The power of one

An owner’s search for ways to keep her “suddenly single” mare from becoming lonely leads to a surprising realization.

I never planned on owning an “only” horse. My husband and I always envisioned keeping two horses on our small farm and for a long time we did; for a while, we even owned three.

With thoughtful management, a horse with the right temperament can be happy living alone.

But my daughter outgrew her pony so we found him another home. Then my old gelding passed away. As I struggled to cope with his loss, I worried about how my mare, Sally, would react to being alone. After all, everything I knew about horses told me that she needed the company of at least one other horse to feel safe and happy. I started to think about hurrying up and repopulating my herd to protect her emotional well-being.

But I couldn’t help but notice that Sally seemed to be doing just fine. In truth, she had always seemed a bit ambivalent toward my gelding. She wasn’t hostile but didn’t seem very attached to him either. On the other hand, Sally had bonded with our pony. She would forlornly call out to him if I rode her out on the trails alone, and when we returned she acted like she was being reunited with a long-lost friend. Yet when the pony was sold and left for good, Sally took it in stride, giving no indication that she missed her friend.

And now that she was alone, Sally didn’t seem to care.

Nonetheless, I worried that she would eventually become lonely, and set about the process of figuring out what was best for her. Sure, I could get another horse—and several kind friends had offered to lend me one—but I wasn’t ready to take that step, especially with any haste. I was still grieving the loss of my gelding, and I didn’t want to make the financial and emotional commitment to another horse without thinking it through. But would I be letting Sally down if I left her on her own?

Weighing the options

In exploring my options, I discovered that there were many ways I could keep Sally happy without actually bringing in another horse. I decided to consider each one in the context of her needs and personality, as well as my own situation and resources. Through that process, I hoped, I’d hit on the right solution for both of us. Here are the main options I considered.

Spend more time at the barn. Maybe, I thought, I could replace the companionship Sally might be missing, as well as occupy her free time, by spending more time with her myself. This didn’t necessarily mean riding more, but devoting more time to groundwork, grooming sessions and simply “being there.” She and I already had a good, trusting relationship, in which she looked to me for guidance. But more time together could enhance our partnership. There is no shortage of information available from books, videos and trainers on how to strengthen your one-on-one relationship with a horse through time spent with them out of the saddle.

I had to admit, however, that this tactic would be a tough one for me to implement for the long term. Between my career, family and farm life, my days were already completely full. As harsh as it may seem, I didn’t feel that I had another moment to spare.

Provide horse-proof toys. If I couldn’t be Sally’s companion and playmate, perhaps I could provide her with toys to keep her occupied. In just a few minutes of online browsing, I learned that there is a huge array of horse toys a person can purchase. From indestructible paddock balls to lickable “mobiles” that hang in the stall, these toys are designed to keep horses entertained and busy. They aren’t just for solo horses, though—they are useful for stall-bound and naturally playful horses as well.

With the magic of overnight shipping, I could have a toy at the barn almost immediately. Sally, however, didn’t seem to have the personality for this option. She wasn’t the sort to pick up and toss a saddle pad left on her stall door or curiously nose a ball around a field. What’s more, she had never shown any interest in the old horse toys that we had kept at the farm when we still had the other horses. I didn’t want to spend money on a new set of toys I was pretty sure would be ignored.

Feed unlimited hay. Hay is nature’s stall toy and one I knew Sally would love. In addition to providing necessary nutrients and dietary bulk, sorting through and chewing hay gives a horse a way to pass the time. There is a reason why many stall vices are cured by simply providing more hay—horses in a natural setting spend 16 or more hours a day grazing and the closer you can get to replicating that activity with hay, the happier they will be.

I could, theoretically, keep hay in front of Sally at all times but that did have some significant downsides. For starters, she is a very easy keeper. I’d have to be careful about the hay I chose and cut back in other areas of her diet to ensure she didn’t pick up too much weight. Increasing her hay supply to “unlimited” could also quickly become prohibitively expensive. Unlimited hay, then, didn’t seem like the best idea for us.

