Horses are known to be social creatures – herd animals by nature that thrive on a group dynamic. While there are varying degrees of friendship needs, from a large field with several herd members to a trio or even just a pair, horses that are on their own, by contrast, can get lonely. Even though horses have long been domesticated, their original natural instincts for companionship and a herd mentality are hardwired into their makeup.
Horses may not be able to speak up about their feelings of loneliness, but they can communicate in other ways. Just as you learn to read your horse’s body language and expression for signs of pain, confusion, anger and so on, you can also learn to read when a horse is exhibiting the quieter signs of feeling lonely.
LACK OF REACTIONS
Just like humans, when horses are lonely, they can become depressed. Also just like humans, a common symptom of depression is becoming withdrawn, uninterested or unaware in situations around them.
You can tell when your horse is withdrawn, as it will tend not to respond to things around it.
For example, a study was done with 50 horses in which unusual animal sounds were played. The horses that were not perceived to be lonely and depressed reacted with interest, curiosity or even trepidation.
Their ears pricked up, their heads turned to the sound, they licked their lips in concentration on the new thing. The lonely horses, though, registered no reaction. They did not acknowledge something new and strange, and they seemed unaware of it.
You do not need to conduct your own study to notice horses that don’t react. These horses will usually stay still for a long time; their ears, too, will not move for lengths of time. Their heads and necks will remain fixed, and their eyes tend to be open, but wide and unfocused, with a long time between blinks.
PACING OR RESTLESSNESS
If your horse constantly paces back and forth at the fence line, that is an important sign of loneliness. It may be that there are no other horses or animals at the barn and so it sticks to the outside of the pasture out of boredom and hope. It also may be that it has a buddy who is in a separate field or who is kept in a stall.
Pacing is not only a bad sign for mental health, but it can also lead to physical health problems as well. Pacing puts extra strain on a horse’s legs, which can lead to joint and tendon damage caused by repetitive motion.
Another risk is ringbone (a type of arthritis in the horse’s lower leg), as constant turning strains the joints.
Your horse may not be strictly pacing in a “back and forth at the fence line” sense, but it could be just generally restless. If your horse is overly fidgety, walking in circles, or keeps stamping its hooves – all these are signs of restlessness that arise when a horse is bored.
If your horse doesn’t have a friend to keep it company and its mind occupied, it may show these bored, restless motions, much like a toddler who is under-stimulated.
Living in a stall is unnatural for a horse. Horses are naturally used to open spaces and not confinement – and they aren’t used to being separated from their herd. Apart from necessary stall rest for sickness or injury, horses shouldn’t be kept confined.
A horse that is alone in a stall will often call out. The sound is not like typical neighs and whinnies – the call is not only sharper and more urgent, but it will also be excessively repeated. Lots of whinnying is a cry for help and a cry for friendship.
This stressor can lead to other physical manifestations, too, such as stomach ulcers. Ulcers in the horse’s stomach and colon can affect a horse’s appetite, causing weight loss, a dull coat, a loss of interest in work, behavioral issues and more.
Cribbing is when a horse compulsively bites a fence rail (or something similar). A cribbing horse may also “wind suck,” where it arches its neck and sucks in, contracting its lower neck muscles as air rushes in. You will hear an accompanying grunt with most cribbing.
This is an addictive and fixating behavior that often occurs when a horse is bored or lonely. If a horse is kept on its own, its mind can become overwhelmed by boredom, stress, and loneliness, resulting in this neurotic behavior to cope.
LOSS OF APPETITE
Lonely horses may not eat as much as they would under normal circumstances. They are often not interested in food anymore, as their minds are more focused on feeling lonely.
This also connects to a restless nature, as more time spent pacing or fidgeting is time spent not eating. And, if they are on edge about being alone, they often just won’t feel as hungry.
While loneliness isn’t a direct physical threat, it still triggers the stress of the “fight or flight” reaction, which dampens the appetite and heightens the horse’s state of alert.
A horse who is generally even-tempered may develop some bad habits when left alone. Sometimes, sadness and loneliness in horses can manifest as anger or frustration.
You may notice your horse kicking at the stall because they have pent up social energy with nowhere and no one to spend it on. This does not mean the horse is aggressive or badly behaved generally, but it is a warning sign that it is becoming agitated by loneliness and stress, which can cause behavior problems if left unchecked.
Excessive sweating is a stress behavior in horses, and as we’ve seen being alone can cause horses to feel stressed. If it is a normal, cool day and your horse has not been exercising yet it is sweating, which is most likely stress sweat.
Just like humans who can have “nervous sweating” in response to a high-stress situation, horses who are alone and unhappy about that can react with stress sweat in a similar way.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The easy answer is, of course, to have a second horse on your property and keep both horses together in a field. This will give each horse an easily identifiable friend.
Having another horse can be expensive, but luckily horses are rather sociable with many animals. You might consider a different farm friend for your horse, such as a donkey, llama, cow – even a goose!
Another option to consider is taking on a senior horse. Older horses who can no longer be ridden have a harder time finding homes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still full of life and love!
Senior horses are don’t require tack, they don’t suffer riding-related injuries and they eat less. Adopting a senior horse as a pasture pal not only keeps your current horse happy with a friend, but it gives a deserving older equine a loving home to live out the rest of their years.
As creatures with great social intelligence, a horse kept by itself can be a lonely one indeed. Though it is true that not all horses are the same (some do better with being alone than others), you will want to observe your horse and know what to look for if it does start feeling lonely.
While horses and humans have a long history of being excellent companions for each other, a human can’t fulfill all of a horse’s social needs, just as a horse doesn’t fill all the social needs of a person. If your horse is showing signs of being unhappy being alone, don’t take it personally – but do look into providing them with a friend, whether it’s a horse or another companion animal.