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Care of the companion horse

Foals Tinker and Peanut B at Rolleston rehoming centre

The non-ridden companion horse or pony can serve several purposes:

  • a companion to a single ridden horse
  • to help manage an inseparable pair
  • to provide company for a youngster, an elderly horse, or another non-ridden horse
  • or simply to be kept as a pet. 

The companion horse gives company and stability to your working horse, and with consideration and planning you can give a non-ridden horse or pony a great quality of life too. Most enjoy the social aspects of belonging to your ‘herd’ and can join in with many activities.

The basic cost of keeping a non-ridden horse or pony can be almost as much as for a ridden animal. Very careful consideration needs to go into the correct choice of horse or pony to be a companion to a ridden horse; when you take on an extra mouth to feed you need to be aware of his welfare too! Unfortunately all too often the ‘companion’ can be treated almost as a ‘second class’ citizen with its individual needs barely met.

Choosing the right companion horse or pony

The non-ridden equine can serve several purposes: a companion to a single ridden horse; to help manage an inseparable pair; to provide company for a youngster, an elderly horse, or another non-ridden horse; or simply to be kept as a pet.

The perfect match needs to be right on several levels. The companion must suit the horse it is to accompany, and vice-versa. A non-ridden companion may be any age, but remember the young and old have specialised needs.

Take into account your facilities, ability, time, routine, and your existing horse’s needs. Don’t forget the companion’s needs too, though. If you keep your horse at home with no other horses close by, consider a pair of companions to keep each other company in your working horse’s absence. Most horses or ponies will not thrive if left for long periods alone when their companion goes away, for example to a competition.

If you need a companion to an existing horse then think about compatibility; a similar size horse will allow for mutual grooming and may prevent bullying.

The right sex – does your horse or the prospective companion get on well with both genders – would a mare coming into season cause problems?

Age – an older companion can be a steadying influence on a youngster – but the young horse will need some play and the older one will need a break and may not appreciate being harried all day.

Dietary needs – it is far simpler if both horses are on similar feeding regimes – keeping a ‘fatty’ and ‘skinny’ together is hard work, and one is usually compromised. It is much less complicated to keep horses together which can stay out on the same pasture.

Daily routine – think about your usual routine and how another horse will fit in. For example, do you stable at night? Your new horse will need to be relaxed about coming in and the spare stable must be big enough. Do you have a long walk from the field to the stable – if so will one of them be OK to leave behind, or could they be led together?

If there are other horses around, a single companion to a ridden horse can work well – if the companion can see other horses when his friend is away. But you may need to have a stable or enclosed space to bring the companion into when you ride. Sometimes having a friend taken away from the field is very upsetting for a single companion; if they get worried a stable and hay may contain this. The companion needs to feel safe and relaxed in the stable for this to work well; this will not be successful if the only time the companion goes into the stable is when he is left alone.

If your pony has laminitis or sweet itch, then another with a similar condition will be relatively easy for you to manage and there are many of those desperately needing knowledgeable homes.

How much time do you have? If you are short of time a quiet ‘street wise’ horse or pony will be best, only take on a green ruffian if you have time to educate him!

Don’t let your heart rule your head – take on only what you know you can manage!

As a general rule aim for companions who are alike in as many ways as possible. It will make for a more harmonious equine relationship and be much easier for you to manage and enjoy.

Dealing with differences 

It is not impossible to manage differences, but it needs to be thought about. For example, if you have a native pony as a companion to a Thoroughbred you will need to be able to bring the native off the grass for much of the spring, summer and autumn. An enclosed yard or dry paddock with shelter works well. But if they cannot see each other and the pony is confined to a stable for much of the time you are not giving either of them a great quality of life.

If you feed the Thoroughbred in winter while turned out you will need a safe way of separating them at meal times without taking one or other out of sight.

A small pony will enjoy a large ‘horse size’ stable but you may need to adapt the door so that he can see out.

The pet companion horse or pony

Whilst not traditionally considered to be a pet animal, there are increasing numbers of healthy older or non-ridden animals for which pet homes can provide a good quality of life for the horse, pony and the keeper!

Horses are social creatures so should be kept at least as a pair, they will need equine contact even more than a working horse to keep their minds active and content. If possible pair similar types; this makes dietary and all management much easier and for the horse makes for more likely bonding.

A reasonable amount of knowledge is needed to look after ponies – no less if they are pets – as a minimum an experienced mentor is necessary and a horse owner’s training course should be considered.

Routine care of a companion horse or pony

Regular attention

Most horses are used to and enjoy regular human contact, particularly if they have recently retired from work.

It is important to make time each week to spend with the horse giving it the individual attention it has been used to.

Catching and handling

It is too easy to cast an eye over horses in the field but never catch or handle them. Then a vet or farrier visit may become a trauma and eventually avoided. This is not fair on the horse. If he becomes sick, has to move home or change ownership but is unused to handling he may become very distressed. It is essential therefore for every type of horse to become accustomed to being caught, led, and handled by an equine specialist ie vet or farrier.

Grooming

A non-ridden horse will not need the daily grooming of a ridden horse – a weekly groom will be much appreciated, however a thorough daily check over is still essential.