Utilize slow feeders. If unlimited hay wasn’t a viable option, I could try stretching her usual hay ration as far as possible by using a slow feeder. These feeders regulate a horse’s hay consumption by allowing them to only get a few stems at a time. Slow feeders help replicate natural grazing behavior, occupying a horse’s time and mind without the downsides of weight gain and a strained bank account. Slow feeders come in a variety of options, ranging from what are essentially hay nets with very small holes to elaborate boxes with mesh lids. There are also plans available online for building your own if you were so inclined. I saw very little downside of a slow feeder for my mare and filed the idea under “very possible” in my mind if she seemed to become bored or anxious.

Get a goat or a donkey. If bringing in another horse wasn’t a good option right now, perhaps a smaller companion animal might be. I, like most horse owners, had heard tales of racehorses with dedicated goat companions that traveled from track to track with them. Or of faithful donkeys who, already being naturally fluent in equine body language, stepped easily into the role of fellow herd members. Honestly, the idea of a goat or donkey sounded pretty fun. But taking a step back, I realized that neither of these options seemed like a good fit for our farm. From my large animal background I knew that the fencing, feed and the simple day-to-day care of these animals can be quite different from those required for horses. The responsibility of taking on another, different creature was a big one that I wasn’t prepared to take on just yet.

Holding steady

The days stretched to weeks as I researched and considered these options. All the while I kept a close watch on Sally. And, to my surprise and relief, she continued to do fine. She was eating and drinking normally, was her typical laid-back self when I handled and rode her, and she hadn’t developed any signs of anxiety, like stall walking or wood chewing. Perhaps most reassuring was the fact that I’d often find her stretched flat out to sleep in the early morning hours or for a nap in the afternoon sun. I knew that horses who are fretful about being alone often don’t feel secure enough to lie down in such a vulnerable position, but she seemed to have no qualms about it.

I had made no changes to our routine and not only was Sally coping well, but our relationship thrived. We calmly went out on trail rides alone. She sought my leadership. I trusted in her abilities. I decided to not try to fix what wasn’t broken.

After a few months, I did have to make an adjustment, but it wasn’t one I’d expected. I discovered, ironically, that after longer periods of solitude Sally would become anxious when she was around other horses. It was almost as if she would forget how to relate to them and when she did see them, she worried about what they might do.

Fortunately, the solution was easy enough. I try to not let more than a week or two go by without allowing her some interaction with other horses. I take her trail riding with friends or ride her at a local park regularly. This seems to be often enough for her to keep up her social skills and remain comfortable in the company of other horses.

As her time as a lone horse stretches on, I continue to see benefits of solo horsekeeping. Sally and have developed a level of trust with one another unlike few I have ever experienced. I have also enjoyed some unexpected personal benefits to being the owner of a lone horse. For instance, I never feel as if I need to divide my attention between multiple horses. There is also less time involved and fewer expenses with caring for one animal, allowing me to devote more resources to her. Although solo horsekeeping isn’t a situation I would have ever chosen, it does work well for us. I never would have thought that before I’d experienced it myself.

Of course, not every horse would adapt to the single lifestyle as easily as Sally did. Certainly most young horses need the socialization opportunities provided by one or more horses. And others may simply have personalities or life experiences that would make living alone a problem, no matter what you provide in terms of toys, hay and attention. In those cases, a second horse may be the only solution. I also understand that not every owner will be comfortable with just one horse. Having another mount for friends and family is nice, as is having a “backup” ride when a horse needs time off.

Today, when new friends become aware that I have only one horse, I will still get the occasional offer for a companion animal for Sally. Perhaps in the pasture she does miss having a partner horse from which she can seek a friendly back scratch or share in the duties of fly swishing. I will never know. But I do know that I am not yet ready to take on another horse and I am happy that she seems content with her current life. Maybe one day there will be a new four-legged friend for Sally, but for now she’s loving the single life.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #469

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