Looking for ways to prevent boredom in your horse? Enrichment activities for your horse don’t need to cost a lot and can be easy to set up.

Many horse owners are aware of the basic components of animal welfare. You know to provide nutrition, water, shelter, safety, and medical help when needed. But a component of animal welfare that often gets missed with horses is the need to express normal and species-appropriate behaviours.

It can be difficult to provide a natural lifestyle for domesticated horses that meets their social and behavioural needs.

Horses have an intense drive for foraging which is often limited by modern management practices. In addition, individual housing in a stable environment can limit their social behaviours.

Up to 20% of horses develop repetitive, stereotypical behaviours to cope with the domestic environment including:

  • Crib-biting: Grasping a solid object, arching the neck and sucking in air
  • Wind sucking: Sucking in air, similar to crib-biting, but without grasping an object
  • Box walking: Pacing or circling in the stable
  • Weaving: Shifting weight from one side to the other or swinging the head from side to side

Fortunately, we can counteract deficits of the domestic environment by offering our horses enrichment (often referred to as environmental enrichment) that provides an outlet for their natural behaviours.

What is Equine Enrichment?

Enrichment is a husbandry practice that strives to enhance the environment of domesticated horses. This is done by providing environmental stimuli that support optimal psychological well-being for your horse. [1]

Enrichment can help your horse express normal and species-appropriate behaviour, preventing boredom and reducing stereotypical behaviours.

Stereotypic behaviour is observed in roughly 10-20% of domesticated horses. Ethologists (scientists who study animal behaviour) believe these behaviours are a horse’s attempt to cope with a non-species-appropriate lifestyle. [5]

The Problem with the Domesticated Environment

Horses in their natural environment will spend up to 75% of their day engaged in “foraging behaviour” which includes all forms of feeding behaviour.

This often gets confused with just the ingestion of forage, but it also includes other behaviours such as browsing, selection, grazing, sniffing, manipulating, biting, and ingestion. [2]

In contrast, domesticated horses can spend as little as 10% of their day foraging. [3] During that time spent foraging they are not engaging in a full range of foraging behaviours, just biting and ingestion.

That drastic 65% difference in time spent foraging affects most domesticated horses and results in a lot of idle time spent standing around with no additional behaviour.

Additionally, locomotion is an essential part of a horse’s natural behaviour, especially while grazing and foraging.

In nature, horses will rarely take more than two mouthfuls before moving to a new area. Domesticated horses tend to plant themselves or be fed in one location, resulting in next to no movement. [4]

Some of this comes down to diet composition and how your horse’s feed is offered. High-forage diets with hay provided in a slow feeder hay net will take much longer to consume and stimulate some foraging behaviours compared to high-starch diets.

Balancing the equine diet to meet both the nutritional and behavioural needs of the horse is critical to ensure overall physical and mental well-being.

You can submit your horse’s diet for a complementary evaluation by our equine nutritionists.

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn Equine Nutrition Consultants

Target Areas for Enrichment in Horses

Foraging Behaviour:

Using enrichment we can artificially engage horses’ foraging and grazing motivation for longer periods.

We can offer them objects to sniff and manipulate as well as get them to browse and use their seeking system.

Feeding Time:

Typically, feeding time take up only 10% of a horse’s daily activities but there are ways to make that same amount of forage last longer.

We can provide ways to prevent the horse from eating his forage too fast and stimulate his curiosity.

Movement:

It is unnatural for a horse to stand still in front of a pile of hay all day. This can become an issue with ad libitum hay because the horse is not foraging, grazing, or moving.

With enrichment, we can encourage natural movement so the horse does not spend long periods of time standing in front of the main feeder.

Boredom and Idling:

Boredom is a problem for many domesticated horses who spend much of their time standing idly.

Enrichment can provide horses stimulation outside of food and can even encourage play.

Stereotypies and Behaviour Problems:

Multiple studies have shown that enrichment can help reduce behavioural problems caused by idleness.

Enrichment can also be used to promote desirable behaviours, decrease separation anxiety, and reduce self-mutilation. [6]

Additional Benefits of Enrichment:

  • Reduction of stress [6] [8]
  • Provides horses with choices and control over their environment
  • Reduction of rapid ulceration by minimizing food deprivation [9]
  • Help with desensitization and positively introducing novel objects

Equine Enrichment Research

A French equine enrichment study was conducted on two groups of horses hospitalized at ENVA’s equine surgery clinic. One group received standard hospitalization while the second group benefitted from an enriched environment.

In standard housing, horses averaged 27 minutes per day performing stereotypic behaviour whereas the enrichment group averaged only 1 minute daily.

Additionally, the enriched group reacted less to wound care and other treatment-related manipulations, had fewer complications, less inflammation and lower pain scores. [7]

More research is required to determine the effect of enrichment on stereotypies in horses. However, preliminary studies show that offering an enriched environment can prevent stereotypic behaviours.

Types of Enrichment for Horses

Enrichment techniques are divided into five categories: [1]

  1. Physical Enrichment: Physical structures and arrangement of the environment including stall, terrain, or paddock
  2. Sensory Enrichment: Elements that engage any of the 5 senses (hearing, touch, smell, sight and taste)
  3. Cognitive Enrichment: Mental stimulation such as activities that promote curiosity
  4. Social Enrichment: Intraspecies (horses) and interspecies (non-horses) interactions
  5. Nourishment / Food Enrichment: Supporting foraging and providing stimulating ways to receive food

Before designing enrichment activities for your horse, here are some factors to consider.

Dietary Requirements:

When working with horses that have special dietary needs or metabolic concerns such as equine metabolic syndrome, we must make sure that we are not overfeeding or providing too much sugar with our enrichment activities.

Consulting with an equine nutritionist is always recommended to ensure your horse is receiving proper nutrients and a balanced diet. We can use our horses’ daily rations of food to provide our food-based enrichment activities without major dietary changes.

Neophobia (Food):

Neophobia is the tendency for an animal to fear anything new. This tends to manifest as the unwillingness to try new things or change up the routine.

Studies have shown that although horses can have a strong neophobic response to unfamiliar foods, the acceptance of novel food can be increased by introducing familiar odours. [10]

Introducing novel foods along with already accepted foods can help a horse accept new foods.

Neophobia (Objects):

Many horses are stressed by changes to their routine, including the introduction of environmental enrichments. This is especially true for horses that have already developed stereotypic behaviours.

It has been found that horses with stereotypic behaviours are less able to properly respond to novel stimuli. [11]

To ensure enrichment is not a stressful experience it is best to introduce simple enrichment activities at the start and watch for signs of stress. Allow the horse to engage with the activity without force or pressure, especially if introducing novel objects.

Multiple Horses:

When providing paddock or field enrichment in an area that is shared by multiple horses it is important to provide multiple enrichment activities to reduce resource guarding.

Time Management:

Zoology studies have found that a major concern for horse owners is the extra time involved in implementing enrichment activities. [12] We have chosen activities that are relatively simple and quic