I was at the grocery store the other day and while in the checkout line I happened to notice that Time Magazine had published an article on animal friendships. I scanned the article, curious about its content, and found that they had included horse "friendships" in there as well.
Most anyone experienced with horses has seen the effects of what most of us refer to as the "herd dynamic:" pacing when separated from herd mates, conflict when new horses are introduced to a herd, the establishment of a "pecking order," and so on. As horse people we know how to use this dynamic to our advantage in some cases, and how to prevent injury and stress from it in others. I've always assumed that my horses formed strong bonds as "herd mates," but could I call their relationships "friendships?" Or is it all basically the same thing?
When I think of my horses in their herd, I think of them as a small society. Each member has their own job and place and they get along best when each horse maintains its role. If you throw another horse into the mix, roles have to be adjusted until the little society returns to its functioning state.
However, when I think of a friendship, I think of a bond between two particular people, or in this case, animals. I think of a partnership where caring and nurturing is involved, where trust and love prevail over role and place. Friendship, to me, is an emotional connection and a herd involves a societal role. It is clear that relationships between horses involve the latter, but do they also form emotional bonds, besides the chemical and hormonal bonds involved between mare and foal or mare and stallion?
Although it is much more difficult to notice at times, I do believe that some horses form friendships. Within a herd of several horses you will find pairs--friends--that hang out together, scratch each other, watch over one another when sleeping, play together, and once in a while, even eat together. You can see that they trust each other, are more relaxed when they are around one another, and they rely on one another, to a certain extent.
Then I realize that the idea that horses can form actual friendships gives me an uncomfortable feeling. I can observe it and acknowledge it, but why am I uncomfortable with it? What are the repercussions of viewing equine relationships beyond instinctive roles and into the realm of emotional bonds?
Like many (ex) horse breeders, I have owned quite a few horses. I tried to always own the best horses I could possibly afford which means that I often bought, sold, and traded a number of horses each year. My herd dynamics were always in a constant state of change, but what I failed to realize during that time, was that there were emotional consequence from these changes for my horses.
For example, I knew when I sold Eddie's "buddy" that he'd probably be a bit bummed temporarily, but honestly, looking back, I'm not sure that he ever quite recovered. When I rescued Eddie, his buddy Bear was a bigger part of his recovery than I ever realized. Sure, I was the one that got Eddie the feed, veterinary and farrier attention he needed, but Bear gave him friendship--an equine friend that was with him 24/7 while Eddie went through recovery.
Of course Eddie's life went on after Bear was sold, and he was fine--he was a herd sire and had a happy life, but he never did have a "friendship" with any other horse like he did with Bear. I always regretted selling Bear, not because I needed him, but because Eddie did.
I think as horse owners we need to be more in tune to not only the physical needs of our horses, but the emotional ones as well. How would we feel if we had our close friendships torn apart every time we formed one? We wouldn't be very trusting of anyone or anything, would we? We claim we have a higher level of intelligence than these animals and yet we expect more emotional intelligence out of them than we do ourselves. It doesn't make much sense.
However, there is a fine line we must maintain. Most of the time, we breed horses specifically to buy and sell them, so we can't demand that we place their emotional needs over their purpose. Also, we need to be able to do things with our horses, so having an animal that is so emotionally attached to another one that we can't do anything with them isn't a good idea, either. Somehow we need to acknowledge and provide for their emotional needs while fulfilling their purpose at the same time.
I'm no horse expert or trainer and I certainly don't have the answers, but that's okay. More important than the answers, I believe, are the questions. Are our horses content? As owners, are we doing everything we can to minimize their emotional stress and promote their equine relationships? Are we fostering trust and communication at all levels--with their "friends," within their herd role, and with us? How can we we promote horse health, both physically and psychologically?
In time, I think we'll find out, with a little help from our friends.