unlikely to hurt herself.  I was losing nerve and rarely leaving the property.

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Photo: Alice MacGillivray

The farm sold.  New owners just arrived with two horses—a Quarter Horse and an off track Standardbred (OTSB) companion—so there are now four on the property.  These changes were bound to make things a bit chaotic.  We were worried about everything from safety to whether the coach would continue to teach on site when the TB kept charging the ring.  We couldn’t put her in a stall because the stall was now hay storage in Phase 1 of barn renovations.

The new farm owner and I were sitting in the shade of the barn overhang, having a “What are we going to do about the OTTB” conversation.  The TB cantered back and forth whinnying and disrupting my friend’s lesson. “What if we put them together?” the new owner asks, referring to the OTTB and her OTSB, who has his own issues. We knew these big bay beauties kick (fading bruise on my thigh as evidence).  But our farrier had pulled shoes off the shod horses, so there would be no flying metal for serious injuries.  The idea was intriguing.

As we discussed this possibility, the SB barged through the non-functioning electric fence into the field with the TB.  They charged around with great excitement.  I walked up through the field protected by a longe whip, opened the gate to the OTTB field and ushered them in.  Where they’ve lived happily ever since.

After the OT pair had been together for a week, I took the first baby steps towards trail rides. I brought my mare down, groomed her, and for the first time in years, I headed off the property without putting the TB in a stall.  No screams or kicks from behind as we walked down the driveway.  It turns out a horse can be much better than a stall: a surprising solution.

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Bocina (left) making friends at a recent clinic. Photo: Alice MacGillivray

Do I think a horse should have a companion on the property?  I don’t believe there is a definitive answer, as each horse is unique and each situation different.  The story above was far from predictable, but it helped that we were open to possibilities.  As a starting point, I’d say get a companion (perhaps giving a good home to a safe rescue horse) if your horse will not be able to see other equines from their paddock.  Every choice will come with pros, cons, and valuable learning.


Feature Photo: “Bocina and Tony” courtesy Kelly Bilquist.


#WARHorses guest writer, Alice MacGillivray’s book, “Riding Horseback in Purple” is available on Amazon.com

Be Certain to READ Alice’s Other Posts

Liberty Training

Considerations for Purchasing a Horse