Healthspan August 31, 2017

Is your horse feeling a little blue? Boredom could ultimately be the culprit. Feeling bored and frustrated is not particularly fun for anyone let alone horses that, in the wild, are typically free-roaming sociable animals. Luckily there are a number of different ways to help reduce boredom and boost their mood. It’s important to remember that every horse is different so what works for one horse may not work for another. Whilst turning them out as often as possible and providing them with sufficient food can help lift their mood, trial and error may also be a good way of figuring out how to bust your horse’s boredom.

Why is my horse bored?

One of the main reasons for boredom among horses can be the fact that they spend long periods either alone, stable-bound or both. There may be a number of factors that lead to your horse staying indoors such as wet or cold weather conditions or an injury. A disinterested, low mood can also be attributed to feelings of loneliness. Horses are typically herd animals and being separated from their companions can be a somewhat stressful and lonely experience.

The signs

There are a number of tell-tale signs that point to boredom or even frustration. These can manifest themselves in the form of bad habits, also known as stereotypies, such as box walking, wood-chewing and weaving.

Wood-chewing and cribbing are oral stereotypies, consider these the horse equivalent of biting your nails. Although these habits can be caused by a number of other reasons such as lack of fibre in their diet, boredom can also be a big culprit. Wood-chewing, where horses gnaw on fences, trees or stall walls can be harmful for their digestive system and mouth due to sharp splinters. Meanwhile cribbing, where horses sink their incisors into any available edge or ledge and gulp air, can damage their teeth which in turn can cause problems when grazing.

The other kind of vice that bored horses may develop are locomotor stereotypies including box walking (constantly pacing around the stall or pen) and weaving (constantly swaying or shifting weight from one side to the other). These can cause hooves to wear down unevenly and put unnecessary pressure on joints.

Most horse stereotypies are manageable to some extent and although some may not be completely stopped in their tracks, battling boredom can help reduce their frequency.

How to help

So, how can you help? Minimising the time your horse spends in stables is the first step towards a less frustrated, less bored and ultimately, happier horse. Horses, by nature, like to spend lots of time outdoors and with other equines so turning them out as much as possible is key to their wellbeing. Just like for humans, exercise can alleviate boredom and also has multiple benefits for physical health.

A good way of ensuring that your horse receives enough exercise is to vary it. If you’re short on time, try smaller bursts of exercise throughout the day and when you have more time, mix it up with a fun obstacle course or a scenic trail.

If minimising stall time isn’t realistic for you and your horse, try and get creative. Choose a stable with bars or grills so they can make friends with any neighbours and if possible, make sure they have an interesting view of the outside world. Companionship can be a great way of boosting your horse’s mood but if an equine friend isn’t an option try installing a mirror, keep the radio playing, introduce a barn cat or increase their human interaction time.

Another way to keep your horse engaged is to provide them with plenty of grass, hay and also tasty treats from time to time. Wild horses can spend up to 60-70% of their time grazing so without access to enough food horses can become bored, grumpy and listless, just like humans really! One way of making the food supply last longer is to be imaginative when it comes to ways of dispensing it. A small-holed hay net makes it last longer, especially if several are spread around the stable. You could even go one step further and hide carrots or other treats within the hay nets or strung up around the stable. Their water buckets can also be a source of food-time fun, place apples in there for them to bob for.

Every horse has their own personality and individual needs so if hunting for dinner or preening themselves in the mirror isn’t their thing, why not try a different tack?

  • Teach them to paint. You will need a paintbrush, paint, a canvas and easel and horse treats. Turn it into a fun game and reward them every time they pick up the paintbrush with their mouth, then gradually add paint to it and reward them again when they go near the canvas. Just be sure to use non-toxic paint and have buckets of patience. Who knows, with a little bit of time and perseverance they could create a masterpiece.
  • Who says you can’t teach an old horse new tricks? Try teaching them something new each week.
  • They may not be the next dressage king or queen but teaching them a few dance moves may help them perk up.
  • Provide them with stable toys such as balls, ropes or treat-dispensing devices.

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