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....
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 . Horses are also more likely to weave in the run-up to feeding time and to turn-out time , , so are clearly getting quite excited about these events beacuse they a marked positive contrast to stabled life.
Effective solutions to this problem are:
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 .
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:
Windows and Mirrors
If you have windows between boxes, that's great:
Mirrors need to be treated in a similar way to windows:
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.
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 : 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.
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  .
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.
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!
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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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