Hoof care

Most non-ridden horses will adapt to life without shoes. The exception may be thin soled Thoroughbred types if they have to walk over stony ground. Very few horses never need their feet trimming. The foot needs to be kept in balance to prevent strain being put on limbs which would worsen any arthritic conditions or in the case of a young horse, can cause limb deformities. Most healthy companions will need their feet trimming at intervals of six to ten weeks. Be guided by your farrier. The feet should be picked out daily, to dislodge any painful stones or manure which may cause thrush.

Tooth care

Without attention most horses develop sharp edges on their teeth which can cause ulcers on the tongue and cheeks. An annual teeth rasping or floating by an experienced vet or qualified Equine Dental Technician will prevent this and will detect other problems such as abcesses and broken teeth. Horses between three and six years and over 15 will need more frequent treatment as there are more changes in the mouth at these ages.

Vaccinations

All horses should receive tetanus vaccination. Tetanus is a killer, we see very little of it these days and this is due to vaccination. Those who never come into contact with strange horses may not need influenza vaccination but be guided by your vet on this. It is an ideal time for a health check because the vet should always assess the horse’s health before vaccinating and an annual check over will give you peace of mind.

Nutrition

The most natural way to feed your non-ridden horse or pony is to provide all his needs through fibre feed. That is hay, haylage and grass or chaff feeds.

Unless you are struggling to keep weight on your horse avoid cereal feeds. Especially for native breeds!

Vitamin and mineral imbalances can be easily met with broad spectrum supplements, or one can have the soil analysed and supplement specifically. Remember ‘meals’ were introduced to feed hard working horses in the past. We now know that horses’ systems need food ‘little and often’ in the form of fibre.

Maintaining correct body condition of a companion horse or pony

It is vital that we all learn to recognise what is a good weight. For horses and ponies living out in the summer you should be able to easily feel their ribs, and in the winter you should be able to SEE them! Horses living in a part stabled routine can be kept at a more even weight, but you must always be able to feel ribs. For the horse that does not ‘work’, ie riding or driving, the lack of exercise is most likely to cause problems of weight gain.

Obesity is a growing problem and causes much suffering to many horses. Common related problems are laminitis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance which is similar to human diabetes, early onset arthritis, and wind and heart problems. Often people think that getting a small native pony as a companion will be the easy answer, but you may be sentencing it to a life of disease if you are unprepared.

Natives, especially Shetlands, need a very careful grazing regime. Their systems have adapted to survive in the harshest climates and as a result the combination of milder climates, rich pasture with ryegrasses, rugging, stabling and, worst still, feeding concentrate feeds, creates a potentially lethal mix. You really can kill with misplaced kindness.

Ponies need to be kept on ‘poor’ pasture with low nutritional value, and you need to have the facilities to keep them off the grass at least by day, in spring, summer and autumn. A stable is fine for shorter times, but for long stretches will restrict mental and physical activity. It does not need to be complicated – an enclosed yard or corral area is ideal for longer periods. Horses and ponies kept off grass for periods longer than four hours will need to be fed some fibre to keep their hind gut healthy – hay or low calorie high fibre chaff or chop feeds will need to be fed as part of a controlled diet.

Once a pony has developed a susceptibility to laminitis the regime needs to be stricter still – for life!

Loss of body condition can still be an issue, particularly with the less hardy breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians.

These animals have thinner coats and naturally more sensitive skin and as such are susceptible to extremes of weather. They will lose weight if they are exposed to continuous rain and wind in the winter or are unable to get away from the flies in the summer – when they may resort to attempting to run away from the flies. Agood form of shelter is essential for these types of horse. Natural trees and hedges may not be enough.

If the horse does unexpectedly lose condition it would be sensible to ask your vet to give him a health check. This will eliminate teeth problems, and ensure that there is no worm burden, disease or pain that is affecting his body. An older companion horse may start to carry less weight as its systems become less efficient. See Care of the older horse.

Exercise for the non-ridden companion horse or pony

The horse is designed to spend the majority of its day walking and grazing, therefore most companions will need at least all day or all night turned out to pasture.

If body condition is not a problem then 24 hour turnout is the most natural lifestyle. However as modern horses are bred to work they usually enjoy a routine of ‘coming in’ regularly and having some attention and interaction.

While a horse which is working hard can manage on long periods of stabling, the companion horse should not be expected to live permanently in a stable except if sick, lame or in exceptionally bad weather conditions. If possible, turn out in a riding arena or safe yard will break the monotony and give the horse the opportunity to exercise. Some form of daily exercise is essential.

Leading out of a companion horse or pony

Many horses enjoy a safe walk in company, either led from another horse or led in-hand. For young horses it is great education; ensuring they have the skills to be led and handled is something the horse owner owes his horses.

How much they do depends on their education, fitness and soundness.

Lunging and long-lining of a companion horse or pony

These really are only suitable for young animals likely to be trained to be ridden. It is useful for most horses to understand how to be lunged should the vet need to assess soundness, but it is hard work on the joints of the horse and most non-ridden companions are not ridden due to lameness, so lunging would not be beneficial.

Natural Horsemanship activities

If the horse is completely sound you may wish to engage in Natural Horsemanship activities. It is essential to be trained by a good horseman to do this – not all methods will suit all horses.

— Page last updated 9/11/2016