Environmental Enrichment - What Does My Horse Really Need To Be Happy In Domestication?

Imagine walking in your horse's footsteps.

First of all you are a horse, and the needs you will experience are the result of countless generations of natural selection.

You evolved to live in a herd, on grassland, to eat grass.

You are on the menu of most large carnivores. Even though there is little more than a feral cat and a Jack Russell terrier on the yard, who only eat smaller menu items such as mice and tinned food, your survival instinct continues to operate - just in case! You are instinctively wary of novelty and you need to detect danger early - by spotting it a long way off, and having herd mates for extra eyes and ears (who possibly run slower). You are not safe when you are on your own, surrounded by walls, even though you have to put up with it and have largely adapted.

You feel safe in the company of others, and you enjoy sharing their activities. Behaviour is contagious, you like to eat when your friends eat, rest when they rest, play when they play and groom with them whenever you feel like it. These are needs, not merely passing desires. When you're confined to four walls and isolated from the others, you can't do any of this and, in your frustration, you bob your head over the stable door, step from side to side because you can't just walk out and, when it's really tough and you can't keep still, you have to pace around the box, looking for an escape hatch.

You need to sustain yourself on a variety of plant life. You enjoy selectively picking through all the variety of herbage that's on offer, that way you know you're getting an appropriate diet. You miss being able to do this when you're continuously presented with one type of forage. It just adds more insult to the other things you're deprived of when you're bolted into that box.

Getting out to grass is a relief. You're never at grass for as long as you're in the stable. But at least you get to do what your friends are doing - provided that you are turned out together! You do get to roll and lie down away from your own manure and wet bedding. And you get to eat a better variety of fresh food. And best of all, you can clearly see what's going on from a safe distance.

Now imagine what stabled life is like for your horse. Compare this to what he can do when turned out with his friends and consider how the contrast might affect him.

Write down in the table below what problems your horse might be experiencing. And when you've read the rest of this guide, flip these problems into solutions! The clue to the solutions is that they include the things your horse likes to do....

Addressing Isolation

Horses do need to be able to see, smell, hear and touch other horses and, preferably, interact more fully. Simply stabling horses where they can see other horses is not normally enough. Horses that weave have been shown to do it more frequently when stabled opposite each other compared with being in a line block [1]. Horses are also more likely to weave in the run-up to feeding time and to turn-out time [2], [3], so are clearly getting quite excited about these events beacuse they a marked positive contrast to stabled life.

Effective solutions to this problem are:
  • Group housing [4]
  • Windows or grills at the side and rear of the stable [3]
  • Mirrors[5]

Group Housing

This involves keeping horses in small groups loose inside a barn or yard with shelter. The horses need at least as much floor space as they would have in a single stable. They need to be able to move away from other horses, have enough space to eat freely and to lie down and roll. The benefits are that horses get to interact with each other, they take less time to muck out and less bedding is used compared with horses kept individually [4].

I have been using this system in various premises and employment since 2000 and it's my preferred way to keep horses in. I find that the horses are more relaxed and, compared with stabled horses, are not agitated to get out in the morning - so I can even get away with a lie-in at the weekend!

The most important things to consider are:
  • All horses can access hay and water without hindrance. So use multiple water and feed stations.
  • Large feeders designed for feeding cattle in groups are useful.
  • Horses that already get on well together normally have no problem being enclosed into smaller space.
  • Horses that are unfamiliar with each other can be introduced safely to this this kind of management by using a barrier between them. If they are turned out together, with plenty of grass/hay, this will also help them to feel that they do not need to defend their food.
  • My favourite design incorporates an indoor and outdoor space to give more freedom of choice.
  • There should be no "trappy" corners.
The following website has more interesting information about keeping horses in groups in general: http://www.group-housing-horses.net/.

Windows and Mirrors

If you have windows between boxes, that's great:
  • Smaller windows are generally better all round, say approximately 1m square. The ones in the left picture below are too big, if you look carefully some of the bars have been kicked out!
  • A horse's stable is barely big enough to accommodate his personal space - it's important that he has company, but doesn't have his space invaded.
  • Make sure that your horse is comfortable with how close his hay-net is to the other horses.
  • Partially cover full-length grills with a board or even a rug thrown over the top (provided your horse or the neighbour won't appreciate it as a toy!).
  • Having a hole in the wall to a neighbour allows horses to touch and mutually groom provided the gap is big enough.

Mirrors need to be treated in a similar way to windows:
  • Smaller is better - he can avoid his illusion of a buddy if he feels like it.
  • Be aware that, unlike a neighbour horse, the reflection horse will behave exactly as your horse! So if your horse is likely to be aggressive to a stranger, a mirror is probably not a good idea in your case.
  • Test your horse's reaction to mirrors in a bigger space such as on the stable yard before placing one in the stable. If he's relaxed about the mirror in the yard, chances are he will be when it's in the stable. If not, then a mirror is not advisable.
  • Use a specifically designed stable mirror made of acrylic or highly polished steel.

