Affiliative Behavior (or, Let’s Drink Together!)

By Terry Golson

I can’t give my horse the physical space that he’s designed for. I don’t have a hundred acres of grassland for him to roam across and graze at will. I don’t have a band of horses for him to bond and travel with. But I do understand what he emotionally and physically requires to stay sane and healthy, and so within the limits of keeping him in populous, rocky New England, I try to give him what he needs to thrive.

Tonk is turned out all day in a paddock large enough for play.



He always has hay to nibble on. He has another horse to keep him company.

He has a water trough.



Fresh, clean water offered at all times is essential for physical health. You can do that with a bucket. But a trough helps with your horse’s mental state. Studies of free-roaming feral equines show that drinking together is an affiliative behavior. That’s science-speak for what you do that creates bonding between friends. Horses prefer to drink in company. That’s likely due to them being prey animals and there being safety in numbers. But beyond that, horses prefer to drink with their best friends.

Horses in group paddocks that have only a bucket to drink from show behavior that some people label as aggressive or dominant, but is actually resource guarding. Instead of drinking  being an enjoyable and relaxed activity that friends do together, it becomes something to fight over. I saw this when Tonk lived at another barn. He shared a paddock with a Percheron mare. She claimed the waterer as her own. When he wanted to drink there was ear pinning and threatening displays with teeth and hooves. He’s waiting for her to go elsewhere before approaching the bucket.


guarding bucket


Conversely, a large tub of plentiful, clean water is something to share. Tonk seems to like it when I stand near him when he drinks. After all, I am his best friend. There is relaxed dribbling.




He takes his time. I might be reading into this, but it does seem as if Tonk is showing off a bit.



He invites me to join him.



I don’t. I stand several feet away. Especially on this cold and dreary day I don’t want water dripped all over me. Tonk’s idea of being a polite friend is different than mine. Last photo before I put the phone out of his wet muzzle’s reach!


13 thoughts on “Affiliative Behavior (or, Let’s Drink Together!)

  • Jane Jackson

    Interesting to think about, Terry, thank you. I don’t have a huge trough but horses who are buddies do tend to drink together out of the small one I have. I would actually think it would be important for some horses in a group setting to not be drinking so they could be on alert while the others were compromised (heads down and water tending to be in a low spot).

    • Terry Golson Post author

      In an ideal horse world, there would be a clear flowing stream, so that friends could be on the lookout and drink, as need be. One theory about “lead” mares is that the horses that lead others to drink are the lactating mares who are thirstiest! They won’t go and drink on their own with their foals, and so encourage others to join them. So “leading” is determined by who is thirstier, not who is dominant.

  • kimmie

    What a sweet story. I didn’t know that about the troughs. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Jan

    Hi Terry, Tonka and CH. I have just read the Blogs they are brilliant as usual, full of your knowledge and wit, will get Jess to read them during week. Update on Jess, she has left the previous lady she was helping as she was grooming and poop picking every weekend and after school when possible but she never got the riding, in five months she only got to ride twice and that was only in the field the lady always made up excuses for not taking her out on a ride. She is now helping two retired Policemen who have 5 gentle giants, they vary between 15 and 17 hands and are all over 20 years old one is 30 and still going strong. They are really pleased to get some help and are grateful for the exercise of the horses. They take her on a hack every weekend and she is allowed to ride whenever she wants. Her mom and brother also go out with her when they can. She is now back to riding English style again which she far prefers to Western…:)
    Also your Epsom Salt bath and drench has saved on of my girls who got in a bad way, she had a prolapse due to a large egg, but all well now. Thanks ..:)

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Jan, so pleased that you found your way over to CH. Jess sounds like the sort of horsewoman that anyone would want to have around their barn. Those old horses are going to be like pleased puppies every time she stops in to care for them.

  • picassospaintings

    Cute pictures! That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that having a large water trough helps with behaviour issues like the ones you mentioned!! Very informative post as always, Terry 🙂

    • Terry Golson Post author

      One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that having the trough away from the corner would be even better to prevent resource guarding.

  • Chicken Carol

    I never realised this about horses and water either although I guess if it so for hay it stand to reason it is the same for water.

    I love the fact that Tonker would share his water with you though. True friendship.

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