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If you are one of those horse owners lucky enough to have your own private land to keep them on, you’ve likely considered at some point whether a companion of some sort might be beneficial for your equine friend. This may be particularly true if you own one horse and worry about them getting lonely without other horses to share the space, or even if you have found yourself overrun with weeds and other unwanted plant life in your paddocks that your horse won’t touch. On the other hand, you could be one of the lucky few with too much grass (yes, it can happen) and are in need of an extra mouth or two to help keep it under control.
As someone who has been lucky enough to grow up with stables and land at home, I’ve spent quite a lot of time helping out with field maintenance and managing the grass so that it stays somewhere within the happy medium between bald, muddy ground and an overgrown jungle of weeds. Alongside the four horses that live here with me (check out my introductory article on this blog if you’d like to meet them), I’m also the proud owner of two goats and five sheep, which takes the total number of grazing animals on the property to eleven!
From my own experiences, I’m here to give you a rundown on the pros and cons of grazing companions for horses, to hopefully help out some first time smallholders make the best decisions possible for them, their animals and their land…
Potential companion number 1 – Another horse/pony:
A lot of people who keep their horses privately will end up with more than one at some point and it is definitely true that horses are herd animals and often find comfort when they are kept with another equine. Any horse owner will also know that one horse can get through a surprisingly large amount of grass in quite a hurry so, on the face of it, getting another horse or pony seems like the obvious choice when seeking to add grazing companions to your land.
The major benefit of another horse is that your existing equine is likely to appreciate a friend of the same species and you will more than likely be able to keep them in the same field without any problems. Additionally, if you’re looking to keep the amount of grass under control, it goes without saying that adding an extra horse or pony will achieve this pretty successfully. Rescue centres are always looking for people to give loving homes to companion horses and ponies so this is a good place to start if you do decide to go ahead and get one!
When looking for a companion equine, many people seek smaller ponies as they take up less space and are generally closer in size to a dog! However, it’s important to note that lots of little ponies, particularly Shetlands, are very good doers and often need restricted grazing, meaning they cannot fulfil the lawnmower job role without getting overweight.
If restricting the grazing isn’t for you, potentially consider a slightly larger companion or a breed less susceptible to weight gain, as they can be just as rewarding (and, from my experience, the smaller the pony, the cheekier it is!) Oh, and if you’re one of those people looking for something to keep the weeds and rogue plants under control on your land, don’t bank on your new horse being the one to do that. Most horses are fussy and like to avoid the weeds unless they’re really hungry (if you have a horse that actively chomps on the paddock weeds, I’m jealous!) If your existing horse isn’t eating them, don’t assume that another will unfortunately.
Finally, you also need to consider the fact that, whilst these ponies may be small, they are still ponies and hence are not cheap to keep, so make sure your budget is capable of taking on another horse or pony before you make that commitment.
Potential companion number 2 – Goats:
I would say that goats are probably some of the more popular suggestions when people consider adding to or starting up a smallholding. I mean, who can resist that cute little bleat coming from the diminutive frame of a Pygmy goat, and they eat anything, right? Well, not so much.
I’ve had goats since I was about eleven years old; our first pair were overgrown Pygmy goats from an animal sanctuary who had just completed their short stint on CBBC’s television show “Pet School”, and when one of them later passed away, we got another rescue goat to accompany the other one. Despite going in with the expectation that they would eat anything and everything, it quickly became clear that they do not. In fact, I’ve found the goats to be the fussiest eaters of all our animals!
So, again, if you’re looking for some grazers to come along and rid your paddock of those pesky weeds, goats are generally not the right choice. Having said that, they are extremely economical with grass consumption and generally take a longer time than other animals to graze down a field, so if you’re wanting companions that won’t drain your grass resources, then goats could be for you.
