Horses are herd animals that typically do best with some form of companionship. While some horses are only happy in the company of another equine, others thrive with friends of other species. There are multiple reasons why an additional equine might not be on the shopping list for those who keep their horses at home. Concerns that top the list generally include lack of space and lack of financial resources. If you’re looking for a BFF for your horse, consider taking on one of the following animals as companion animals for your horse.
“I see some really random patients because I’m mobile and willing to try almost anything,” Heilsberg says. “One of my clients is an exotic animal collector and
preservationist, so kangaroos, zebras, camels, water buffalo, wallabies and lemurs all live on his property. He also has retired racehorses, and they live in the same pasture as the zebra and camel.”
While exotics might not be an option to keep your horse company, it’s a great reminder that a valued companion need not always be the most typical.
“Remember that every horse is an individual, with individual preferences and fears,” says Heilsberg.
Your horse’s individual personality will help determine what the best choice for a companion will be. Many horses do well with equids like other horses, mules or donkeys, says Heilsberg. Some horses, however, do better with nontraditional
companions like goats, chickens or pigs. Not sure if your horse will bond well with his new roommate? It doesn’t hurt to try!
“Even though there are many tales of horses being scared of, or aggressive toward, non-traditional companions such as pigs, there are just as many tales of unusual best friends,” says Heilsberg.
“My pig Spoink came with me from a Thoroughbred training farm,” says Hillary Ramspacher of Lexington, Ky.
“She’s the BEST stall-vice solution I have ever met, and I love having her in the barn. As an added bonus, she keeps the place clean as can be and basically removes all pests because there’s nothing left for them to eat!”
Goats and Sheep
Goats and sheep are popular with home horsekeepers who are limited on space or funds. In addition to being less expensive than a full-sized horse, goats tend to help keep pastures healthy since they eat the weeds and brambles many horses won’t touch.
While most goats don’t live up to their eat-anything stereotype, it’s important to note that they may nibble things they shouldn’t, including tails of horses.
“We stopped keeping goats after the one I had in high school leaped into my barrel racer’s stall and ate her tail to the hocks,” said Megan Arszman-Weisbrodt of Westfield, Ind. “I panicked because I was afraid my reiner and hunt seat horses were next! Plus, it was also hard to keep them safe from the coyotes.”
Smaller companion animals may be enticing as meals for wild animals, and goats in particular have a penchant for being escape artists. If you choose a smaller buddy for your horse, reinforcing fences or installing wire at the bottom board may be a necessity to keep them fenced in and possible intruders out.
Donkeys and Miniature Horses
Miniature Horses and donkeys can be excellent four-legged friends for a horse. They generally eat the same food and sometimes can share a stall with their larger brethren.
An additional perk? Donkeys are notoriously good guard animals.
While mini donkeys can’t be counted on to keep wild animals away, they often will bray a warning to alert you something is amiss.
Chris Pepplitsch of Lexington, Ky., has a mini donkey. “She’s a senior now, but still has the instinct to protect the area and keep it clear from predators,” says Pepplitsch. “She’s also ‘motherly’ with the other mares. Because she’s with full-sized horses, we maintain areas that only she has access to when she feels intimidated or just needs a break. We refer to these areas as the Donkey Suites: [They have] overhead cover, complete with hay, fresh water, bedding, a salt block and a little pasture patch that’s approximately 25 feet by 25 feet. She is a great companion animal and fairly low-maintenance.”
Micki McDaniel seconds the effectiveness of donkeys as both companions and protectors. McDaniel doesn’t turn her donkeys out with her horses that have hind shoes (“because one kick would be bad!”).
“But even across the fence, they are great companions,” she says. “As a bonus, I’ve had no skunks, opossums, raccoons, coyotes or stray dogs anywhere near the barn since I got them!”
Chickens and geese can also be company for equines, but most feathered fowl don’t get attached to one particular horse. While they may not be “besties for the resties,” many horses typically enjoy watching the poultry in the barnyard. An added bonus? Chickens are known for eating insects and ticks, and guinea fowl and geese can be fantastic guard animals. A drawback to using feathered friends is their dander, which can cause an allergic reaction in some horses.
Keeping Companion Animals for Your Horse Safe
Heilsberg mentions a few other factors to consider when searching for the perfect companion. These include the expected management, the ability for the animal to travel easily (such as keeping your horse company at shows), and the labor involved in the care of the companion by your farmsitter.
“The key to any successful companion relationship is keeping everyone involved safe while adjustment to new social structures happens,” she says. “Remember that horses are herd animals, and while it may be nice to envision peaceful herds of wild horses grazing and moving together, reality is that the peaceful social structure is a result of a hierarchy that is established and maintained. Dominant horses will bite, kick, charge and sometimes outright bully companions in an effort to move up in the hierarchy. This behavior may be directed toward any new companion that’s introduced to your horse, regardless of the species.”
To prevent serious injury to either your horse or the new companion, slow and supervised introductions should be the first step, according to Heilsberg. Separate stalls, pastures or pens sharing a common border such as a window or fence line may be an option to allow interaction without the danger of immediate physical contact.
“Observe the interactions at first and have a backup plan or escape plan in case it doesn’t go well,” she says. “Also remember to keep yourself safe from harm, and don’t be afraid to call in for reinforcements from a professional, such as a veterinarian or professional trainer.”
As she cares for a variety of animals, Heilsberg has some additional considerations when choosing a companion. These include ideal living habitat, nutritional needs, and parasite and disease control.
“Many feeds used for cattle, sheep and goats are toxic to horses,” she says. “Similarly, many horse feeds may have toxic levels of minerals, such as copper, that are fine for horses, but not for goats and sheep.”
Heilsberg recommends working closely with your veterinarian and local cooperative extension professionals to make sure that your companion animals have the best health and management possible.
This article on companion animals for horses originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Learn more about how to take care of companion animals for your horse, visit www.hobbyfarms.com.