Horses can be described in three words: nomadic, gregarious, and social. In the wild they lead lives of wandering, walking for hours each day to find the best grazing and to avoid predators. They are highly communicative animals with a range of vocalizations and body postures that each have their own meaning. While our equine friends may not neigh back and forth like chatty humans, everything from a shift of their hindquarters to a flick of their ear will communicate to those who are listening. Being gregarious also means that horses are profoundly social. These animals thrive on companionship and studies have proven that horses who are isolated have higher stress levels and are more prone to abnormal behaviors and depression.
Ideally, a horse has at least one other equine companion, but that’s not possible for every owner. Some horses will reject or act aggressively toward others. Luckily, there are a handful of animals with which horses will bond. Some are historic barnyard fixtures like dogs and cats, while others are more unusual, like donkeys, goats, and cows! ESPN E:60 produced a short video available entitled “The Derby horses and their barnyard buddies” which readers and equine fans may enjoy during the 2016 Derby season.
Enter the Dog
Dogs have been essential to livestock and farming since they were domesticated. Originally, their role was that of a protector watching over herds. Today most barn dogs enjoy a less demanding life and fill the roles of emotional support, team mascot, or barn buddies. One of the most well documented relationships between horses and dogs come from the sport of Fox Hunting.
Fox Hunting in America began in the 1800s. The tradition hails from Britain, but as the United States grew into its nationhood American fox hunting took on a distinctly different character. The first organized hunt took place in Virginia in 1840. While British hunts focused on actually killing the fox being pursued, American riders emphasized the thrill of the chase itself and left the fox alive. Fox Hunting commences with a host of ceremonies all it’s own and the horses and hounds are the most famous players.
Fox hunting horses don’t have to be any specific breed, but since fox hunting often requires galloping for long stretches and jumping large obstacles, Thoroughbreds are favored. The hounds are specially bred scent hounds, usually either an American or English Foxhound, and are always referred to as hounds, not dogs. They are trained to respond to a series of cues given by the huntsman, who is responsible for their breeding, training, care, and direction during the hunt. The canines are sent out before the field of riders, pick out a fox’s trail, and lead the hunt until the fox goes underground or the hounds lose the scent.
Hounds aren’t the only hunting dogs associated with horses. Almost every barn in the world comes with some kind of vermin — usually rats — that pose a threat to feed, leather, horses and people. Before chemical solutions were invented people needed a small, energetic dog with a strong hunting instinct to keep their barn rodent free. That dog was often a Rat Terrier.
Rat Terriers were bred to hunt rats, squirrels, and other small vermin. Hugely popular on farms in the 1920s, they were a cheap effective means of pest control. Rat Terriers tend to be gentler and less aggressive than Jack Russell terriers and have been crossed with several other breeds to create crossbreeds to suit. In the South Rat Terriers were often crossed with Beagles to create a larger dog more capable of participating in trailing and hunting in packs.
Another traditional barn breed is the Dalmatian. These dogs have a long partnership with carriage houses and carriage horses. They were originally used for protecting carriages during traveling. Trotting beside the carriage to discourage thieves from attacking the passengers, their natural courage and affinity for cooperating with horses led them to their famous position as a firehouse dog. Before the advent of fire trucks, firefighters used fast, powerful horses to haul water tanks to the site of a blaze. Dalmatians may have been used to lead the tanks to the fires, and upheld their watchdog reputation by protecting the equipment and horses.
One common misconception about barn dogs is that any working breed will thrive in a stable. Herding breeds like collies, shepherds, and sheep dogs may be fine if well trained or if working in tandem with horses to control livestock, but they can be a risky breed for the average horse owner. Horses are large, powerful animals and do not take kindly to being chased. Dogs that nip at a horse’s heels or jump into pastures to herd the horses are likely to be kicked, trampled, bitten, and possibly killed.
Today many farms use machinery and chemicals for jobs dogs used to fulfill, but horses, humans, and dogs have a long history of cooperation so even if a dog doesn’t have a specific job, it’s common to see one on a farm or sitting in a golf cart at a horse show. If dogs are too demanding for a busy stable owner, cats might be a useful alternative.
Cats, Cows, Donkeys & Goats, Oh My!
Cats are another classic barnyard animal. History is unsure of when and why exactly cats became domesticated, but they served as dependable mouse killers on many farms throughout the ages. Cats may require less maintenance than dogs, owing to their more independent personality. Often times barns acquire cats when feral cats emerge from the surrounding woods seeking shelter or food. If it suits the owner of the barn, they might start leaving food out for the cat and the cat is likely to stick around.
Barn cats are also often adopted from rescues like Barn Cats Incorporated, which is a program that re-homes feral cats in barns or other outdoor locations. If cats have been feral their whole lives, they may struggle to adapt to being around humans in close contact, which lessens their chances of being adopted.
Barns are ideal homes for feral or semi-feral cats, especially older cats, because they don’t have to adjust to the demands of a conventional home.
Barn cats should always be spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and taken to a vet if they ever require medical care. Barn cat owners should also be aware that cats will hunt birds in addition to mice, and even a single cat can pose a serious threat to local birdlife.
In addition to these classic barn companions, some other animals are compatible with horses. Cows, goats, and donkeys are the most common choices in America. One of the reasons they work well with horses is they have complementary grazing habits. Cows will graze evenly, horses pick the most nutritious grass, donkeys need very little forage, and goats are good for browsing underbrush. They also all share similar herd instincts and social behaviors. Cows, goats, donkeys and horses certainly communicate differently, but they seem to understand each other’s company and when put together may fill the psychological need for companionship.
Generally people report very few issues between equine and non-equine companions. Turning horses out with cows, goats, or donkeys is a well accepted alternative to buying a second horse, however, every animal is an individual and there are no guarantees. Always introduce animals gradually and watch them carefully for signs of fear or aggression. If a pairing isn’t compatible, do not put both animals at risk by trying to force the relationship.
An important point to remember about non-equine companions is that they require special care. Donkeys, for example, digest forage much more efficiently than horses do, which makes them much more susceptible to laminitis and founder. Cattle feed often contains additives that are poisonous to horses, goats may climb over or through common horse fencing, and dogs and cats need to be trained or prevented from interacting with horses in a manner that might lead to injury. Owners should always be sure to conduct thorough research before adding a new animal to their barn.
Racehorses and their Friends
One of the most unique relationships between horses and non-horse companions is that of racehorses and the animals brought in to keep them company during stressful times. According to an article by Christine Winter of the Chicago Tribune, one Arlington trainer said, “the practice of keeping a goat in the stall with a nervous horse has been around for a long time, probably as long as there have been racehorses.”
Racehorses are often high-strung and nervous, so they may need help managing the stress of training and racing. Goats seem to exert a calming influence over horses and keep them company in the barns, trailers, and sometimes even on the sidelines of the track. It’s unclear exactly why horses bond with goats, but the phenomenon isn’t limited to goats. One of history’s most famous racers, Seabiscuit, actually had three companions; a dog (Pocatell), a pony (Pumpkin), and a spider monkey (Jojo). All to keep him company during his rise to fame.
While American Pharoah was making history accompanied by a 6-year-old gelding named Smokey, his contemporary Strong Impact shared his stall with Charlie the pig. Fudge the goat is BFF with Mike Maker and Google, Yahoo, and Pickles are the names of other Thoroughbreds’ bleating friends. Books abound featuring unusual pairings, both fun pictorial diversions perfect for children and more comprehensive treatments. Equine companions can bring a smile to each of our faces, but more importantly, provide stress relief and companionship to horses (a herd animal) unable to be in a herd.
By Kieran Paulsen