Horse Friendships and Tales of the Gregarious Horse

Horse friendships in earlier times sometimes made for strange bedfellows but these gregarious creatures in their wild state retained “the same sociable disposition in domestication.”[1] When a strange horse appears, other horses usually share gestures, neighs, and whinnies and show a desire to “strike up an acquaintance.”[2] If you have ever watched horses, you know it is common for them to hang together and nuzzle, rub, or gently scratch each other. Their strong aptitude for friendship, is one reason why the horse “will attach himself to almost any kind of animal rather than remain solitary.”[3] This love of sociability is also what often led nineteenth century horses to create and maintain friendships, even if some of the friendships were strange or unusual.

Cleveland Bay Stallion, 1840 by Shiels, Public Domain

Cleveland bay stallion, 1840 by Shiels. Public domain.

Sometimes horse friendships between horses were intense. This was the case with two horses that were tied near a lake by their owner. Shortly after the owner laid down to take a nap, one of the horses appeared, stuck his head in the door, and began to neigh incessantly. The owner surprised to find the horse loose soon surmised something was wrong and followed the horse to the water where “he found the other horse lying in the water with his feet entangled in the rope, and devoting all his efforts to keep his head above the surface.”[4] Another case involved two Hanoverian horses that served together in the Peninsular war. “They had drawn the same gun, and had been inseparable companions during many battles.”[5] Then one of them was killed and the surviving horse refused to eat and “died — not having tasted food from the time when his former associate was killed.”[6]

Horse Friends, Public Domain

Horse friends. Public domain.

Horses did not just have friendships with other horses. Sometimes horse friendships happened with domesticated house cats. For instance, one horse was best friends with a cat who “generally slept in the manger … [and] when the horse was going to have his oats, he always took up the cat by the skin of her neck, and dropped her into the next stall, that she might not be in his way while he was feeding.”[7] Another cat and horse were so attached to one another, that whenever the horse was in his stable, the cat would climb upon its back. “This however, was found to injure [the horse’s] health; and the cat was at length removed to a distant part of the country.”[8] An even more intense friendship involved the famous Godolphin Arabian and a feline. The two were inseparable, and, when Arabian died in 1753, it was claimed:

“The cat sat upon his carcase [sic] till it was put under the ground; and then, crawling slowly and reluctantly away, was never seen again, till her dead body was found in a hay-loft.”[9]

Godolphin Arabian and His Friend the Cat by George Stubbs, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“Godolphin Arabian and His Friend the Cat” by George Stubbs. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Horses friendships also included man’s faithful friend the dog. For example, a dog was hunting by himself and got caught in a snare by the leg. He was unable to break the string of the snare and immediately sought out his buddy to remove it. The horse tried to accommodate the dog “by applying his teeth to it in a gentle and cautious manner, although he was unable to succeed in removing it.”[10] Another horse was more successful in helping his friend, a mutt, that was “accustomed to lay[ing] in the stall [with him].”[11] One day the mutt trailed along as a servant was taking the horse to get a drink of water. Suddenly a mastiff attacked the mutt, and when the horse realized his dear friend was in trouble, he acted:

“He broke loose … and with a violent kick of one of his heels, struck the mastiff … [sending him flying] into a cooper’s cellar opposite, and having thus rescued his companion, returned quietly with him to drink at the conduit.”[12]

Bay Horse and White Dog, Circa Early 1800s by George Stubbs, Public Domain

“Bay Horse and White Dog,” Circa Early 1800s by George Stubbs. Public domain.

A similar story involved a horse and greyhound. One day the groom took the horse and the greyhound out for exercise when a large dog attacked the greyhound taking him to the ground. The horse seeing this threw back his ears and rushed forward. Hen then seized the strange dog “by the back with his teeth … and shook him till a large piece of the skin gave way.”[13]

Sometimes horse friendships involved the sheep. One ferocious horse, named Chillaby, better known as the Mad Arabian, became constant friends with a lamb and “used to spend many an hour in butting away the flies from his friend.”[14] There was also a celebrated thoroughbred named Dungannon who won the first recorded formal horse race in colonial Maryland and was eventually sold to a tobacco planter in America. However, before Dungannon found himself in America, he found himself grazing peacefully in his owner’s field, a man named Mr. O’Kelly. As Dungannon grazed, a sheepherder and his flock passed heading to Smithfield market where the sheepherder planned on selling his sheep. Unfortunately, one sheep “became so sore-footed and lame, that it could travel no farther.”[15] Wanting to be rid of the troublesome animal, the sheepherder placed it in the same field where Dungannon was grazing, intending to retrieve the sheep on his way back. 

“A strong attachment … soon grew up between the two inhabitants … the horse would playfully nibble the neck of the sheep … on occasions, protect his new friend, and would suffer no one to offer him the slightest molestation.”[16]

Thus, when the sheepherder returned, Mr. O’Kelly, having become acquainted with Dungannon’s fondness for the sheep, purchased it from the sheepherder.

Dungannon and His Friend the Sheep by George Stubbs in 1793, Public Domain

“Dungannon and His Friend the Sheep” by George Stubbs in 1793. Public domain.

Although people might talk about Napoleon Bonaparte and how important his horses were to him, Napoleon never had a relationship with any of his horses like one horse had with a goat. Author Matthew Horace Hayes, who wrote several books on horses in the 1800s, reported:

“Almost all the horses that brought to me at Kimberley were semi-wild ones which were driven in off the veldt. One of these subjects was followed into the ring by a goat, which tried to butt everyone who attempted to make him quit his equine friend. The goat appeared to take an intelligent interest in the proceedings, and as soon as I had finished with his companion, and driven him out of the enclosure, the goat followed, and the strange pair went off at a full gallop to the distant pasturage, from which they had been taken.”[17]

Sometimes strange horse friendships existed. That was because horses have been known to leap out windows rather than be alone, and “many horses, though quiet with company, will not stay one minute in a field by themselves: the strongest fences cannot restrain them.”[18] Horses are highly sociable animals, run in herds, and seek relationships with others creatures no matter how strange, which is likely why one of the most incongruous relationships existed: a friendship between a horse and a hen. It began when a gentleman had a single horse and a single hen. The two animals spent all their time together in the orchard and saw no other creatures for days on end. Over time a friendship blossomed:

“[R]egard began to take place between these two sequestered individuals; the fowl would approach the quadruped with notes of complacency, rubbing herself quietly against his legs, whilst the horse would look down with satisfaction, and moved with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion.”[19]


  • [1] Springfield, Rollo, Stories and Anecdotes of the Horse, 1867, p. 37.
  • 2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Knox, Thomas Wallace, Horse Stories and Stories of Other Animals, 1890, p. 45.
  • [5] Youatt, William, The Horse, 1853, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Springfield, Rollo, Stories and Anecdotes of the Horse, 1867, p. 38.
  • [8] Library of Entertaining Knowledge, Vol. 27, 1829, p. 212.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Springfield, Rollo, Stories and Anecdotes of the Horse, p. 45.
  • [11] Taylor, Joseph, The Wonders of the Horse, 1836, p. 15.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 16.
  • [13] Brown, Thomas, Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Horses and the Allied, 1831, p. 333.
  • [14] Springfield, Rollo, Stories and Anecdotes of the Horse, p. 39. 
  • [15] Youatt, William, Sheep, 1837, p. 376.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Hayes, Matthew Horace, Among Men and Horses, 1894, p. 240-241.
  • [18] Brown, Thomas, p. 365.
  • [19] White, Gilbert, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1853, p. 139.

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