By allowing your horse to remain in the company of a friend or his herd 24/7, he will develop a greater feeling of safety because he no longer has to rely on himself alone to assess the environment for potential threats. The horses can see others and so behave more as a herd, engaging in the same behaviour as others and, where horses can physically touch, they can engage in grooming and play behaviour. Being more generally at ease makes horses less reactive to the excitements and frustrations of yard duties, which really only serve to remind the horse that stabled life is an out-of-control life.

Facilitating Foraging

Horses are adapted to browsing over a variety of forage plants, not simply to stand and munch on one monotonous forage type for hours on end. This is something they may tolerate better when they are at least able to eat in company, but when they're alone, then the frustrations simply add up. After all, isn't variety the spice of life?

And talking about spice, a study published in 2005 demonstrated 8 out of 15 flavours particularly accepted by horses [6]: 1. cherry, 2. cumin, 3. fengreek, 4. peppermint, 5. carrot, 6. oregano, 7. rosemary, 8. banana. The remaining flavours were apple, garlic, ginger and turmeric, all of which were accepted but consumed more slowly, and echinacea, nutmeg and coriander which were not universally accepted.

Multiple Foraging

Providing horses with multiple sources of forage and different flavours and texture is another way of improving the quality of the stable experience because horses can 'patch forage' as they normally would [7] [8].
  • Feed hay/haylage from more than one source.
  • Make clean, feed quality straw available.
  • Instead of mixing the ingredients of your horse's bucket-feed, place each in a separate container.
  • Feed bulkier bucket-feeds that contain chopped forages such as straw, alfalfa and grass - and blends of any three. These take longer for your horse to eat.
  • Feed root vegetables such as carrots, swede and parsnip - either hung up on rope or sliced lengthways and mixed into layers of forages, like a carrot and hay/straw lasagne!
  • Make use of the kinds of herbs and spices (see above) you would use in cooking - offer them separately so your horse may select which he prefers. Animals normally select herbs in small quantities, for more information on medicinal use of herbs see http://www.natural-animals.com
  • Create flavoured hay by soaking in a bucket of herbal tea (e.g. chamomile, peppermint). One tea-bag suitable for a bucket of water with hay in if you poke/prod it a lot to infuse the water before adding the hay.
Providing Browsing

  • Create a 'treat branch' by adding polos, fruit, veg, skewering raisins or other dried fruit to twigs sticking out of the branch, smear honey or herbal pastes to encourage exploratory and foraging behaviour.
  • You might be able to befriend a friendly local tree-surgeon who could bring you unwanted branches from his clients. Horses especially like oak (no acorns), ash and poplar trees; and apple branches are also popular.
Foraging Speed

Kg for kg hay is consumed more quickly than fresh grass and short chopped forages, meaning very simply it doesn't last as long. Slowing down your horse's rate of eating will make the food last longer, giving your horse more time to spend eating instead of standing idle.

Using small-holed hay-nets is a fine art, and a useful skill to learn. A tightly packed small holed hay net presents a frustrating puzzle to a horse. The hay is hard to get hold of and many horses will simply use their powerful jaws to rip open the net - horses didn't evolve to cope with many food-obtaining problems so they do become frustrated easily! However a lightly packed small holed net gives a horse a fighting chance of learning how to be patient and to pick away at the net, like they do with grass, making the hay last longer.

  • Begin by providing most hay in a more easily accessible location such as on the floor or in a large-holed net.
  • Place a lesser proportion lightly packed into a small-holed net.
  • Then every couple of days shift the balance towards more hay in small-holed nets (use more than one!) until most hay is in the small-holed nets.
  • A really interesting resource for this is http://www.slowfeeding.com/ where you can learn lots from Ove Lind's experience.
Stable toys

There are plenty of licks and toys on the market for stabled horses. These are all useful additions to the horseified stable and your budget is the limit!
  • Hang licks on specially designed toys away from walls - just outside the stable door avoids your horse banging himself on the head when walking around his box and gives him something tasty to distract himself with when he's looking over the door.
  • Teach your horse to use ball-feeders by first just hiding dry concentrate feed under them so he learns to push the ball to get the food. Repeat this procedure for a few days whilst slowly increasing the amount of food that goes in the ball. You may need to spend some time teaching your horse that when his nose makes contact with the ball, food appears on the ground next to it.
  • Teach apple-bobbing to encourage solitary play. First put an apple in a bucket with just a centimetre or two of water. Then increase the amount of water gradually each time you give the apple in the water until the bucket is full and the horse is apple bobbing. Use a tyre around the bucket for added stability.
  • Provide a 'toy box' for limited supervised periods of time in a day. Include things such as empty yoghurt pots or cut open fruit juice cartons, rope toys you can buy for dogs - anything with an interesting texture or smell. The toy box will provide an opportunity for solitary play and exploration and encourage foraging behaviour if you include a handful of pony nuts.
Note on stable vices

While I've mentioned weaving I've not fully discussed stable vices. In animal welfare science these behaviours are referred to as 'stereotypies'. They are defined as abnormal repetitive behaviour patterns, that serve no obvious purpose. They are not seen in the wild and therefore are considered markers of poor welfare. When displaying a stereotypical behaviour, it is difficult to distract the animal from doing so because they are coping mechanisms which bring relief to the animal.

