Why social contact is so important for horses



26 September '22 4 min reading time

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 remain physically and mentally healthy. In densely populated Netherlands, it is not always possible to meet all the needs of your horse. How important is social contact actually for your horse, what exactly is social contact, and how can you help your horse when (temporarily) less social contact is possible?

Over the years, the thinking on animal welfare has changed. 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. According to this theory, animals must also be free to express normal behavior. This means: sufficient space, good amenities, and the companionship of conspecifics. Nowadays, many experts and animal keepers believe that it is no longer sufficient to only protect animals from negative experiences. The mental well-being of animals must also be ensured. The latter is of course much more difficult to define.

Research on social behavior

To know which social behavior is necessary for a horse and what happens when a horse lacks it, a lot of research has already been done, including in the Netherlands and Denmark. Young horses that are individually housed show more stress-related behavior in these studies and spend fewer hours eating than young animals in group housing. Social contact includes being able to see each other, put noses together, put heads together (over a fence, for example), and full contact where horses stand together in a paddock, pasture, or group stable. A stable herd and sufficient feed, water, and shelter for all animals are important to prevent fighting and injuries in such a situation. If horses are accustomed to standing with each other and get several hours of free movement every day, there will be much fewer skirmishes than if they have little outdoor time and do not know each other well. Or when there is only one trough for drinking or eating that they compete for.

Social behavior = natural addiction

Behavioral scientist Machteld van Dierendonck once said in the KWPN Magazine: “Self-care, food seeking, 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 chemicals are released in the brain. Social behavior is actually a kind of natural addiction for your horse. You cannot breed it out, for example. This also means that a horse that has no social contact will experience withdrawal symptoms and become stressed.

Stall vices and stress

A lack of social contact can lead to abnormal behavior. Stress develops, and a horse tries to carry out the behaviors that are anchored in its brain. Weaving (moving the head endlessly back and forth over the stable door) is a habit that is strongly associated with a lack of social contact. Even a little social contact can help reduce this behavior. For example, horses weave less when they can see other horses. Crib-biting can also result from stress due to a lack of social contact.

Solutions for limited 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 opportunities. Longer time outdoors with friends, a group stable, or 24/7 in the herd in the pasture are options for that. However, not everyone has these opportunities 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. Make sure, for example, that your horse can see other horses in its stall. It is also nice if horses can nose each other, for example by having the partition walls of the stalls equipped with bars. And being able to scratch each other over an electric fence is better than not being able to scratch each other. For short-term situations in which your horse may have less social contact, such as due to an injury, you may consider a supplement against stress. A herbal extract containing passionflower, chamomile, and monk's pepper is suitable for this. The mineral magnesium can also reduce tension in your horse and help keep it calm 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.

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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