Studies have shown that captive animals live healthier, less stressful lives if they have opportunities to spend time doing things they’d normally do in the wild. Giving animals outlets for their natural instincts, ways to work for their food and interesting environments to live in is called enrichment. If you go to the zoo, you’ll notice that many of the animals have toys that dispense food, objects to play with and things to perch on or climb. Many live with companions or are able to see other animals from their enclosures.
Even though they’re not wild animals anymore, horses need physically and mentally stimulating ways to occupy their time, too. So what kind of enrichment should you provide for your horse? To determine the best strategies for spicing up his life, think about how a wild horse spends his day. In the wild, horses spend 60 to 80% of their waking hours grazing outdoors in family herds. Compared to this, many domesticated horses lead a very unnatural life. A typical stabled horse might not even be able to look out a window or see other horses. Because he eats a nutritious but highly concentrated feed, he finishes his meals quickly and then spends hours staring at four boring walls. No wonder many stabled horses develop habits like cribbing and weaving!
It’s best to find a way to give your horse more time outside, preferably grazing with friends the way his wild ancestors did. But if your horse must spend a lot of time indoors, there are still many ways to make his life more interesting.
Whenever horses hear someone scooping grain, happy nickers echo throughout the stable. Many of the grains and sweet feeds we give horses are delicious, so feeding time is often the high point of their day. Why not find a way to make the excitement last a little longer?
There are many fun feeding toys for horses on the market. Many of them dispense grain a little at a time so that horses can play and eat simultaneously. They get to spend more time doing something that brings them great pleasure and less time staring at stall walls or engaging in undesirable habits.
If you’d like to make your own feeding toy, you can clean a large plastic bottle and poke some holes in it. Hang it in your horse’s stall at head level, and he’ll soon discover that nuzzling or butting the toy makes grain fall out. You can also drill holes in any large, sturdy plastic container so that grain comes out as your horse pushes the toy around the stall or pasture. (A 10-gallon pail with a well-sealed top or a Boomer Ball® works well: http://www.boomerball.com.) You can provide a different kind of challenge by putting a few large rocks in your horse’s feed bucket (too big to swallow) so that he has to work around them. These strategies not only make mealtimes last longer, but also make eating more entertaining for your horse.
Additional edible enrichment options include the following:
- Place your horse’s hay in many small piles around the pasture instead of in one big stack.
- Hang carrots and other tasty snacks from high places so that they swing and take a while to eat.
- Your horse can “bob for apples” if you leave some in his water bucket or trough.
- Scatter treats around the pasture or stall, which will encourage your horse to forage for his food the way his wild ancestors did.
- Try the Pasture Pal® Feeder, a toy that’s ideal for horses who have limited opportunities to graze outside. You can put your horse’s entire ration of grain in it, and when he nuzzles the roller, grain will fall out onto a plastic tray.
- A company called Likit makes an assortment of long-lasting toys that horses love to lick, like the Jolly Stall Snack Treat and the Likit Tongue Twister. You can hang them from the ceiling of your horse’s stall or mount them on the stall wall.
Non-edible enrichment items that you can put in your horse’s stall include the Jolly Apple™, the Pas-a-Fier (a rubber toy that your horse can bite), knotted ropes and tires. If your horse gnaws on wood, he’ll enjoy the Pas-A-Fier, which can be mounted in the corner of his stall. As your horse nuzzles and chews on the toy, it releases a tempting apple scent. Many horses also enjoy toys that they can kick around, like the Jolly Ball®. For playtime in the pasture, try the Equi-Spirit™ 40" soccer ball, an enormous, puncture-resistant toy made especially for horses!
Any time you’re with your horse, you’re training him—whether you realize it or not! Your horse is learning every time you interact with him. So take advantage of the many opportunities you have to teach your horse every day.
