Six ways to keep social, stabled horses engaged and entertained.
Horses were made to roam, graze and socially interact with other horses. If these natural behaviors are limited or inhibited, it can lead to boredom, frustration, fear and anxiety. To cope, the horse may develop vices and unwanted behaviors such as wood chewing, coprophagia (eating feces), weaving and even self-mutilation.
“Most unwanted behaviors, including boredom and depression, are due to one of the Five Freedoms [for Horse Health and Welfare initiated by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, now called the Farm Animal Welfare Council] being suppressed or inhibited,” says Sarah Matlock, M.S., instructor of Applied Equine Behavior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The five freedoms are: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviors; and freedom from fear and distress.
Matlock says most horse owners and barn managers do a great job of fulfilling the first three freedoms, but the last two can be challenging and, if left unmet, can cause a horse to become bored, anxious or frustrated.
1. Provide access to forage. Matlock says horses are designed to graze 16 to 18 hours per day. If your horse is not able to graze that long she recommends getting a slow feeder for hay that replicates grazing. She prefers feeders that are on the ground with holes larger than a hay bag or hay net so the horse can use its lips to grasp the hay.
2. Offer a variety of forages. Instead of feeding just grass or alfalfa hay, add a variety of hay types to the slow feeder, including types of hay with various nutritional values and stem lengths.
3. Create social interaction. Once you’ve met your horse’s foraging needs, Matlock suggests turning the horse out with other horses or at least move it to an area where it can view other horses. If there aren’t other horses nearby, introduce a companion animal such as a goat, donkey, miniature horse or chickens. Matlock adds that research shows hanging mirrors in a horse’s stall can also have a calming affect on an isolated horse.
4. Groom daily. In a herd environment, horses groom each other, called allogrooming. Grooming your horse daily can provide that same relaxation and social interaction for the horse, and promote bonding.
5. Try a feed-dispensing toy. There are several horse toys that hold feed and treats, and the horse has to work to figure out how to get the food reward. “In the absence of the horse’s ability to forage, toys that do not provide some type of food reward may not provide much value to their time in a stall,” says Matlock.
6. Take a walk. Taking your horse on a walk just like you’d walk a dog builds security among the horse and handler and alleviates some of the behavioral issues that come from confinement.