Horses are intelligent creatures with complex needs to keep their busy minds engaged: Kelly Munro of Lighthoof has a whole slew of tips and ideas to make sure your horse is leading an enriched life!
If you’ve read the other articles in our series on Horse Friendly Farm Design, then you are already familiar with the primary philosophies of movement, socialization and stress reduction.
The friendliest farms will have horses outside with other horses, in a spacious and safe area, for the majority of the day. However, in situations where this is not possible, we can simply do our best to reduce stress by limiting isolation and relieving boredom.
Here are some ideas to engage the horse in activities that he would naturally enjoy, to help alleviate the boredom that can occur in domestic stabled life — which in some horses leads to vices or mental fatigue.
Keep ‘em Eating
Nothing is more pacifying to horses than eating. Chewing releases facial tension and the act of grazing, whether it is on grassy pasture or simulated “grazing” on hay, is good for their minds and their tummies. In an ideal world, the horse will have access to grazing whenever they are not being ridden, even though the night.
There are some precautions to take, however. With so many equine diseases being attributed to obesity or overconsumption of lush pasture, grazing can actually require some management and planning. Horses with ample pasture may need to wear grazing muzzles to restrict their bite size (although some horses find these devices frustrating and uncomfortable) or spend much of their time in dry lots with hay to “graze” – especially during high sugar risk times of the year like spring and fall.
On the flip side, some farms might not have productive enough pasture for horses to spend all of their time grazing and the fields turn to dirt or mud. In these cases, a strict pasture management plan must be put in place to restore the health of the grass. This again involves the use of dry lots and artificial grazing. Your dry lots may need support, such as Lighthoof, for mud management to keep them safe, healthy, and easy to maintain.
For the “off-pasture grazing” consider your desired feed intake management system, such as a slow feeder net or solid feeder with restrictive openings, to make sure the hay stays available in bite sized amounts. If necessary, reduce your caloric density of your horse’s entire ration by reducing grain or choosing a hay with a good protein and nutrient profile, but lower overall digestible energy, to allow for an increase in forage volume to keep him eating longer.
Plan His Social Life
Even if your horse isn’t able to be turned out in a herd with other horses, you can design a daily routine for him that suits his social interests. You may notice that some horses find a “stall with a view” very engaging and like to watch the comings and goings of a busy barn. Others find this situation too stimulating and prefer a shared fence line or a stall window with a single trusted buddy.
In the wild, the watering hole is an important social gathering place. Grouping water troughs at fence lines is not only convenient for filling, but gives horses in separate paddocks the feeling of togetherness over shared resources.
It’s easy to think of ourselves as our horse’s only partner for social interaction, but he will be less bored while you are at work if his day includes interactions (positive or negative – some mares thrive on ear pinning) with other horses and even other people such as a trainer, lessor, or stall cleaner. In lieu of his ancestors’ naturally busy schedule moving with their herd in search of new resources and fending off intruders, you can provide a variety of “horsey” interactions that are not related to the human pursuits of training or riding.
Toys, Tricks, and Treats
After you’ve provided all you can with food and friends, you may or may not find your horse needs more to do. A horse on stall rest can get especially bored, as can senior horses who aren’t able to exercise as much as they used to.
Stall toys can be tricky because horses will notoriously ignore the expensive ball or lick that we bought them and can’t be convinced to play with it no matter how many times we demonstrate. It’s good to have many options and ideas in case one (or ten) of them don’t impress.
- Stall balls, stall balls on strings, stall balls in water troughs
- Toys that are filled with treats and release them little by little when rolled
- Lickable toys (so many flavors and mounting options!)
- A plain old salt lick
- Selections of loose minerals
- Shatterproof acrylic mirrors
- Rubber feed tubs
- Traffic cones
- Music played over a speaker outside the horse’s stall
- Things to scratch on (scratching pads, brushes mounted to the wall, etc)
- Flavored water or wet soupy mashes
- Water trough upside down with grain sprinkled on top
- Large rocks in grain bin
- Spinning toys that mount to the wall
- Hiding carrots in hay nets or around stall
- Bobbing for apples in water
- Giant horse sized inflatable balls
- Safe obstacles in the paddock for him to step over and through
Share your favorite toy ideas and ones we’ve missed in the comments!
A few things to remember… be careful with safety and make sure there’s nothing that your horse could get caught on, especially if you are hanging toys on ropes or twine. Make sure you horse isn’t ingesting anything he shouldn’t, like the plastic part of a toy, or eating too many treats for his diet. Be careful with snaps — carabiners are especially prone to cutting a horse on his face — and try to keep them out of reach of the horse with the opening part facing away from him.
Also, be sure that the toys are providing enrichment, not frustration. If your horse acts angry or impatient when interacting with his toys or is craning his neck in an unnatural way or scraping his teeth, it may be doing more harm than good.
Best of luck with your boredom busting farm design and please feel free to reach out to us at www.lighthoof.com if you have any questions or need help with your farm plan. We specialize in mud management for paddocks, but we have a passion for happy, healthy horsekeeping and would love to chat with you!