The Solitary Horse

Have just enough space, money or time for one horse? Here's what you need to know if you're thinking of going it alone.
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Just seeing horses in the distance can have a calming effect on a solo horse.A sign hanging in a friend's stable reads: "Horses are like potato chips, you can't have just one." That pretty much said it all for my small circle of horse friends in past years.

Then, the economic squeeze hit. Like equestrians everywhere, we began to cut back on tack, then training fees and finally on the size of our herds. And that's when we discovered that horses aren't at all like potato chips. You can have just one.

The one-horse possibility isn't something most of us willingly embrace. But it may, in fact, be the only option for equestrians today faced with less money, less space and less time to spend on their horses.

Fortunately, going solo can work if a horse has the right personality, is kept in the right surroundings and receives the right care. My riding partner Linda discovered as much when the horse she boarded on her property went away for several weeks of training. That left Linda's 9-year-old mare, Bella, as the single equine occupant on her two-acre lot.

Bella was perfectly content in her pasture by herself with only the occasional glimpse of the neighbor's horses across the fence. What's more, the absence of her buddy made the mare look to Linda for leadership. We all noticed the change in the mare immediately, and it wasn't long before Linda decided to make the new living arrangement permanent.

On the other hand, Julie, another rider in our group, had a less positive experience with single horsekeeping. When Julie purchased a Pony of the Americas (POA) mare, she figured her new horse would do fine as a pampered only equine. From the day she arrived at Julie's place, however, the mare began pacing the fence line.

Weeks went by and things didn't improve---in fact, they got worse. The mare stopped eating and whinnied constantly, ultimately pawing a man-size hole through the bottom of her stall. Afraid that her new pony would become ill or injure herself, Julie eventually sold her to a family that had several horses.

Some horses are just not cut out to live alone, says equine behaviorist Bonnie V. Beaver, BS, DVM, MS, DPNAP, DACVB, a professor at Texas A&M University. Many will fret, pace or otherwise act out when no other horses are around. Others simply live in worried silence, possibly developing behavioral quirks or physical problems such as ulcers.

Your one & only
Although there are no guarantees that any particular horse will adapt to living alone, a little observation will yield clues about which individuals are likely to cope well. To find a horse who can happily live by himself, says Beaver, look for one who:

  • separates easily from the herd. If he leaves his barnmates without hesitation or isn't concerned when his buddies leave him at the barn, he's probably fairly confident that he can take care of himself. If, on the other hand, he is anxious to join up with other horses and refuses to depart from a riding group, he may not be able to cope with being alone in a pasture for days on end.
  • has more "fight" than "flight." Horses who stand their ground rather than run to the herd for assurance are generally more self-assured by nature and are more apt to have the coping skills to be on their own.
  • hasn't established a long-standing relationship with another horse. An example is a horse who seems unaffected when his pasturemate leaves for several hours on a ride.
  • has adapted to stall confinement. Confined horses are already used to being separated from the herd, especially if they've been kept in stalls where they can't see other horses. The transition to only-horse status may not be as difficult for these horses as it might be for others who are used to communal living in a herd.

When I began my search for an only horse to live on my small lot, I was introduced to a sorrel gelding who obviously had an independent streak. I noticed he kept to himself most of the time and seemed alternately indifferent to and annoyed by other horses. I was told he preferred people over horses, even though he'd spent most of his years on the ranch as part of a large herd. He was equally willing when I rode him alone or in a group, whether going to or leaving the barn. I decided he was the right horse for me.

Louie didn't disappoint when I brought him home: From day one, he seemed perfectly content as the only horse on the property. To this day, he hasn't so much as whinnied to the horses two lots over, although he will occasionally greet them with indifference when they are turned out into the adjoining pasture to graze.

My previous horse was an off-the-track Thoroughbred who also seemed to do well on his own, although this probably had more to do with his background than his personality. I suspect his formative years at the racetrack, where he was kept in a stall on the backstretch, prepared him for life alone on my property.

In both cases, I had every reason to believe that my horses were happy with the arrangement. Each was eating and drinking, seemed alert but not overly worried about his surroundings, and as far as I could tell, exhibited the same pattern of behavior as usual.

Providing a safe environment
A horse's surroundings have a strong influence on whether he feels comfortable alone. "The safety factor in the herd is most significant when there is potential danger or when moving into unfamiliar environments. If there is an established paddock, barn or pasture that the horse is used to, then there is a security going with the location as well," explains Beaver.

The survival of the equine species over the eons depended on this ability to assess dangers in the environment. Whereas a person may have forgotten about the horse-eating creature that darted out from under the bush on a ride some time ago, you can bet the horse remembers the place and the exact bush. He has survived because of how well he distinguishes between those objects that are nonthreatening and those that are new and, therefore, suspect.

The good news is that this desire for security can help keep the peace in otherwise challenging situations, such as when a pasturemate moves away or dies. To a horse the familiarity of the stall or barn is the next best thing to the safety of a herd and may even substitute for one. "In many cases, these horses don't even know the other is gone because of the familiarity of?their surroundings," says Beaver, who experienced this firsthand when the older of her two horses passed away recently, leaving the other alone and otherwise unaffected.

