The time had come to retire our elderly gelding, Duke. Though he was otherwise in good health, his arthritis had advanced to the point where he couldn't be ridden. We had no place to keep him at home, and we couldn't afford to go on boarding him with his replacement. Still, there was no question of selling Duke. Not only did we want to be able to visit him regularly, but we didn't want to risk his ending up at the slaughterhouse. We decided to find him a new "job" as companion to another horse.
Horses are herd animals, relying on membership in a group for security, social status, emotional support and amusement. No matter how attached a horse is to his owner, a busy human can't provide the kind of companionship he craves, let alone the social interaction he requires. Sometimes the owner of a single horse will turn him out with cows for company or keep another animal, such as a goat or donkey, in the barn. This can help fill the void, but most horses do better around members of their own species.
That's where the companion horse comes in. He provides, either temporarily or permanently, the social benefits of belonging to a "herd." This is a popular option for retired horses: The quiet setting of a private farm and a congenial equine friend can be an old campaigner's reward for a job well done. But the arrangement can work for a younger horse, too. My mare Sadie lived with a neighbor's horse for two summers (I boarded her during the winter). In exchange for my purchasing hay and grain and helping with upkeep, Sadie got long, leisurely days in the pasture with her buddy--and I got to see her and ride her more often than when she was boarded. I also got a partner for traveling to shows. Though the situation didn't work out in the long term, it made for two very nice summers for Sadie--and it encouraged my husband and me to look for a similar arrangement for Duke.
We were pretty sure someone would want to "hire" our even-tempered, if somewhat gimpy, gelding. But before we started making calls, we had work to do. Finding the right home for a companion horse is like placing an ad in the Personals: Before you make that first move, you need to have a clear picture of what you are offering and what you hope to gain. In this case, four parties had to be happy with the result--our horse, the resident horse and two sets of owners.
Our consideration was wide-ranging. Would Duke make a good companion horse? What kind of home would be best for him? How much could we be involved in his care? Who would handle emergencies or make other key decisions about him? Once we were clear on these questions, we were ready to move ahead.
Will my horse be a good companion?
Few horses are so physically impaired or socially inept that they can't find happiness as someone's pasturemate. Still, it's important to consider your horse's assets and liabilities. A timid resident horse might not welcome your boisterous alpha type, and a busy resident owner might be reluctant to take on a horse who requires daily medication or special shoeing, even if you're paying the bills.
Personality and health are the most important factors to consider. Extremely dominant or submissive personalities can be hard to match well. Stallions don't belong together at all, although many will happily share a pasture with an older mare. But most solo horses will be so grateful for a companion that they'll make an effort to get along--even if the result is a kind of equine "Odd Couple."
Impairments of any sort require a tolerant equine companion and human caretakers who can share responsibility for ongoing care or emergencies. Active, athletic Sadie was well suited to the competitive hunter-jumper mare whose field she shared. But arthritic Duke wouldn't be able to keep up with an energetic young horse and might be bullied by a too-lively companion. Some older horses can make good "baby-sitters" for youngsters just entering training. But for Duke, the best pairing would be another quiet and reliable horse who'd be satisfied to graze and swish at flies all day.
What kind of environment does my horse need?
Though there's no substitute for visiting the farm or ranch you're considering in person, it helps to have a checklist to use over the phone or when placing an ad. Horsekeeping styles vary around the country, and what is customary for your area may be unusual somewhere else.
At a minimum, your horse's new home must offer sufficient space for two horses, quality hay and clean water, safe fencing and adequate, well-maintained shelter of some sort. One place we heard about for Duke sounded great--until we went there. The "good fencing" consisted of sagging barbed wire, and the "shelter" was a battered trailer knee-deep in manure. In the course of our conversation, the owner casually mentioned that coyotes occasionally chased the resident horse and cows. We excused ourselves as quickly as possible.
Along with your checklist items, look for other signs of good management. Does the resident horse appear sleek and bright-eyed, or is he dull-coated and depressed? Is the hay stored in a dry, well-ventilated area? Are grain containers horse-proof? How often is the resident horse dewormed? What is his shoeing schedule? (If you won't be able to use your old farrier and veterinarian, ask for addresses and phone numbers of the professionals she uses.) If the owner's ideas on horse management seem very different from yours, be careful; you could be headed for conflict. Talk openly about your own expectations. A resident owner seeking a trail buddy along with a companion horse will be disappointed if you don't have time to ride.
How much will I involved?
The fact that you've decided to retain ownership of your horse indicates that you intend to be involved in his care in some way. But what form will that take?
Even if your horse is retired, you may want to visit frequently to feed or groom him or to provide needed medical care yourself. You'll need a place close by, with an owner who is willing to let you come and go on a daily basis. This can work if the two of you develop a good relationship. Having someone else available to muck out stalls, hold the horses for the farrier or handle feeding when the resident owner is away can be a powerful incentive for taking on a companion horse.
Talk to the owner if you hope to continue riding your horse in his new home. Unless she wants to pair up for trail rides, you'll be limited to the pastures or riding ring on the property. Taking your horse away for any length of time could upset his new buddy and undo the very good you're trying to achieve.
If your visits will be infrequent and your contribution largely financial, your options for placing your horse can encompass a wider area. But the farther away you are, the more important it is to have a good relationship with the resident owner. You'll be relying on her to provide most of the care for your horse.
Whatever level of hands-on duties you assume, certain obligations will likely remain yours as long as you own your horse. These include covering the cost of feed and supplements, and arranging for deworming, vaccinations and other medical care, as well as shoeing and teeth floating. It is important to remember that the ultimate responsibility is still yours.
Can I get it in writing?
When you board your horse at a stable, there is a clearly defined division of duties and responsibilities. You pay the money, and they provide the services. But when you place your horse as a companion, it's up to you and the resident owner to divide up the obligations. Perhaps you'll share equally in daily care, or perhaps you'll simply cover your horse's expenses. Explain your own wishes and needs, but be prepared to defer to the resident owner's wishes if necessary; after all, your horse will be living on her property.
Whether you're old friends or total strangers, it's a good idea to set a trial period and have a written agreement. This helps keep unspoken expectations or resentments from souring the deal down the road. Topics to address include feeding, turnout, shoeing, emergency and general medical care, visiting hours and access to storage and riding areas. You can work out a rough draft, then ask an attorney to look it over. This is one place where it's worth paying for professional advice. Draw up and sign two copies so each of you can keep one. (It's also wise tc check on insurance; some homeowner's policies won't cover a companion horse.)
Having an agreement provides protection for both parties, but it doesn't eliminate the need for frequent contact. Lack of communication is probably the biggest problem in a companion-horse situation. If you are not regularly participating in your horse's care, be sure to visit as often as you can. Talk to the resident owner about how your horse is doing, and listen graciously if she makes suggestions. Be tactful, but firm, if there is something you would like to change. If you are unable to check on your horse regularly, ask a trusted friend to stop by from time to time and make sure everything is all right.
The time we spent locating just the right home for Duke paid off. Today he lives on a farm with Ace, another elderly gelding, in what we hope will be a permanent arrangement. The two have formed a strong attachment. The resident owner provides hay and grain for both horses and takes care of the upkeep of the pasture, barn and fences. We schedule and pay for Duke's deworming, shots, farrier visits and medical care. Because the farm is close to the stable where we board our other horses, we get to visit often. Watching the two buddies graze side by side on a sunny summer's day makes it worth all the effort we put into finding our old friend his new job.
This article first appeared in the June 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.