Horse Friendships

Too much is made in the horse training world about how horses are prey animals, and that’s why they’re different to train than dogs, which are predators. Yes, horses are wary and sometimes skittish, but my horse, Tonka, knows I’m not about to chase and eat him. If anything, my approach means that something good is coming his way (this time of year, it’s apples from the orchard.) Too much is also made about “dominance” and “leadership.” The basic premise of that is that horse herds are composed of a head horse that keeps all of the others in line via aggressive body language. That assumption has been debunked by ethologists studying feral horses. So, if it’s not about dominance or fear, how do we go about communing with these animals? For horses, it’s all about relationships.

In Tonka’s last boarding situation, he lived in a paddock with three other horses. They each were given a pile of hay twice a day. The paddock was bare dirt and so there was nothing to nibble on between meals. Tonka had to eat up quickly or have to defend his forage. Horses use teeth and hooves. Tonka had marks on him. This had nothing to do with herd leadership, but was because there was a pecking order due to limited resources. Horses are relationship oriented animals. Given enough food and space, they form lasting friendships. Buddies graze together, groom each other, and even stand head to tail to flick flies off of each other’s faces with their tails. But, shrink their resources and those relationships can be stymied. Other horses in his group were able to deal with this feeding schedule, but not Tonka. Tonka did not have a friend. He was too concerned about keeping his pile of hay to himself.

The remarkable thing for us humans is that horses form close friendships not only with others of their kind, but with their people, too. Tonka didn’t have a horse friend, but he did have me. His attachment was obvious. At the new stable I asked someone to hold his lead rope for a moment while I went into the barn to get something. “He ignored me” she said. “I thought that maybe this is a dull horse. But when you came back his head lifted and his ears pricked.” For the last year, I’ve been Tonka’s best friend. But now there’s another woman in his life.

When we moved to Sterling Stables, Tonka was put into a spacious, shady paddock. Next door was a grey mare named Maggie. She was very interested in this new gelding. Tonka ignored her. Tonka was now getting hay four times a day. There was no one to chase off of his pile of feed. He relaxed. Maggie was put into his paddock. There was plenty of hay and both horses have calm natures, so there were no scuffles. Still, he ignored her.



Tonka kept his distance from Maggie. He looked for me.

T and M


But, Maggie was smitten. Her owner told me that last Sunday that Maggie looked so lethargic when led out of the paddock that she took her temperature, thinking that her mare was ill. However, as soon as Maggie got sight of Tonka, she perked right back up. Maggie was lovesick.

It took a couple of weeks, but Tonka gradually realized that this grey mare wasn’t competition. She wasn’t going to bite or kick him. I arrived last week to see them side-by-side, scratching each other’s backs with their teeth. That is the ultimate sign of horse friendship.

Maggie has claimed him. When I arrived on Monday, Maggie knew that I was going to take Tonka into the barn. She tried to block me.

M blocking


Tonka said hello as best he could. Over her neck.

T looking


Under her neck.

head under


Maggie is a sweet mare. I told her that I was willing to share. She agreed to that.



It’s good for Tonka to have another woman in his life, one with a tail for swishing flies, and teeth to give back scratches, and that keeps him company for all of those hours that I’m not at the barn. It’s okay, because we’re still best friends.

Tonka in bridle


  1. Maggie looks very sweet! What a good feeling you must have knowing that Tonka has companionship when you aren’t around. When I take my gelding out of the pasture I also have to bring his lady friend to her stall or she will run herself ragged even though she can see other horses in adjoining paddocks. Tonka still looks fairly sleek in the coat department. Here in Maine, my Tennesee Walker is looking like a teddy bear already!

  2. Glad that Tonka has a new friend, and Maggie is a lovely grey and white horse. My friend’s young gelding was also best friends with a mare, and it was funny to see her act with him when she was in season. She sit there and flirt with him and then suddenly kick him and he did not know how to react to her. I wonder if Tonka will have the same issues come next summer.

  3. Well, Tonka has good taste because Maggie is adorable. Horses are social creatures. They do better with a buddy, and lucky for is a girl buddy…LOL..

  4. You have such a beautiful way of putting things. I’m so happy for Tonka.

  5. Looks like findingTonka a different home was a very wise move on our part: Win-win for everyone! Maggie has very pretty dappling.

  6. This just puts a smile on my face! So glad that you’ve found a better place for Tonka. Looks like Maggie thinks so too!

  7. I don’t know why, but I am a little choked up reading that. I’m so happy Tonka has an “everyday” friend, especially one who is so sweet and smitten! But you are definitely still his BFF. :-) Love the pictures of Tonka trying to say hello.

  8. I always love reading your posts on animal behavior – so personal and insightful. I would imagine most horse owners aren’t so attuned to their animal’s clues – to know which living situation is stressful, and that a change is needed. Tonka is lucky to have you as his friend and protector. And I know you’re both glad he has a friend to scratch his back when you’re not around. Thanks for sharing with us.

  9. Awww who could blame her. What a handsome fella he is. They are a matching pair. Thanks for the good story of the day.

  10. Love it! Your relationship w/ the handsome Tonka brings back happy memories of being a stable rat every Saturday morning as a young teenager. Horses are amazing creatures, fasinating and unique.
    Happy trails!

  11. Always wonderful how you share your stories, Thanks Terry for your gentle way. It makes such a difference to our lives, to see the tender moments and interplay with animals and people, that are happening all around us. You have a special gift for being present.

  12. Could you and Maggie’s owner go for rides together? That would be win/win.

  13. Such a lovely story. So good to see Tonka has good company when you are not there. They make a lovely pair. I too loved the “trying to say hello” photos. Riding together will be great I think. This was such a good move for Tonker and I am sure you are happier too. Thank you for sharing as always.

  14. i have a Appaloosa gelding, and he had a crush on a gray mare named Maggie in the next paddock over, and she spotted him right away also! he ended up kicking the fence down in between the pastures and getting stuck in the electrical wire just to get to her! $500 vet bill later, she had to leave to another barn in Vermont, and he pined for her for a while! we all miss sweet Maggie! but i thought what i coincidences!

  15. Terry,
    Can you say; “Best seller, Children’s (and adults) Book! Please write one? With pictures. I will buy one today! You have such a lovely way with words and animals. Please write it. If you don’t believe me, ask the rest of your followers.

    • Very kind of you to say that. Believe me, I’ve written stories, but even when represented by an agent, I was not able to get them published. Sweet and gentle tales are not currently in vogue in children’s publishing. Even Tillie Lays an Egg (my picture book), which sold out, and is being used by classrooms around the country, is not being reprinted. So, that’s gone out of print… (This is why I am so grateful when people send me a “cup of coffee.” The royalties on my published books don’t even pay for the web hosting fees for this blog.) But, I’m okay with that! I love the daily writing that I do for this blog, and I so appreciate having immediate and personal feedback from my readers!

  16. Maggie is so lovely. Her dappled grey looks good with Tonka’s black and white. Maggie looks a bit taller than Tonka. How many hands are they?

    • Tonka is 14.3 hands (for non-horse people, a hand is 4 inches. A pony is under 14.2 h, so Tonka is a horse!) Maggie is about a hand taller.