In terms of maintenance, they are generally quite hardy, easy and fairly cheap to keep, although you should carefully consider what breed of goat you select by researching which breed would suit your individual set up best, keeping in mind that they usually like to be kept in groups of no smaller than two. A breed that doesn’t grow horns will probably be less destructive, and I say this simply because our horned goats have been responsible for quite a few fence and field shelter repairs over the years as a result of head-butting them with their horns!
Probably the biggest positive point about goats is how friendly and playful they are, with big brains and a very trainable attitude that makes them really enjoyable to be around and bond with. Many pet goats wear collars like a dog would, so you can train them to go on walks, do tricks and even have a go at goat agility (yes that is a real thing!) Since my goats were rescues, they can be sensitive and nervous, but once you get to know them, they are truly loving and funny characters that really make you smile. I personally have always kept my goats in separate paddocks to the horses, but I know that plenty of people mix them together without problems – just assess your individual circumstances to decide if this would suit your animals or not before going ahead. However, I should add that our oldest horse, Taffy, does seem to have a sweet bond with the goats and they are often seen standing together either side of the fence!
In order to own any amount of goats, you will need a CPH number (issued by DEFRA) so that your goats can be kept track of. These are free and are obtained by contacting your nearest DEFRA office.
Potential companion number 3 – Sheep:
We all love seeing the big, fluffy cloud-like characters milling around in their fields, but what about actually keeping them as a pet? Well, just like with goats, you will need to ensure you obtain a CPH number from DEFRA before you can get any sheep, but once that is sorted, sheep are generally excellent companions with loving and gentle natures.
We got our sheep as lambs from a farm, as they were the orphaned babies that needed hand-rearing. This, combined with frequent attention and cuddling, is undoubtedly what led to our sheep being so friendly today and I am always in a better mood after spending time with the sheep. Even with the more aloof sheep, once their trust is gained, the relationship is really rewarding.
As with the goats, we keep our sheep in their own paddock, but they are such kind, peaceful animals that I understand why many people will happily integrate them with the right horses. Whilst sheep generally aren’t as amenable to going on walks or learning tricks, I have found them to be some of the best grazers. They graze the land very evenly, for that lawnmower fresh cut look and they are also generally happy to eat the weeds that they come across, leaving the fields nice and flat and even!
However, the big thing to be aware of if you are considering getting sheep is that they are higher maintenance than goats. They will obviously need their wool shearing off once a year (some fluffier breeds may need this done twice a year) and you should make sure you spray them will plenty of fly repellent, especially in the hotter months before their shearing date comes, since they are at risk of flystrike, a nasty infestation of fly eggs that hatch and eat away at the sheep’s flesh. Be sure to do regular checks on your sheep, especially if they seem lethargic or distant, as they could be suffering from it.
Goats and sheep both need their feet trimming every six to ten weeks, but this can easily be done at home if you purchase some hoof clippers. I have personally found sheep to be more susceptible to foot pain or problems, although these can happen to goats too, especially when the ground is very wet and muddy, so make sure you read up fully on everything before getting a pair of sheep or goats, just to be safe.
There are obviously more potential companion grazing animals out there for horses, but I have spoken only on the ones I own and feel sufficiently knowledgeable to talk about.
Another pony is a great option for keeping lots of grass under control, but brings with it all the responsibilities and costs of a second horse, who can quickly get overweight if this is not managed. Goats are inquisitive and fun and don’t use up much grass, whilst being fairly easy to keep, but be prepared that they like to head-butt things and, contrary to popular belief, are very fussy eaters! Sheep are peaceful and kind and really good, even grazers, but are a bit higher maintenance and do require quite a bit of monitoring to ensure that they are retaining their good health.
I just wanted to add that these are my own personal experiences and that all animals are different, so whilst I do hope this is helpful, you should always be sure to make the choices that best suit your individual animals and be open to the risk that not all horses/sheep/goats are the same. What works for one person may not work for another, but my animals have been living peacefully for quite a few years now…so I must be doing something right!