Riding and driving horses get training enrichment any time you take them out for exercise. But there are other kinds of training you can try, too. Clicker training is an exciting new technique that’s rapidly gaining popularity in the horse world. It’s great for horses of all ages, but clicker training can be particularly beneficial to horses who are too young or too old to ride and need a good mental workout! Horses are extremely intelligent and tend to learn very quickly with this method. Please see our article on Clicker Training Your Pet to learn how to get started. Begin by teaching a few easy tricks. If your horse enjoys clicker training, you can start incorporating it into your riding and groundwork as well.
An easy first behavior to teach is targeting—teaching your horse to touch something with his nose on cue. You can use a bucket, a traffic cone or a closed fist as your first target. It’s best to start this training with your horse in a stall. If he starts mugging you for your treat bag, you can immediately step away for a few moments to teach him that obnoxious behavior never earns a reward.
Not only is teaching your horse to target a lot of fun, it’s practical, too. Once your horse learns to target something, like a small ball on the end of a stick, you can use this new skill to move your horse around without any physical force at all—which is great when you’re working with an animal who’s much larger than you are! You can use targeting to move a fearful horse into a dark barn or to lead him over a bridge or an obstacle on the ground. You can even use targeting to teach a horse to load into his trailer without fussing. See our article on Teaching Your Horse to Target for more information. (You can use a clicker instead of the word “Yes.”) We also recommend reading Alexandra Kurland’s book, Clicker Training for Your Horse, which explains how to use this exciting method to teach your horse a new way of learning.
Try Something New
There are many different disciplines in the riding world, like dressage, hunter/jumper, driving, endurance, Western performance and games, reining and cutting. If you have a fit horse who’s getting weary of one sport, you can always start training him in another one. Who knows? Maybe he has talents you haven’t discovered yet!
Horses are very athletic animals and require regular exercise to stay happy and healthy. If you don’t have time to ride your horse daily yourself, consider a part-lease or finding an enthusiastic horse lover who’s willing to help keep your horse fit.
Riding in circles in an arena can get dull, so if you live in an area where trail riding is possible, consider teaching your horse to be calm and well-mannered on trails. Following an experienced equine friend may help him get used to the great outdoors. Lunging and working in a round pen are other ways to exercise your horse. (However, these activities shouldn’t be his only form of exercise because constant turning can put stress on his legs.) Even a walk down a new road can be exciting enrichment for a horse who’s too old or too young to be under saddle.
Horses enjoy all kinds of sensations. Here are a few ways to indulge your horse’s sense of touch:
- Remove the broom handle from a natural-fiber push broom and secure the broom to a stable, free-standing pole or to the wall of your horse’s stall. Make sure the bristles are at withers-level. Your horse will love the opportunity to scratch himself on and off throughout the day.
- Build a high mound of dirt or sand in your pasture for your horse to climb, or give him a nice sandy patch to roll in. (Sand is easier to brush off than mud!)
- Massage your horse. This is a great way to bond and soothe any sore muscles. Massage can also help calm a fearful horse. There are various massaging techniques, including the popular Tellington TTouch®: http://www.ttouch.com/whyTTEAM.shtml.
- Set up a sprinkler from time to time so that your horse can enjoy the cool spray. Some horses have fun playing in the stream of water; others simply enjoy a cool shower on a warm afternoon.
Allowing a sociable horse to spend time in a field with friends is one of the best ways to enrich his life. Even when resting, horses tend to stand close together, and good friends often groom each other’s neck and shoulders. If turn-out time is impossible for some reason, visual contact with other horses can help make your horse’s life more interesting. At the very least, your horse’s stall should have a window to the outdoors so that he can watch what’s going on and catch a glimpse of other horses instead of staring at bare walls.
If your horse lives alone, we strongly recommend getting him a friend. It’s ideal to house your horse with another horse or a pony, but a donkey, a burro, a llama or a goat can also provide great comfort and enrichment. Horses develop bonds with all kinds of animals, including cats, dogs and even rabbits.