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Why social contact is so important for horses

Horses are herd animals. They are naturally made to live in groups and need social contact to stay physically and mentally healthy. In the Netherlands it is not always possible to meet all the wishes of your horse. How important is social contact for your horse, what exactly is social contact and how can you help your horse if there is (temporarily) less social contact possible?

Thinking about animal welfare has changed over the years. For a long time, the “five freedoms” were leading. It described that an animal, for example, has the right to be free from hunger and thirst and to be free from physical discomfort. Also, according to this theory, animals should be free to exhibit normal behavior. That means: sufficient space, good facilities and the company of peers. Today, many experts and animal keepers feel that it is no longer enough to protect animals from negative experiences alone. The mental well-being of animals must also be guaranteed. The latter is, of course, much more difficult to define.

Research into social behavior

Quite a lot of research has already been done to find out what social behavior is necessary for a horse and what happens if a horse is deficient, including in the Netherlands and Denmark. In those studies, young horses housed individually show more stress-related behavior and spend fewer hours eating than young animals housed in group. Social contact includes seeing each other, being able to put their noses together, putting their heads together (over a wire, for example) and full contact where the horses stand together in a paddock, pasture or group stable. A stable herd and sufficient feeding, drinking and sheltering places for all animals are important to prevent fighting and injuries in such a situation. If horses are accustomed to standing with each other and given several hours of free exercise each day, there will be far fewer skirmishes between them than if they don’t get out much and don’t know each other well. Or when there’s only one drinking or eating bowl they’re competing for.

Social behavior = natural addiction

Behavioral scientist Machteld van Dierendonck once put it this way in the Magazine of the KWPN: “Body care, foraging for food and social behavior are a biological necessity for horses.” The explanation: Without these three things, a horse in the wild cannot be safe and cannot survive. To ensure that a horse continues to perform this necessary behavior over and over again, it is anchored in the brain. When a horse has social contact with another horse, reward substances are released in the brain. So social behavior is actually a kind of natural addiction for your horse. You can’t breed it out, for example. This also means that a horse that has no social contact will develop some sort of withdrawal symptoms and become stressed.

Stable defects and stress

A lack of social contact can lead to abnormal behavior. Stress arises and a horse will try to carry out the behaviors that are anchored in its brain. Weaving in particular (moving head back and forth endlessly over the barn door) is a habit that has a strong relationship with a lack of social contact. Even a little social contact can help to reduce this behavior. For example, horses will weave less if they can see other horses. Crib biting can also be the result of stress due to lack of social contact.

Solutions with little contact

When your horse experiences stress due to a lack of social interaction with other horses, the best option is of course to give the social behavior more opportunity. Going outside for longer with buddies, a group stable or 24/7 in the herd on the meadow are options. However, not everyone has these options all year round. For example, because it is too wet and muddy outside, or because a horse is on box rest due to an injury. It is important that as an owner you always try to arrange as much social contact as possible for your horse. For example, make sure that your horse can also see other horses in his box. It is also nice if horses can nose each other, for example because the partition walls of the boxes are (partly) provided with bars. And being able to tickle each other over a power wire is better than not being able to tickle. For short-term situations in which your horse may have less social contact, for example due to an injury, you can consider a supplement against stress. A herbal extract containing passion flower, chamomile and monk pepper is suitable for this. The mineral magnesium can also reduce the tension in your horse and ensure that he remains calmer until (extensive) social contact is possible again.


Eva Søndergaard , Margit Bak Jensen, Christine J. Nicol. Motivation for social contact in horses measured by operant conditioning. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 132 (2011) 131–137.

  1. Kathalijne Visser, Andrea D. Ellis, Cornelis G. Van Reenen. The effect of two different housing conditions on the welfare of young horses stabled for the first time. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 114 (2008) 521–533.

KWPN Magazine 10 – 2020.

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