If a horse is comfortable with his surroundings before going solo, that's a plus; if there are also other horses nearby at a neighboring farm, even better.

Beaver says just seeing other horses in the distance can have a calming effect on an only horse. I've noticed that Louie will often lie down to snooze in the sun, but always on the side of the paddock closest to the neighboring horses, even though they are some distance away. It's reasonable to assume that he is not too concerned a lion could pounce on him at any moment while he dozes because he is confident the neighboring horses are keeping watch, even if they are several hundred feet across the fence line.

Every herd needs a leader
To help a horse adapt to solitary life requires that you provide him with some social support. This means that you must assume the role of the lead mare in your herd of two. Without that leadership, according to Beaver, the only horse will never feel safe.

I can attest to this. Remember the Thoroughbred I mentioned earlier? When I first brought him home as an only horse, he seemed content. However, as time went on and he discovered that my newness to the horse game kept me from becoming the lead mare he hoped for, he began to grow anxious and to look wistfully at the other horses across the way. Within a few months, our relationship had soured to the point that I decided I could no longer earn his trust back and sold him to someone who could.

It was a painful lesson, and I now take my role as the lead mare very seriously. I spent two years learning the language of horses from a reputable instructor in my area. He taught me the leadership skills that my horse so desperately needs for his overall happiness and well-being.

I also try to "stand in" as his herd during especially scary times. Every 4th of July, for example, I park my lawn chair next to Louie's stall to assume my role as the lead mare, hopefully providing that calming influence he needs just in case the fireworks upset him.

I like to think that I share a special bond with my horse because I am both his human and his herd. He certainly greets me warmly at the gate, and he seems especially hooked onto me in our rides out with others. Still, I recognize that I can't always fill those big horsey shoes for him---certainly not while I'm away and sometimes even when I'm there. Those are the times that I wish he had a four-legged companion.

The goat question
Sooner or later, everyone who has a single horse thinks about getting a goat. It's tempting because goats are also herd animals, yet they're much more affordable to keep compared to another horse.

But can a goat really, truly fill in as another member of the herd to my horse?

Yes and no, says Beaver. "A horse can only do horse things, and a goat can only do goat things. So the bonding isn't exactly the same. Think of it this way, we bond with horses and dogs but we don't bond in the same way as the horse does, or the dog. At the same time, there is an interaction that is appreciated," she comments.

Certainly, this is true of Louie and the goat that lives in the neighbor's property in back of ours. They make a point of greeting each other by touching noses across the fence, although any sort of withers nibbling is out of the question as far as the goat is concerned. In fact, the goat appears downright puzzled by Louie's gelding antics, and therefore probably fails any sort of test that might endear Louie to him as a source of safety during those scary times when the neighbor's boys are wildly chasing each other around the adjoining backyard.

Donkeys are a good alternative because, as fellow equines, they can mimic the horse-to-horse relationships that a herd otherwise provides. People I know who own donkeys say they have a calming influence on horses. These equines are easy keepers, too, although I'm told that their hooves do need to be trimmed regularly by a farrier who understands them, and they can get laminitis if fed hay that is too rich.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples of horses buddying up to chickens, cats, rabbits and other unlikely companions. The best equine companions sometimes just happen along, as Rosa Lee, another member of our small riding group, discovered. She recently moved her Paint gelding to a new facility that came with two Great Danes. Concerned initially that these big dogs would be a source of aggravation for her horse, she was pleasantly surprised to find that they have become her horse's steady companions and protectors. The true test came during a recent storm, when she found both horse and canines huddled under an overhang, the three of them riding the storm out together.

Do you have what it takes?
After all is said and done, the one-horse situation may be harder on you than it is on your horse. After all, your horse isn't the only one who is going it alone. You may find this arrangement isolating, particularly if you leave a busy barn to take up horsekeeping on your own property.

This was an unexpected wrinkle in my grand plan to own a single horse. There was no one to take me to task when I slumped in the saddle, no one to cheer me on when I reached new milestones in my training. I spent months on my own and then started looking elsewhere for human companionship. Fortunately, I didn't have to look far. I found a small band of horse enthusiasts close by, and they've been a continual source of inspiration, instruction and friendship ever since.

Most feed stores can supply a list of local horse groups. My horse community is a support network I wouldn't want to do without as a single-horse owner, knowing that I can call on any one of these kindred spirits to share information and resources during good times and bad

As a group, we sometimes buy horse supplies in bulk and split the savings. We each bring to the table unique ideas, techniques and even amenities. Whereas one in the group may have an especially nice riding arena, another may have a trailer that can comfortably haul long distances. And, what we don't have between us can usually be found in the wider horse community. There are several nearby arenas where we can ride for free or are available to riders for a small annual membership fee.

Without a doubt, owning one horse can be both liberating and limiting. But whether it's by necessity or by choice, it's more than enough to satisfy the horse dream for many of us.

This article was published in the November 2010 issue of EQUUS magazine (EQUUS 298)