Depending on where you live, winter can be a bit…well… boring.
The weather is cold, the ground is frozen, and your horse grows into a wooly bear in the span of a few weeks.
During the long winter months, us humans want spend more time warm and cozy in our homes and less time riding. And if your horse is ridden less during the winter months, there’s a good chance he could become bored, grumpy or even destructive!
Researchers have looked at horses who spend a lot of time in their stalls and they have a few ways to help. In this article, we’re going to look at the best ways you can help your horse beat away the winter blues.
Whenever you keep an animal in an enclosure – whether it’s a horse in your barn or a bear at the zoo – it’s important to keep their lives interesting. Researchers call this concept “environmental enrichment.”
You want to provide your animal with interesting and natural stimuli so he can stay happy and healthy for the long term. There are two kinds of environmental enrichment – natural and behavioral.
A natural approach means you would fill your horse’s space with things that would make him feel as if he were in a natural wild habitat.
Practically speaking, the best way to do this is to increase your horse’s turnout time when he’s not getting ridden as often. This way he can socialize with other horses and spend time grazing. Straw bedding is another easy solution.
A behavioral approach to environmental enrichment can be summed up in one word… toys!
Yup, turns out those stall toys, licks, food balls, and mirrors actually do a great deal to help your horse stay mentally and physically fit. These items may feel artificial to you, but the behaviors they cause are actually very natural.
Let’s look at all of these concepts a bit closer. The first one makes perfect sense. Let your horse spend more time out in pasture!
You’ve probably seen your horse kick up his heels in glee after a long time cooped up in the barn. This seems obvious to any real horse owner, but researchers actually made an official study out of it.
They found that the less time a horse spends outside, the more crazy they will act when first turned out. Bucking, kicking, galloping – you know the drill. (Chaya et. al 2006)
The takeaway is this… if your horse is not getting the mental and physical stimulation he needs, he is more likely to explode with energy when he first goes out.
So, whenever possible, let your horse safely play outside, graze the fields, and interact with other horses.
Chew, chew, chew…
Ever notice how much happier your horse is when he has something to munch on? This might be hay hung in your horse trailer, or a field of lush grass outside.
Horses have a natural instinct to graze on things – also known as foraging.
Again, scientists studied how to use this need to keep horses happier. Turns out there’s a simple fix that can be used even in the winter. Just use straw bedding instead of shavings or pellets!
Researchers found that straw bedding did the best job of helping a horse stay happy while inside. Horses in the study spent more time lying down and less time misbehaving from boredom. (Kwiatkowska-Stenzel et. al, 2016)
When it comes to eating, they also found that horses who were fed using a hay net or slow feeder (rather than hay off the floor) spent a longer time eating during the day. (Rochais et. al, 2018) This is actually good for your horse because it lets them fulfill that natural need to pick and chew at their food.
So, let your horse snack, make him eat slowly, and ditch the shavings for a few months each year.
This last category is the most fun. Turns out, it’s not just humans who enjoy playing with toys. Horses love them too!
There are lots of options for toys or artificial enrichment devices to hang in your horse’s stall. An outdoor toy might be something you already have around your barn that can be safely chased, pushed, kicked, or tossed around.
This might include buckets, large traffic codes, rubber tubs, or plastic barrels. Rubber balls with handles can also be purchased.
Indoor toys are great for horses who spend a lot of time in box stalls. This would especially apply to a horse who is recovering from injury or can’t go outside due to icy conditions.
One popular type is a rubber ball hung on a rope – which your horse can swing back and forth. An empty plastic gallon jug (even filled with carrots) is an easy and cheap alternative. Other horses may even want to play with stuffed animals.
Some horses enjoy these more than others. You might also find that your horse plays with it for a while but then gets bored with it and ignores it. (Jorgensen, 2011)
When it comes to licks, these keep your horse interested and feed that natural instinct to forage. But what are the best kinds?
Researchers have found that horses really like flavors like cherry, cumin, fenugreek, peppermint, carrot, oregano, rosemary, and banana. (Bulens et. al, 2015) Other flavor were licked a little more slowly. This includes apple, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Stay away from flavors like echinacea, nutmeg, and coriander as there’s a good chance your horse will turn up his nose.
Treat dispensing toys are another fun option. This is a toy where a treat is dispensed when the horse interacts with it. For instance, a hexagon shaped ball where a treat falls out when your horse rolls it across the ground.
If you want to give your horse a little extra stimulation, try making him some homemade popsicles. Mix apple juice or peppermint candies with water and let it freeze inside a bowl. Then, put the frozen treat into his feed dish to lick and enjoy.
Carrots and apples directly into his water bucket will let him happily bob for his favorites. Then, music played in your barn will help brighten up his attitude.
Regardless of what you do, some natural stimulation for your horse will keep him interested and happy throughout the winter months. If you have any questions about how to use your horse trailer in the winter, feel free to contact Brad Heath today.
Bulens, A. et. al (2015). A preliminary study on the long-term interest of horses in ropes and Jolly Balls. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(1), pp.83-86.
Chaya, L., Cowan E., and McGuire, B. (2006). A note on the relationship between time spent in turnout and behaviour during turnout in horses (Equus caballus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 98(1), pp.155–160.
Jorgensen, G.H.M., Liestol, S.H.O. and Boe, K.E., (2011). Effects of enrichment items on activity and social interactions in domestic horses (Equus caballus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 129(2), pp.100-110.
Kwiatkowska-Stenzel, A., Sowinska, J. and Witkowska, D., (2016). The effect of different bedding materials used in stable on horses behavior. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 42, pp.57-66.
Rochais, C., Henry, S. and Hausberger, M., (2018). “Hay-bags” and “Slow feeders”: Testing their impact on horse behaviour and welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 198, pp.52-59.
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