By Kathie Gregory
Enrichment is a word that is becoming increasingly used to describe how we do more than provide welfare to our companion animals.
Awareness of enrichment is very high in the dog world, and there are plenty of ideas and products that cater for the different breeds, traits, and personalities to ensure dogs have a wide variety of enrichment opportunities. However, it is not so widely known within the equine world.
Tailored Enrichment for Horses
The lives of many horses are determined by what people want from them. People do keep horses as companions, and expect nothing from them, but the majority of horses are kept for a specific purpose. They are there to do a job and support the person in whatever job that is.
The type of work or activity they must do, the level of competence they must achieve, and the goals of the person all determine the lifestyle of that particular horse. In many cases, that lifestyle is very different to how a horse would naturally live, and does not support the needs of the equine species.
This makes the concept of enrichment so important. If we are to expect our horses to live in a way that suits our needs, we must balance this with supporting the needs of our equine friends.
In order to provide enrichment, we need to look at the natural behaviors of the equine species, along with each horse’s individual personality. This gives us the information we need to find ways to encourage natural behavior and expression of the horses’ personalities.
Horses as Grazers and Foragers
Horses are a grazing species. This means that rather than eating meals hours apart, they eat for the majority of their time. They are also active as they eat, and naturally travel long distances at a slow pace as they graze.
Horses also like to forage along hedgerows and will consume a variety of different foods in addition to their main pasture grazing.
But how can we achieve this if the horse is kept stabled, or in a small environment, and has limited or no access to turnout? We have to be creative and think outside of the box.
We know that feeding set amounts several hours apart is not how the horse eats, so what can we do to make eating a more natural experience for the horse?
First, we need to look at what the horse is fed. Concentrates are an easy way for people to get nutrition into the horse when the horse is not at liberty to spend most of his time grazing, and the person cannot be present all day to give him continuous supply of food.
But this compromises the health of the horse, impacting his physical abilities and his psychological health. Everyone’s situation is different, and so suggestions need to be adapted so they work for the individual person and horse’s circumstances.
Feeding Options for Horses
When feeding in the stable, there is no ability for the horse to really move around, which is a compromise, so the only option is to concentrate on what we give the horse to eat.
Resolving a compromising situation may or may not be possible, but it is worth exploring alternative boarding solutions for the horse who spends most of his time stabled, by looking at other establishments. If the stable is big enough hay can be placed in different areas of the stable, which does give the horse the opportunity to have some movement.
We can add enrichment to what is fed in the stable by adding different grasses, weeds, leaves, herbs, and other plants found in hedgerows, to the hay the horse gets. This variety is great for gut health and provides the horse with different tastes and textures which will help increase the pleasure element of eating.
It can also be a benefit to his teeth, and his state of mind. What we eat does have an influence on brain chemistry and emotional state.
Before adding any type of vegetation to your horse’s hay, you must first check that it is safe for the horse to eat, and not toxic. It is also worth noting that these are added ingredients to the main bulk of the food, which should be hay, so add small amounts of different vegetation.
Outdoor Enrichment for Horses
The next thing to consider is how we can enrich the environment when the horse is allowed turnout onto pasture, or has access to an outside area. Horses that have free access to a smaller outside environment can also benefit from these ideas.
Track systems can be really useful for encouraging the horse to roam in a contained area without damaging the entire field. It keeps the horse on part of the field, whilst the remainder rests. Once the feeding track has served its purpose, it can be moved, allowing the part of the field that was being used time to recover.
This solution can help keep a small paddock sustainable for longer than if the horse has access to the whole field all the time. The compromise here is that the horse may become bored walking the same track, and be more interested in the grass outside of it!
So, adding interest to the track is essential if it is going to satisfy the horse. If there are hedgerows or other sources of forage opportunities on some parts of the field, ensure that the current track does not encompass all of them, so there are new forage areas for the horse to explore when you move the track. Also, consider what is around the field, and which parts provide interest for the horse as he gazes across to other land.
A final and important aspect is to look at which parts of the field are the horse’s favorite spots. If you draw a simple plan of the area, with all these things in it, you can devise tracks that will keep the horse happy and engaged whichever track he is on.
Another option is to section off a part of the field instead of creating a track. This has more limitations in terms of encompassing the different aspects of the field and therefore what the horse has access to in each section, but if you plan well, you should be able to find a way to section it off so that each section contains some interest for the horse.
Whether you have a track system, a section system, or your horse has free access to a whole area, you can increase his enrichment by adding things to the environment. Feeding spots in different places are great for encouraging the horse to move around.
Food Enrichment for Horses
We can also use food as enrichment to stimulate the mind. The following suggestions are things you can add to enrich your horse’s life and help them feel more content, whatever environment they are in.
