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Group Living Horses

Allowing horses to spend quality time with their own species is vital for their welfare and is the most enriching addition to their environment that they can have. As prey animals, horses need companions around them to help them feel safe and secure. Horses are social animals and often enjoy spending quality time together playing or grooming - this is best done when they are kept together. I've been lucky enough to experience first hand the care provided to horses at Cheshire Retirement Livery. Recently, they have kindly given some of their experiences with keeping horses in herds rather than as individuals. Here is a "Q and A" I had with the head groom of Cheshire Retirement Livery, who kindly provided a thorough insight into the structure of the livery.

  • Do you keep any of the horses or ponies individually and what are the smallest and largest group sizes you have?

We don't have any horse that is kept individually. Horses that are stabled always have company/friends next door.

When turned out the smallest groups are pairs and the largest can be around 20 horses during the summer time.

  • How do you tend to choose which horses go into which group?

We base this on gender and demeanour mostly. We create groups based on how timid or bold certain horses are, so therefore have groups that should suit every horse.

The advantage of having herds are that the horses can choose their own friends. They will find their best friend and then we can make sure we do our best to keep them together for the foreseeable.

  • How do you usually introduce new horses to the groups?

During a quarantine period upon arrival we get to know the Horse well and get a feel for what kind of friend they would like. We introduce them to 1 horse from their designated herd that we feel they would fit into the best and they have time to become familiar. Once they are now a pair and have spent some time with each other we then introduce them into the herd together. This then gives a new horse a support system. The friend will be relaxed knowing they are only back with their own friends and it gives off a nice energy to the new horse. They normally stick together for a period of time until perhaps the new horse chooses their own friend.

  • Have you noticed a difference in behaviour between horses that come to you that have been kept individually vs in a group?

Horses that have had the most time kept alone don't tend to recognise horse language very well. They cant understand subtle movements or behaviour from other horses. This leads them to be quite over reactive. When they do have time with another horse it takes them longer to find their place within the herd because they can be overwhelmed by another horse being in close proximity trying to say hello. On these occasions they do begin to understand, they will take cues off horses and learn from others and begin to fit in entirely.

Other times horses that have spent a lot of time alone can be labeled as highly strung or even dangerous. Having a history of having to be bridled to turnout and bring in or even using Chifneys, warnings of bolting out of stables and similar, some labelled as kickers or rigs. These are the horses that we see the biggest change in. From quite explosive and stressed to a horse that can turn off and become more relaxed . We believe it helps having reassurance/companionship and being social with other horses helps to settle the horses minds and then in turn their behaviour.

Horses that have had many companions before tend to settle quite quickly. They may still have behaviour differences like any horse but mostly will be quite confident in themselves.

  • Have you had any horse-related injuries because the horses are kept together?

We take measures to prevent injuries but horses will be horses and find ways of injuring themselves whether they have company or not.

  • How do you ensure that horses don’t fight or cause injury to each other?

Normally you can see straight away if a certain horse really takes a dislike to another but its quite rare. Horses are quite good at telling another to leave them alone when they need to.

If there were a situation where some horses didn't seem happy we would just separate and try them elsewhere save taking any risks.

If there were to be any fighting it would be over a commodity important to the horses not so much because they took a dislike to anyone. Therefore all horses are provided with anything that would cause conflict (plenty of forage for example).

  • If some of the horses that live out are bucket fed, how do you introduce this to the herd to prevent conflict?

When in our Winter Barns and out in the fields this is a loose herd environment and we do feed inside the field and inside the barns with the full herd. Instead of using buckets we use feeding bags. These bags can go onto a horses head like a headcollar and the horse can take his/her breakfast where they like and go eat in peace. Any horses interested in stealing physically can’t and psychologically perhaps because there’s nothing on the floor or loose the horses don’t see anything to be had. This way everything stays as calm and relaxed as possible.

To finish, a quick comment from the owner of Cheshire Retirement Livery: We have had years of keeping horses and I never fail to be surprised by their behaviour.  For example - this year I noticed that the horses were exercising themselves, in groups of they paired up and would start to circle around in the field like they were being lunged.  This would happen every early morning and night.  The rest of the time they simply grazed.  I have never witnessed anything like it in all my years with horses. The behaviour was with not just two horses in one field but with quite a number of them and it would go on for over an hour! In my experience if horses have everything they need i.e. feed, freedom and friends - then you have a happy horse.  They are a herd animal and are at their happiest when they are in company.  The bonds we witness are incredible and beautiful to see.  It is a privilege to care for them and I have never stopped learning from them - they are amazing beautiful creatures and deserve as natural a lifestyle that we can give them. Well, that's our ethos anyway!!

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