Best of Friends 

A horse’s memory is fascinating. How much do they remember? Do they remember people, horses, places? Can they remember their early life? 

Matt has been owned by Mum and me for thirteen years. He’s had various friendships with geldings of a similar age and then Otis came along. For two years they lived together in a large herd, often not spending that much time together in the field, but coming in together, being stabled next to each other, and sharing me. 

Otis, I’ve had for nine years. He spent between the age of eighteen months and four years at the same yard as Matt, being friends. Sort of.

Then for the last six and a half years Otis has lived in Berkshire, away from Matt.

When we brought Matt to boot camp in September I wondered how the two would get on. What I didn’t expect was for Otis to hear my footsteps, whinny to me, and then Matt whinnied in recognition. Was Matt whinnying to anyone because he was in a new place? 

I led Matt over to Otis’s stable and they sniffed each other before I tied Matt up and left them companionably. Both boys are friendly enough, but Matt will squeal and strange horses and usually give a kick out if they get too close behind him. Matt did not squeal at Otis, nor put his ears back. 

Each day Otis was on box rest and I brought Matt in he whinnied to him. I’m sure you’re probably thinking that he’d whinny to anyone who came into the barn, but he didn’t. He only neighed to Matt. He also got quite upset when Matt was turned out, whinnying and bucking in his stable. Not a behaviour exhibited when any other horse left the barn. 

Otis is a cuddly horse, but Matt can be quite stand-offish, except for the fact that whenever I remove their rugs they are all over each other like bees to flowers, grooming each other frantically. 

I can even tie them to the same string so they can groom while I brush their legs. The other day they had a bit of an argument because Otis wanted his left side itched and Matt refused, which resulted in Otis turning his back on Matt, who looked marginally put out. 

I’m convinced they remember each other from Wales. It’s like they’ve never been apart; still lead together nicely, call to each other, and act like best friends. I’d love to put them in the same field but with Otis’s rehab I don’t want to risk them playing too much. Perhaps when Matt comes back to prepare for the champs… 

Maybe their bond is so strong because Otis knew Matt at a key time in his development – a youngster in a big herd needs an older brother. After all, he’s spent more of his life without Matt than with him. And perhaps Otis is the only vaguely familiar face to Matt at a new yard, which is why he’s latched onto him so much? Or maybe the fact I look after both of them means they’ve accepted each other as brothers?

Whatever it is, I find it really interesting and would love to know about any studies that have been conducted into this area. I’ve heard of mares being reunited with their grown up foals and not showing any recognition, and also of horses recognising old stable mates at shows. 

Matt will go back to Wales in January, and I’m starting to feel sorry for splitting them up. I think Otis will really miss him, but hopefully having me all to himself will help. Likewise I hope Matt reintegrates with the herd and forgets about Otis because I’d hate to think of either of them pining for the other. 

Seeing them together, and knowing that they have a long term friendship also makes you wonder the long term negative effects of individual turnout, and the benefits of keeping horses in small social groups.

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