Ways to Alleviate Boredom and Improve Horse Health
by Alayne Blickle
When the weather is bad and our horses end up snowbound in their stalls it’s hard to say who gets more frustrated. I get pretty cranky when I can’t ride and I’m feeling sorry for my horses locked up inside. Horses are designed by nature to always be moving and foraging. Research shows that horses left to their own devices will eat 18 to 22 hours per day. Horses stuck in a stall with just twice a day feedings and little other stimulation can quickly become very bored—something happening to many horses in the recent wintery weather.
Boredom isn’t only a mental thing for horses; it can cause real health issues. These include weight gain, bickering or fighting between horses resulting in injuries (and vet bills), ulcers, colic and stall vices such as chewing or weaving. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to help alleviate boredom. I’m going to cover two options. This month I’ll talk about horse toys and next month I’ll discuss the new and popular system of feeding horses referred to as “slow feeding.”
A variety of horse toys are available currently including balls, licking toys (ones with sugar or salt in them) or ones with a food treat inside that encourages the horse to pursue the toy. Spend a little time at your favorite farm supply store or with a catalogue and be sure to check out the pet department as well. I have a heavy-duty medium sized ball on a rope, which was meant for a large dog, that my young horses enjoy (once in a while the horse and dog even play with it together).
You may be able to make your own toys using a safe plastic object like an orange arena cone, or even a heavy branch from a non-toxic tree (check with your veterinarian for their advice on local tree species which aren’t toxic). Empty plastic milk jugs, sans caps, make good toys…at least until they’re destroyed. You could also tie a milk jug onto a rope hung in a stall for an active, young horse to knock around. Some human toys work for horses, such as a large bouncing ball or a ball with a handle. We have a large arena horse ball. Several brands and varieties are promoted by trainers and clinicians and can be found on the internet. The idea is to teach your horse to kick the ball. Eventually, a team of riders can play a horsey version of soccer using the ball. When the footing in our big arena is too soggy for riding, or if the weather’s too cold, we can still play with our horses in the round pen using this ball.
Scratching posts are another option and several varieties are on the market. We have an Itchy Thing which is like a flat groomer, about 14” square, that we fastened around a stall corner. A horse alone in a paddock can get in a good scratch without the help of a herd mate.
One other thought on reducing boredom for horse and rider: Perhaps now is the time to work out a riding and ground exercising schedule that you can implement once the weather improves and you are ready to roll. A list of trails to ride, show performance goals or conditioning exercises can help you both make it through the winter doldrums.