Unexpected Multispecies Entanglements at a Horse Stable

a bird nest made of horse hair sitting atop some green leaves

In central Indiana, in the middle of the American Heartland, approximately 50 horses live at Swinging M Stables—a 190-acre property. Underneath their hooves are creatures and environments that are bustling with activity. Even though horse boarding facilities create a functional space primarily for human-equine interactions by providing living quarters for horses, other nonhuman animals make appearances and intermingle on the property as well. For instance, while the ponies plod along eating grass, small mammals, an assortment of birds, cats and other nonhuman animals are actively looking for a place to reside in the pastures and shelters meant for horses.  

What my partner and I spent most of our time observing while working at the horse stables were these other-than-human creatures of varying sizes in comparison to the horses. This essay is an interpretation of multispecies entanglements on the farm—on how different animals interact and engage with the horses and humans at Swinging M Stables. It is a commentary, or, at the very least, an attempt to develop an understanding of horse stables and boarding facilities as generators of unique ecological niches that enrich their local environment through unexpected faunal relations, with horses acting as the liaisons and intermediaries.  

I expand the concept of “commensality” to think about how a habitat emerges for ideal foraging practices.

The majestic animal people call the horse has impacted human civilization, exploration, and military conquest perhaps more than any other animal. Yet very little has been written about these equines’ impact on other animals’ occupation and incursion of the environment. This might sound like an agonistic interaction; my partner and I would say it is more of a commensality—a sympatric situation fostering a nurturing relationship for a variety of beings.  

While scholars in other fields use the term “commensality” to study the social aspect of dining and eating among humans, I expand this concept to think about how a habitat emerges for ideal foraging practices. In ecology, “commensalism” is interpreted as one organism living with, on, or in another without injury to either. Here, I use a broader sociological explanation of the term that emphasizes non-competitive relations among individuals or groups who have different values or customs and yet must reside in or share the same area.

Eating different foods, accommodating living arrangements, and having separate customs create unique habitats suitable for ideal foraging practices and reproduction among the critters who benefit from this relationship. Other-than-human animals use these environments to construct and develop their niches and then utilize them for their own biological successes. 

Wide hallway in a barn with horse stalls on either side and equipment in the background
The South Barn of Swing M Stables. Photo by author, 2021.

Designed originally as a cow barn in the 1870s, Swinging M Stables has adapted and grown to house more than 30 horses in individual stalls throughout two barns, and accommodating another 16 or so outside pasture horses. Divided into eight distinct pastures, indoor and outdoor areas, a round pen, a track, and hay field, this farm supports a variety of different horses, people, and other animals. In addition, this separation of interactional arenas allows humans multiples chances to engage with the horses—either through working them or giving additional grain, treats, water, and, most importantly, attention.  

Rotating between indoor spaces and outdoors areas allows pastures time to regrow and not be over-grazed—crucial for horses whose sugar intake from grasses needs to be monitored to avoid foundering. Rotation of pastures also provides unnoticed wildlife a chance to hunt, forage, and seek shelter. The horses are just one part of this environment; other animals are just as important to the flourishing of this ecological community. 

It’s Roaming Cats and Dogs 

Canines brought in from the outside by boarders enjoy running around the stables, especially since they get to enjoy the spoils of horse byproducts. While it may appear repulsive to humans, dogs are keen on eating the leftovers created by farriers—craftsmen who trim and shoe horses’ hooves. Horse hooves are seen as a fine snack. The dogs will also eat whatever else they can find, from horse feed scattered on the ground to kibble set out for the cats. Usually free of their leashes, the dogs seem to enjoy this home away from home and casually roam the property looking for chow, attention from other humans, and sometimes, interactions with other animals found on the farm. Utilizing the space created for horses, the dogs find a way to eat, play, and find some companionship within the horse community.  

Black and white cat sitting in a black bucket mounted on the wall in the corner of a stable
Elsa in a feed tub. Photo by author, 2022.

Sometimes the hounds are used for work. One of the barn managers described a time when she instructed her blue heeler to herd horses that went too far out in the pasture. During the long shifts her dogs would lie down to sleep with her horses. Our own dogs have visited and explored the property when we are working, running around the barns and the track, slowly adjusting to this new environment, and adapting to the strange noises, people, and critters. Running the horses, napping in stalls, strolling the property, or simply sitting in the golf car, these animals certainly have found a place at the stables.

These interchanges are not limited to canines, and in reality, the dog-horse interactions only represent a small number of exchanges that we noticed on the ranch.   

While the dogs are brought to the stables by humans, felines appear on their own and have complete access to the land and buildings. There are even rumors of a wild cat colony in the wooded field with the outside pasture horses. Though the wild cat colony has yet to be proven, more cats rustle around the various other regions of the farm. Usually found walking across the lane, roaming the pastures, or lounging around, the “barn” cats have readily made the stables their home. With bowls of food and water set out for them in multiple locations, they have figured out how to make a place intended for horses a place also for cats.  

The horses don’t seem to mind sharing their space with other tenants.

