Social buffering occurs when the presence of one animal attenuates another’s stress response during a stressful event and/or helps the subject to recover more quickly after a stressful event. Inconsistent previous results might reflect previously unrecognised contextual influences, such as the nature of the stimulus presented or social factors. We addressed these issues in a two-part study of horses paired with familiar (16 subjects) or unfamiliar (16 subjects) companions. Each subject performed 4 tests in a counterbalanced order: novel object test (static ball)—alone or with companion; and umbrella opening test—alone or with companion. Social buffering was significantly influenced by the nature of the stimulus presented, but not by companion’s habituation status or familiarity. Importantly, the stimulus used produced differential effects on behavioural and physiological measures of buffering. A companion significantly reduced behavioural response (reactivity) in the novel object test but not in the umbrella test. However, heart rate recovered more quickly for subjects with a companion in the umbrella test but not in the novel object test. We propose that circumstances which permit greater contextual processing may facilitate demonstration of behavioural effects of social buffering, whereas buffering in response to startling events may be manifest only during post-event physiological recovery.