Rescued Horses: Looking For A Universal Companion

Q: One of the goals of our rescue organization when placing rehabilitated horses is that there should be at least one other horse on the property to be a pasture and stable companion. So we are looking to acquire a couple of horses or ponies to have available both here at the rescue farm and as loaner companions to go with a rescued horse, if needed. These companions would be returned to us if no longer needed, then reassigned as companions either here at our facility or, if needed, for other rehabilitated horses being adopted to farms without other horses. We are not looking for any talents or other uses for the companion. We are mindful that we don't want to be stressing a companion horse with what could be a series of more or less temporary assignments, and we appreciate that some horses would be better suited than others for this duty.

Can you comment on what you would look for behavior-wise in terms of predicting that a horse would work out well for such a circumstance? Essentially we are looking for a "universal companion horse" that would get along with any other horse. Do you have an opinion on this strategy? Any tips on a good source of such animals and how to select appropriate candidates?

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A: Several temperament and experience characteristics come to mind. The first would be an animal with a proven calm and easy-going nature--an individual that appears to readily adapt to all sorts of housing and herdmates, as well as to all sorts of human-animal interaction styles and farm management practices. The second temperament characteristic would be to be specifically relaxed around feeding time and and in situations in which resources are limited; in other words, free of the bothersome food aggressiveness tendencies or the gate guarding or herdmate guarding tendencies. It would also be a bonus if the horse were an easy keeper in terms of feed requirements, hoof and dental care, and general health.

For the temperament characteristics, the older horse that has been everywhere and done everything often seems to work out well. But then an older horse often needs more attention and maintenance care, which might not work as well for the adopters with limited horse knowledge or resources.

Ponies and small horses are probably the first choice as companions, and they can work out well, especially for people who understand their few quirky tendencies. Ponies are easy keepers and less expensive to care for overall, and they typically have quiet, easygoing temperaments for the job you describe, especially the requirement for apparent ease of grouping and regrouping and general adaptability to various management styles.

Each year we place several Shetland-sized ponies that are leaving our semi-feral herd as companions for horses, and most do very well. One welfare issue with ponies is the greater risk of laminitis when kept on good pasture or when given access to grain from herdmates. I find that both new and seasoned horse owners far underestimate the difficulty of keeping ponies away from grain and lush grass so they maintain a lean condition that seems to reduce the risk of founder.

Ponies also typically need tighter fencing than horses, and their ability to find their way in and out of places tends to get them into trouble until managers upgrade the enclosures.

Ponies do well when their interactions with humans are limited to pasture management, but their quick cognitive abilities sometimes get them in trouble with some styles of human-animal interactions.

If horses are fed grain or rich hay at pasture, many ponies often show their skills beyond their size at controlling limited food resources and might not be the best choice in those circumstances.

So while they can be excellent, ponies have their challenges. Each year I have a few proven ponies that after leaving our semi-feral herd have demonstrated a temperament and behavior indicating they would do well for jobs such as yours, and readers in need of a companion pony can contact me at the University of Pennsylvania.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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