Variety of Foods
Think about the different textures and tastes of different foods. Carrot, apple, watermelon, and swede are all foods that horses may like, and can be cut up or left whole, depending on what is safe for the horse. You might also consider commercially prepared high fiber nuts and pellets.
The main thing is to choose foods that your horse likes and complements any specific nutritional needs.
You can hide these foods in hay nets, or under and in hay piles. You can put some on a string and hang them at different heights to replicate the different heights when foraging along the hedgerow. Don’t forget you can add herbs, grasses, and weeds too.
For some interactive ideas, you can put food in a ball or trickle feeder, so the horse has to find out how to release the tasty treat. Put a football in a munch net hung from the ceiling, and stick carrots in it to provide a food puzzle. You can hang plastic milk bottles filled with nuts or pieces of fruit and vegetables around the stable and any outside environment the horse has access to.
For the stabled horse, and those with access to an outside environment that has limited resources, replenish the food as you can throughout the day to give him ongoing interest and more continuous foraging opportunities.
This next idea is great for the summer. Not only does it give your horse some interest when he may be less inclined to move about if it’s very hot, it also helps to keep him hydrated. Make frozen fruit and vegetable ice lollies by blending or chopping the food into pieces, and adding them to a plastic tub of water.
Be inventive. If your horse likes herbs, add those to another tub of water. Once frozen, turn out of the tub and you have a horse-sized lollipop! If you freeze it with a piece of string in the tub, you can also hang up the lollipops. You can make several different flavors for your horse to enjoy.
Food Puzzles and Games
Horses like to use their teeth and feet to explore and investigate, so you can also provide objects such as balls and cones for play opportunities. As already suggested, you can use food in objects to provide puzzle and problem-solving games.
But you do not need to use food. Horses are naturally inquisitive, and many just enjoy the experience of new things to play with and investigate, so think about the movement, textures, and interaction opportunities different objects bring.
This is something you can get involved with too. Being an active part of the play session with your horse is enjoyable for you both. Having you around to be part of interactive games adds another dimension to enrichment, and you can devise your own games.
Horses have a very good sense of smell, so why not use that sense to play some hide and seek games? You can use food, or you can use objects that you have added a specific scent to. You can even hide yourself and ask your horse to find you!
Horses do love a good scratch, and so we can provide scratching posts made from old brooms, or logs, covered in sisal rope. These might be free standing if they are sturdy enough, or they can be attached to a wall or a tree.
Adding logs of applewood or willow provides chewing opportunities that are much nicer than the stable door or fencing, and helps keep your environment in good condition.
Whatever materials you use, make sure there are no additives that are poisonous to horses, as most horses will also explore all these things with their teeth.
Another form of enrichment is to take horses out for in-hand sessions to walk and forage. Go where the horse has the option to browse from hedgerows, graze, and have poo sniffing opportunities. This is really good for those with limited or no turnout time, and for those with limited foraging opportunities in their environment.
Whilst you are out, you can use in-hand sessions for teaching tricks and practicing movements. These are great for teaching your horse to work with you in different environments, and will nicely translate to when you are riding him.
There are plenty more ideas that you can get by talking to people and finding out how they provide enrichment for their horses. The most important thing to remember is that your horse is an individual, so what might be interesting for one, might be scary for another.
Use what you know about your horses’ preferences and personality as a starting point.
If your horse is a chewer, and will happily munch everything in sight, start with enrichment activities using natural foraging materials. It may be that as this need is satisfied, he no longer needs to try to eat things that are not good for him.
Be careful with objects if your horse is prone to eating anything he gets his teeth into.
If you horse has feet that always seem to get caught up, be careful as to what ground objects you provide so he doesn’t trip up.
If your horse is easily spooked by movement, then stay away from lightweight material-type things.
Whatever you provide needs to be safe and enriching for your horse. As you progress, he will reveal more about himself and you will have a more in depth understanding of him.
Horses are a social species, and wherever possible, should have the ability to interact with other horses and make friendships.
If your horse is not kept on your own land, you could explore options such as sharing a large stable with another boarded horse. Maybe he can have turnout with those he has made friends with. If this is not possible, you could arrange to do some in-hand walking with another owner so the horses get to spend some time together.
An ongoing social environment is extremely important to horses, so this is definitely something to set up in whatever way you can. Horses also get on with other species, so if being around other horses is not possible, consider other options such as keeping a donkey, or sheep, in the same environment. This is a better option than your horse being on his own and isolated.
There are so many ways to enrich your horse’s life and it does not need to be expensive or time-consuming. It just needs some thought and planning to find the right enrichment opportunities for the individual horse. Your efforts will result in a happier, healthier horse who is more receptive to the work he does, and building on the bond he has with you.