The obvious equine stereotypies are cribbing, weaving and box-walking, the behaviour horse people define as "stable vices". However there are other horse stereotypies too: repetitive head nodding, tongue playing/lolling, lip smacking - anything which is limited in form and repetitive.

It's common for stereoptypies to be performed when the horse is emotionally aroused, normally because there is heightened yard activity that just might predict feeding or turnout causing the horse to become tense and frustrated.

The horse acts in this way because, although the promise of something eagerly anticipated is there, the horse cannot make it happen instantly (or at all), so becomes acutely frustrated.

Repeated emotional excitement and lack of control over the environment lead to conflict, and have a negative impact on horse welfare so must not be taken lightly - even if the horse's stereotypy of choice involves it pulling cute faces!

Enriching Life on a Busy Yard

  • A change of scenery can be good if horses would otherwise be stabled for long periods of time. Being tied up on the yard (long-ish rope as horses don't like being too restricted), ideally with a haynet or toy box can be a welcome change - especially in the summer.
  • For horses who are stabled with no tactile access to other horses then a 'visit' from a friend can also be a welcome activity. Consider tying up another horse or pony outside the stable so that they can interact. Obviously the choice of visitor is important, ideally should be horses who are turned out together and who are known friends. Or you can try to nurture a friendship by turning them out together in a sand school perhaps before introducing the visits.
  • If turn-out is limited try to make use of the sand school so that horses have some opportunity for free movement, ideally with another horse (and separated by a barrier if the horses are not familiar with each other).
  • Encourage staff to take horses out for short walks in-hand or to take them for some hand-grazing on any verges there might be around the yard. If there are no verges staff could prepare an area where chopped veg and pony nuts are scattered and take horses to 'graze' the area with the scattered food.
  • Consider organising staff so that certain people are responsible for certain horses. This can help develop a level of competition between staff to be more and more creative with enrichment ideas.
  • During tea breaks staff can visit 'their' horses and give them some extra TLC - perhaps go in their stable and give them an extra grooming session or a big scratch on the bum! Or do a little training such as clicker target training (see our Clicker Training FAQ before starting) to break up the day and provide different activities.
  • If you have access to woodland or trees ask staff to bring back branches, twigs and leaves for the horses if they take their dogs there in breaks, for example
  • Consider growing some herbs in pots around the yard, can make a nice project for work-experience students or staff.
  • Consider keeping an 'enrichment chart' with what you have done/plan to do that day/week. If you are creative you could design a special chart! Some people split horse shoe shapes on card into 7 sections and write what enrichment idea they are going to do for each day as a plan to stick to.
  • Don't forget to enrich your fields as well - also remember that it's not just a case of dumping lots of things in the field and leaving them there long-term. If you can vary things and keep things changing a little then it will be more stimulating for the horses.
Now return to the table at the beginning and see if you can take your horse's stable problems and 'flip' them using the solutions suggested above.

More Resources

[1] Ninomiya, S. Sato, S. Sugawara, K. 2007 Weaving in stabled horses and its relation to other behavioural traits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106 (1-3): 134-143

[2] Clegg, HA. Buckley, P. Friend, MA. McGreevy, PD. 2008 The ethological and physiological characteristics of weaving and cribbing horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 109(1): 68-76

[3] Cooper, JJ. McDonald, L. Mills, DS. 2000 The effect of increasing visual horizons on the effect of stereotypic weaving: Implications for the social housing of stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 69: 67-83

[4] http://equinebehaviourforum.org.uk/symposium_3.html

[5] McAfee LM Mills DS Cooper JJ 2002 The use of mirrors for the control of stereotypic weaving behaviour in the stabled horse. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 78: 159-173

[6] Goodwin, D. Davidson, HBF, Harris, P 2005 Selection and acceptance of flavours in concentrate diets for stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95 (3-4): 149-164

[7] Thorne, JB. Goodwin, D. Kennedy, MJ. Davidson, HBP, Harris, P. 2005 Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: Practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 94(1-2): 226-232

[8] Goodwin, D. Davidson, HBF. Harris, P. 2005 Sensory varieties in concentrate diets for stabled horses: Effects on behaviour and selection. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 90 (3-4): 337-349