Freeloading on the various paraphernalia commonly reserved for horses, toms and tabbies are found anywhere they can lie down and sleep, mostly in the feed tubs in stalls, atop horse blankets, in the hay lofts, on the stairs, or in the bedding with the horses. One must be careful when moving things in the tack rooms, feed rooms, or stalls because these are potential sites for catnapping. These cats have found a niche that belongs more to them than it ever will to the horses. Not only have they found a home where they are given food and water every day, but the cats have also become a part of an ecosystem that gives them the opportunity to actively seek out different meals—these mousers aren’t limited to simply eating mice and kibble. Instead, their food ranges from swallows, bats, shrews, squirrels, moles, and any other critters that cross their paths. Despite the fact that there is a large number of bats and swallows flying around the farm, these kitties have been known to consume cardinals, blue jays, and other bird species, too.  

A sleeping ginger cat curled up with black and brown cat in a round pet bed on top of a rug
Barn cats Christoff and Elsa. Photo by author, 2022.

However, these feline predators are also entangled in other predator-prey relations, and are susceptible to becoming quarry themselves. Starting at five cats when I first began this job, now there are only three cats left roaming around, presumably due to foxes or coyotes who sometimes visit the farm and take advantage of the ecosystem established here. However, these outside canine predators are not a welcomed group on the farm and are usually trampled by the horses in the process of protecting their homes.    

Christoff, the orange tomcat, is the closest thing to a king on the farm and basks in the attention given to him by the boarders and stable help. He shows off his influence and refinement any chance he gets. Casually walking down the aisle and strolling into the office to commandeer one of the desk chairs, he demands the tenants and staff notice him. It is hard not to stop what you are doing and let the ginger tom grace you with his presence. Christoff is frequently seen following Elsa the calico kitty. While he could be considered the face of the cats at the farm, she can justly be labeled as the main hunter of this pride of cats, since she typically takes over the killing of the smaller creatures entangled in this unique biome.  

Of Different Feathers & Furs

Nevertheless, “prey” animals also utilize this environment to their advantage and are supported by their commensurate relationships with the horses. Take the barn swallows, for example. Barn swallows are small, beautifully colored birds, and they can be found where there are open areas for foraging, water, and a sheltered ledge for their nests. The swallows who frequent this particular farm utilize the ponds as a food source, for bathing, for water, and as a resource for their mud nests. These nests, used year after year, are created in the crevices and eaves of the horse stalls—usually, right above the horses’ heads. The horses don’t seem to mind sharing their space with other tenants, and they never shy away during the birds’ constant flying in and out of the stalls. Even when the birds start having babies and the youngins make a ruckus, the equines simply take it all in and never attempt to disrupt or evict them.  

While barn swallows inhabit the stables during the day, tiny bats flock to the hay lofts, rafters, and even the track of barn doors in the stables at night. Using the building itself as a home, these mammals have created a niche that spans the space of the barns, fields, and other open areas during the evening and nighttime hours when everyone else has gone. Other critters rely on the horses themselves as resources for their homes. Employing horse hair from manes and tails, these flying animals, most likely finches or sparrows, construct their nests by weaving these tresses together. These delicate nests are usually found in the trees rather than the barns, but are distinctly made from gathered horse hair.  

A large bird nest made of mud with baby birds peeking perched on top of a wooden beam inside a barn.
A baby bird nest between beams. Photo by author, 2022.

Geese also have found a place of belonging on the property. While seen as pests by the owners, boarders, and some of the horses, these waterfowl have developed a living situation that works with their migratory needs. Designed as watering holes for the horses, the ponds on the property have become home to quite an extensive flock of geese. Using the pasture closest to the pond for nesting and breeding, an assortment of waterfowl descends on the ranch and produce more goslings each spring—much to the chagrin of other farm inhabitants. It could be said that not all residents are greeted as neighbors.   

Unexpected Multispecies Entanglements at Horse Stables

Although stables and horse boarding facilities are constructed with equines in mind, these dwellings create a unique opportunity for other animals. Providing some brief examples of multiple species who also utilize these “equine spaces,” I hope to show that even deliberately designed properties create opportunities for unexpected faunal entanglements. These carefully crafted settings produce various ecological niches that are utilized by an assortment of animals whose lives are enriched by their connection with horses.  

Showing the commensal relationships in this collection of animals who choose to live together in close association, benefiting from the horse’s entanglement with humans, this essay demonstrates how intended constructions produce unintentional results, such as unique ecosystems and niches for the animals that are a part of the local ecology. In short, horses, acting as the beneficiaries and intermediaries to the “human world,” help create unique habitats suitable for living, eating, and reproduction among the variety of critters who come to inhabit these environments.     

Featured image: A bird nest made of horse hair. Photo by the author, 2022.

Nicholas Miller is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; he works in both the history and anthropology departments. His research combines ethnohistory, biocultural heritage, nonhuman animal studies, and folkloristics. He argues that animals are not so different from us and that this understanding should imply that traits such as learning, adaptation, and empathy are enough to establish a foundation on which a historical perspective can form. He is currently an adjunct faculty member with the Purdue University Fort Wayne history department and a lecturer in its women’s studies program. Contact.