In terms of their need for companionship horses can be quite accurately compared to dogs. Any horse is going to become unhappy if left on their own for an extended period of time. All horses prefer to have company all of the time, but most horses can accept being left on their own for some of the time. How long this is depends on the individual. A few horses simply can not tolerate being on their own at all and will become distressed when faced with the prospect. This is why companion horses (and ponies) can be so valuable in terms of keeping harmony.
The value of companion horses has been recognized for many years. They really began to come into their own with the rise of competitive equine sport and in particular racing. Horses were bred for optimum performance rather than for steadiness of temperament and companion animals were hugely useful for keeping them calm, particularly in stressful situations such as during transport.
In more recent years, a greater understanding of equine psychology has led to a greater appreciation of, and demand for, companion animals. Quite simply they ensure that no horse is ever left completely on its own and this is always a benefit to the horse and therefore, by extension, to its owner.
As a rule of thumb, the more a companion horse looks like the horse(s) to whom it will be a companion; the less work you will have. Where there are a number of horses and ponies of different types, it may be best to have a couple of companion animals to ensure that no animal will ever be left completely alone. The reason for this is that animals which look broadly similar tend to have similar lifestyle requirements and this can make their management significantly easier. For example, even though a refined Thoroughbred may be the best of friends with a native pony, the Thoroughbred will need much more food. This means that the Thoroughbred may benefit from being on the richest pasture available while the native will need to have its access to rich grass restricted to avoid obesity and laminitis. There are ways to manage this, such as putting both animals onto the poorer pasture and giving the Thoroughbred extra food to compensate, but these obviously entail more work and usually more expense.
That said, if you are able to manage mismatched animals then there are plenty of horses and ponies of all shapes and sizes to choose from. For an animal which is intended purely as a companion, temperament is far more important than appearance.
While temperament is important for riding and driving horses, it is everything for companion animals. In short a companion animal needs to be able to keep calm in all circumstances. More specifically they need to be able to keep calm even when other horses are nervous. Emotions are contagious amongst horses. A horse which is distressed will transmit its fear to nearby animals. By contrast a horse which keeps calm and confident will reassure its peers. Companion animals therefore need to be comfortable in all standard situations. To begin with being good to catch is non-negotiable. People may grit their teeth and accept that a talented riding/driving horse may be a pain to get in, but the key point of a companion is that it will be the animal which sets the example you want its friend(s) in the field to follow. If your main horse isn’t the best to catch, make sure the companion will happily come to you when called and you will vastly increase the chances that their friend will follow. Likewise your companion animal should be good to shoe and load. The latter is particularly important since horses generally have an instinctive aversion to going into narrow, dark places on their own. This can be overcome, particularly if their experiences inside a horsebox/trailer are pleasant ones, but there’s nothing like seeing a companion animal walk confidently up a ramp to convince a reluctant horse to do likewise. For all of these reasons, companion animals tend to be older horses who have been there, seen it, done it and have a wide collection of t-shirts.
Ideally you want a companion animal to be free of chronic health issues. Insurance is unlikely to cover existing conditions and may not cover older animals at all and few owners relish the prospect of vets’ bills. Having said that most companion animals are older, which increases the likelihood that they are going to have medical issues and certainly means that owners should be prepared for them to develop age-related conditions. While these are, of course an extra expense, they are unlikely to be a catastrophe. Realistically speaking it is in the highest degree unlikely that a horse will reach retirement age without a touch of navicular and/or rheumatism. Depending on the work it did when it was active, it may have other issues such as broken wind. As long as these conditions are not degenerative and prospective owners understand how much they are likely to end up costing, they are generally perfectly acceptable in companion animals.
Caring for a Companion
The key point to remember about companion horses is that they need to be looked after just as much as riding/driving horses do and they need to be looked after in a way which is appropriate to their needs. For example if the working horse needs extra food that the companion animal is not going to get then this needs to be done out of the sight of the companion animal otherwise squabbles over food may result even if the companion is usually totally docile. Although they may not need shod, they will need their feet trimmed and they will need wormed. Whether or not they will need stabled will depend on their breed and how much time you want them to spend with their partner.
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